At the Service of the Crown – A rare glimpse inside the world of Europe’s oldest Royal Guard – as told through its Colonel in Chief.On Monday, 5th June 2017, Madrid Metropolitan’s Isabel Pueblas Avilés and I were granted an interview with Colonel Eduardo Diz Monje, Head of Spain’s Royal Guard, at their El Pardo barracks. It was a rare opportunity to come face-to-face with one of the oldest serving military institutions in both Spain and Europe, and a fascinating insight into the day-to-day workings and organization of this elite Guard, whose principle mission is to protect and serve the monarchy.
During our visit, we discovered how the Royal Guard came into being, what they strive to do, and of the values and principles that guide them. Alongside the interview, we were given a tour of their grounds and museum, which left us in no doubt as to the discipline of the Royal Guard, their hard work, the pride they take in serving the crown and their importance to both the Royal Family and Spain at large.
The visit starts with an efficient and friendly greeting from a small group of high-ranking officers who accompany us to Colonel Diz Monje’s office. Once made comfortable in the impressive surroundings, our interview can commence.
The History of the Royal Guard
As seems fitting, we start by talking about the Royal Guard’s extensive history. The Colonel informs us it was founded in 1504, attributing its establishment to the ‘Catholic monarchs’ (a collective title, used for Queen Isabella I of Castille and King Ferdinand II of Aragon) after two ‘attempts’ were made on Ferdinand’s life in the latter part of the 15th century. It was originally called the Guard of Ayora after Ferdinand’s ‘first captain’ of the same name.
The name has changed, of course, but one thing that has endured throughout the ages is the halberd or alabarda. Described by the Colonel as ‘a lance with a blade and an axe’, he later shows us two examples mounted in the corridor outside his office. He explains how they were used in medieval times as a weapon to unseat the rider from the horse. Mounted either side of an imposing portrait of 19th Century military leader, Marqués de Sotomayor, each bears an inscription on the blade. On the left is the one belonging to Juan Carlos I, showing his name on one side of the blade and, on the other the date of his asseccion to the throne. A similar inscription can be seen on halberd to the right, belonging to Spain’s King Felipe VI.
Nowadays, the halberd forms part of the dress uniform worn by the Alabarderos or, in English, Halberdiers – the King’s official escorts who can be regarded as natural descendents of the Guard of Ayora. As the Colonel says, “In the museum, we have a collection of uniforms from different times and the common thing from the uniform is the weapon…every uniform has a halberd.”
Of course, in more recent history, and prior to the re-establishment of the monarchy in Spain, the barracks were used as quarters for the Guard of the Head of State, General Franco. Evidence of this can also be seen in the museum, particularly with regards to some of the vehicles maintained there. The sensitivity of this is not lost on the Royal Guard, which nevertheless regards their inclusion as a matter of public record and honest reflection of Spain’s past.
The Modern Royal Guard
In the words of the Colonel, the modern Royal Guard “is comprised of four battalions and one music unit”. Of the four battalions, “two of them are operative battalions to accomplish our missions and the other two are support battalions. The operative battalions are the Escort group and the Honours group. The Escort group have the mission of carrying out the security task in the palace. They provide security to the King and the Royal Family”.
In addition to the guards positioned within the Royal Palace of Zarzuela, there are units that “that provide escort with motorcycles and with horses, when the King moves to go to different ceremonies.” In addition there is the ‘Honours’ unit, which provides ceremonial honours and also “contributes to the security of the palace”.
The support battalions, meanwhile, are “in charge of logistical support”. It is these battalions who are responsible for “the life of the vehicles, medical support, communications, and so on.” The troops are principally based in two barracks – the King’s barracks of El Pardo, and the smaller Queen and Prince’s barracks (once two separate quarters but now classed as “just one barracks”) located a little further to the north.
Today, the Colonel and his team are dressed in the standard working uniform of military fatigues. On any carefully-timed trip to Madrid’s Royal Palace, however, it is possible to see the changing of the guard and witness first-hand the dress uniform of the modern Royal Guard. This uniform reflects the Guard’s long history. It is, as the Colonel tells us, directly inspired by uniforms worn in the 19th century, “in blue, with red stripes in the trousers, and the neck (which) is also red”.
He goes on to explain that the artillery and cavalry units have their own dress uniform. Moreover, there are two subdivisions of the cavalry that each have quite distinct uniforms – the Lancers, who wear buffalo hide, and the Coraceros, who are immediately distinguishable by an armoured breastplate marked with a seal and helmet that flows with feathers. In addition to this, there is the “ros”, a hat with a single feather, worn by the infantry and, again, dating back to the 19th century.
Most historic of all, perhaps, is the uniform worn by the Halberdiers – “It’s (from) a regulation of 1848”, the Colonel tells us, “and the uniform is exactly the same”. The dress uniform of the Halberdiers consists of a frock coat and a three-cornered hat. It also includes a large cloak for certain ceromonial ocassions. We are later assured, whilst being shown around the museum, that the cloak is extremely heavy, especially in summer.
As with the uniform, the work of the Royal Guard has remained constant throughout time. In the Colonel’s words, “The missions have always been to provide security, and sometimes to provide escort and honours”. The only change has been in the “technology, techniques and procedures” required to do so.
When asked about any civic roles they may fulfil the Colonel tells us that the Royal Guard can also be on hand when necessary “to support any other mission”, giving the example of how, after the 2002 Prestige oil spill which devastated the Galician coast, “…a unit of the Royal Guard went there to collaborate in the cleaning of beaches”. Summing up, however, he focuses on their core duties. “We are prepared to support any other mission. But day-by-day we carry out only these three missions – security, escorts and honours.”
What does it take to be a Royal Guard?
The vast majority of Royal Guards are recruited straight from the existing Spanish Armed Forces via official bulletin and have been through two phases of basic training, including basic combat training. Every year, however, a very limited number are recruited through public employment offers, and therefore need to carry out their basic training at the barracks in Madrid. Royal Guards recruited in this way will later go on to complete their training elsewhere, becoming members of the Spanish Air Force. Either way, the Royal Guard aims to select ‘the best’ from all applicants. Regardless of the means of entry, they remain lifelong members of the military. “We are normal soldier…when we finish our service in the Royal Guard we go back to another military unit”.
A key part of the selection process is establishing the character of recruits. Specifically, they look for intelligent and calm individuals who can make the right decisions “in a short time in very difficult situations”:
“We are looking for intelligence first of all. We ask the former commanders…how they accomplish their tasks, if they get nervous easily or not, because we look for quiet people with intelligence. After that, they can learn but…character is the most important thing.”
We finish our official interview by discussing what makes the Colonel proud to be a member of the Royal Guard. On this, he is extremely clear:
“Well, first of all, we are at the direct service of the King – very close to him. And in the second place, the Royal Guard is composed of selected people – hard workers, experienced soldiers – so I am proud to be together with them.”
THE GROUNDS AND MUSEUM
After our interview, the Colonel accompanies us into the grounds, where we are directed towards a bust Felipe VI of Spain. The current King is depicted in the military fatigues of the Royal Guard, and he points out the uniform’s shield of Felipe VI, which can also be seen on the officers around us.
Following a sincere farewell from the ever-in-demand Colonel, we are handed over to one of the accompanying officers, who takes us on a tour of the museum. We start on the upper floor, which contains an impressive array – some replicas, some originals – of guard uniforms from down the centuries. We are told how the colours of the uniforms changed from the Hapsburg’s yellow and red, to the blue and red of the Bourbon dynasty. We are also told how the sunburst insignia that appears on the breastplate of the Coraceros is an echo of the Bourbon dynasty’s French roots, having originally been designed as a tribute to Felipe V of Anjou, first of the Bourbon line and family of ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV of France. Interestingly, this design of Royal insignia endured throughout the Republican era and remains there to this day.
Moving through the collection, we are shown an intriguing range of memorabilia relating to the current Royals and, in particular, the current King. One noteable exhibit is the two uneven sets of shell casings fired to mark the abdication of Juan Carlos I and subsequent investiture of Felipe VI. They are uneven because one of each set was sent to both the abdicating and incumbant King, but only one of them came back, after Juan Carlos I returned his for inclusion in the museum collection. It can only be presumed that the other remains in the reigning monarch’s private collection.
Dowstairs, there is an equally remarkable collection of vintage cars, all in working order. Taking pride of place is the Rolls Royce Phantom used in the Royal Wedding of King Felipe and Queen Letizia. However, this is just one of a host of beautifully maintained vehicles – although the one that seems to resonate most with my Spanish colleague is the modified Seat 600, given to the current King as a young prince.
Our final stop is a special peek around their ‘Morrocon Café’. Another remnant of Franco-era Spain, this elaborately-styled space was originally used as a recreation and prayer room for the officers of two Morrocan companies which, having served alongside General Franco and been particularly close to him, became part of his Guard. Functioning, now, as a reception area for important visitors and those in a position of authority, it is a suprising spot to find oneself, especially within the confines of the more austere, classically styled barracks.
As part of the working area of the barracks, this particular room is closed to the general public. However, the museum is accessible to all, and is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in Spanish history, the military or the monarchy. Due to daily demands placed on the barracks, visits are by appointment only and can take place every Wednesday and on the first Saturday of every month. They are easily arranged, through an email link on the History section of their website. Audio tours are available, in Spanish, French or English, although a guard will also accompany you.
As mentioned earlier, another way to see the Royal Guard at close quarters is to watch The Changing of the Guard, or Relevo Solemne, at the Royal Palace’s Armoury Square. In the full Relevo Solemne, you can witness 400 personnel and 100 horses (including musical accompaniment from the Royal Guard’s Music unit) taking part in a 50-minute ceremony that dates back to Kings Alfonso XII and XIII. The Relevo Solemne takes place at 12:00 hours, every first Wednesday of every month except for January, August and September. Access is free, and can be gained via the Puerta de Santiago, which takes you along Calle Bailén into Armoury Square (Plaza Armería).
The next Relevo Solemne is due to take place on the 5 July. However, you can see a shorter ceremony, sometimes called the ‘minirelevo’, every remaining Wednesday of the year and also on Saturdays. Taking place every 30 minutes between 11:00 and 14:00 (10:00 – 12:00 in July, August and September), access to this is via the Puerta del Príncipe, also along Calle Bailén. It should be noted that all ceremonies are subject to weather conditions, and any other official ceremonies that might take priority. It is also advisable to arrive early.
As a final word, if you venture on the Royal Guard’s website, you can see Colonel Eduardo Diz Monje talking about the role of the Royal Guard. In a video entitled ‘At the Service of the Crown’, he talks about their pledge to carry out their duties with discipline, loyalty and discretion. One could add that they also do this with respect – respect for King, for country, for history and for each other. And, last but not least, for the public who come and visit.
Reporter Melissa Dura.
Thanks to Isabel Pueblas.