The Madrid Metropolitan has been granted a rare insight into the the Spanish Royal Guard with an interview with their Colonel, Eduardo Diz Monje, at their El Pardo barracks outside Madrid.
It was an 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 monarch.
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.
It origins go back to the “Catholic monarchs’ of Queen Isabella I of Castille and King Ferdinand II of Aragon and were officially formed in 1504.
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’, which 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 the present monarch, 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.”
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 then Head of State, General Franco.
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
The guard currently has a strength of 1,500 troops whose members are drawn from the ranks of all three branches of the Spanish Armed Force.
It is comprised of four battalions and and a band and includes a diverse mix of units: a marine company from the Navy, a paratroop company from the Air Force and an infantry company from the Army, among others. Some units served in recent times in Afghanistan and Bosnia.
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.
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.
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.
The guard is also in high readiness to “support any other mission”, such as 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”.
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.”
“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 Changing Of the Guard.
The current tradition of the ceremony of the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace in Madrid is a relatively new one – going back some 20 years, inspired it seems by a visit from the British Foot Guards in 2002.
The biweekly Changing the Guard (held at midday on Wednesdays and Saturdays) and the extra-special monthly event, the Solemn Changing of the Guard (usually on the first Wednesday of the month).
The larger, full dress Relevo Solemne, includes some 400 personnel and 100 horses (including musical accompaniment from the Royal Guard’s Music unit) taking part in a 50-minute ceremony.
Access is free, and can be gained via the Puerta de Santiago, which takes you along Calle Bailén into the palace´s main Plaza Armería.
The Royal Guard´s museum in their El Pardo barrack is open monthly and is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in Spanish history, the military or the monarchy.