I will confess myself very ignorant on the matter of the 1st Foot Guards. When the re-enactment regiment was first raised a few years ago, as an offshoot of Prince Rupert's Bluecoats, a number of fellow Bluecoats took great(ish) pains to point out the historic legacy of the regiment. Being a callow youth, I completely missed the point and thought that everyone was up for it because they got a glamorous redcoat (I'm still not entirely convinced that that isn't the case).
I'll be completely honest - the significance didn't really click until I started researching this article. The part that made it click for me was that the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards was the older, more formal term for a regiment I was actually quite familiar with. This was what came to be known more generally as the Grenadier Guards, a regiment famous and featured throughout the long annals of British Military History. I'd read about them in depth during my undergrad in War Studies and now felt a complete idiot for not getting the significance of the redcoat I was cadging for a weekend away.
The guards regiment was first raised in 1656 by Charles II during his exile, as Britain laboured under the Interregnum. Charles was currently in Bruges, having just signed the Treaty of Brussels where he and the Spanish royalty had exchanged mutual support for each other. The Spanish offered 6,000 men to Charles' expedition to reclaim his throne (if such an opportunity ever occurred). Charles, meanwhile, was to raise his own troops (outfitted and funded by the Spaniards) to support the Spanish in their war against the English commonwealth and the French.
Command first went to Henry Wilmot, who had been made first Earl of Rochester by Charles II. Rochester had been a companion to Charles throughout his exile, as well as commander of the Royalist Cavalry during the Civil War. More on him another time. Unfortunately, a harsh winter quarters between '57 and '58 took many of the regiment ill, including Wilmot, who died in February 1658 whilst on campaign. Command of the regiment passed swiftly on to Thomas Wentworth.
This is rather unfortunate for Rochester, who undoubtedly did a lot of the leg work in setting the regiment up - the early guards on the continent are now generally known as Wentworth's regiment. They took part in a number of actions in the Anglo-Spanish war, not least the Battle of the Dunes, which we will look at in further detail on another occasion.
A picture showing the battle formation of the Spanish and French forces (each side with their English allies)
In 1660, the king was so caught up in the restoration of the monarchy that he left his army in the Spanish Netherlands when he made his glorious return to London (although he may well have just been fulfilling his obligations in the Treaty of Brussels). As such he commissioned a new regiment, the King's Regiment of Guards, under the command of Col. John Russell, who we have met on previous occasions.
The initial badge with Charles II's emblem worn by the Guards in 1660
In 1661 the regiment was instrumental in suppressing a Fifth Monarchist uprising in London. A mixture of the guards, Monck's regiment (pre-Coldstream) and the London Trained Bands put down an insurrection from Thomas Venner and 50 rebels who broke into St. Paul's Cathedral and declared their King as King Jesus. The rebels proved particularly hardy, holding off and even forcing some of the guards units into retreat. Eventually the Fifth Monarchists were whittled down to 10 men barricaded in a pub. Venner himself is said to have killed 3 men with a halberd and sustained 19 wounds before being captured (and hanged of course). After this, the guards were sent to garrison various forts around the country.
Thomas Venner with halberd (19 wounds not included)
In 1662, Dunkirk was sold to the French for a quick bit of cash. Luckily the sale wasn't all inclusive, and the garrisoned Wentworth's guards made their way back to England where they were also split up into garrison.
In 1665, Wentworth died. The two seperate guards regiments were amalgamated into a single regiment of two guards battalions under the command of Col. Russell. On June 13th, a portion of the regiment took part in the naval Battle of Lowestoft. Most of the following years were spent playing bodyguard for Charles II as he moved between garrisons, avoiding the plague, first to Salisbury, then to Oxford.
It wasn't for over a decade, 1677, that the regiment received their first apportioning of grenadiers - as such, it couldn't become the Grenadier Guards for a few years yet! During this period, the Guards fought in the 2nd and 3rd Anglo-Dutch Wars.
The Royal Standard, carried by the 1st Foot Guard in their role as the King's Regiment
I've had to split this history as, obviously, it continues throughout the entirety of modern British military history. Far too much for a single blog post. So what do we take of that initial blurb? Well, like many parts of the Restoration, the history of the guards is jumbled with lots of channel-hopping, job trading and continent switching. The Guards had their start, their genesis, in that romantic tradition that has sprung up around Charles II's exile. Dealing and brokering with European dignitaries, adventuring in other conflicts, fighting in a proxy war with Cromwell's England. Someone should write a book about it (several people most definitely have).