The Queen’s Guard are the black-hatted redcoats that guard royal residences throughout London and beyond, notably Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London. While you may think it’s amusing to get in their way and try to make them laugh, the truth is that if it comes down to it, these guys will break you. The unreasonably huge cap on their heads is the beginning of it all.
The hat, which is made of bearskin, represents what it takes to be the best.
While the Guard was founded in 1656, their signature bearskin shakos stem from the Napoleonic Wars, namely the end of the Napoleonic Wars. As the name implies, this is a series of confrontations pitting Imperial France, commanded by Napoleon, and his many allies, against the United Kingdom and the coalitions established to fight Napoleon’s ascent. The Guards were part of the First Regiment of Foot, which fought at Waterloo in 1815 to bring the Napoleonic Wars to a close. Their clothes also got the now-iconic bearskin headgear at that time.
The French Imperial Guard were some of Napoleon’s most elite warriors and ardent followers. These were troops that had been with Napoleon from the beginning and would be with him when he returned from exile on Elba to reclaim power. That is how they got to Waterloo in the first place. They were (perhaps) the best troops in the world, and unquestionably some of the most dangerous. To appear taller and more fearsome, the grenade-throwing grenadiers wore huge bearskin shakos. They had greater pay, rations, housing, and equipment than non-Imperial Guard soldiers, and all guardsmen were ranked one grade higher.
The emperor committed his Imperial Guard against the First Regiment of Foot at Waterloo, the critical encounter that determined whether Napoleon would once again be master of Europe. The outcome of that battle would alter history; for Napoleon, it was a major bet that, if successful, would completely destabilise the British and win the conflict for the French. That is why he gave it his all.
The British tore into the Frenchmen with repeated musket volleys, dropping hundreds of them until Napoleon’s best broke and ran as the First Regiment of Foot held up to a punishing French artillery assault and then a charge by the famous Imperial Guard. The battle’s conclusion was all but assured with the fall of some of Napoleon’s best Imperial Guards.
The British 1st Foot used the towering bearskins as a memento to commemorate their amazing triumph against the emperor, reminding the world of what it meant to be elite with their astonishing defeat of France’s best in frontline action with relatively few fatalities. Since then, the bearskins have been a part of their uniform.