Ever wonder why the Queen’s Guard in Buckingham Palace is wearing those tall, large, bearskin hats? Clue: they’re not just for decorative purposes.

Giant Black Hats

The infantry and cavalry soldiers tasked to guard the British Residences— Buckingham Palace, St. James Palace, and the Tower of London, to name a few, are called The Queen’s Guard. Trying to make fun of them while they are at the post is almost a guaranteed way to get yelled at by these guards and be the center of unwanted, embarrassing kind of attention from people around. These guards abide by strict rules and take their job seriously. Part of it was making sure they wear their iconic uniforms with fuzzy bearskin hats. These hats were made from Canadian black bears’ fur; 11 inches tall on the front, 16 inches to the back, and weigh 1.5 pounds. While you might think these hats are extra, they actually symbolize one thing: triumph.

 

Bearskin hat, Lt. Col. Charlton Dawson, 18th Royal Irish – Kilkenny Fusiliers bearskin hat; metal chin strap; badge with KILKENNY FUSILIERS around crowned harp with a figure. Auckland Museum / Wikimedia Commons

In the 18th century, British, Spanish, and French grenadiers already selected on the basis of their height wore bearskin caps to appear taller and intimidate the enemies. In the 19th century, wearing these tall hats became limited to guardsmen, bands, and others who had ceremonial roles. This was because the hat was difficult to maintain while in action. Who would want to be running around, throwing grenades, and firing guns while trying to balance and make sure your hat wouldn’t fall?

The Napoleonic Wars

The Battle of Waterloo, 1815.

The trademark shakos bearskin could be traced back to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the series of world wars between the French Empire led by Napoleon I versus the Coalition Forces of The Napoleonic Wars (total opposite of a fans club). The United Kingdom, The Austrian Empire, Kingdom of Prussia, Kingdom of Sardinia, Kingdom of Spain, Kingdom of Portugal, Kingdom of Naples, Kingdom of Sicily, Dutch Republic, Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Kingdom of Sweden all joined forces to oppose and bring down The Little Corporal. They successfully did finally, at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 (thus, the term “waterloo” equates to “great defeat” of “failure.”) The British collected the bearskin hats from the dead bodies of the fallen French Guardsmen and Grenadiers as trophies.

But why were they wearing these hats?

Wearing their distinctive bearskin caps, Napoleon’s Imperial Guard was the most famous of many elite military formations of the day.

As mentioned earlier, British, Spanish, and French grenadiers wore bearskin caps to appear taller and more intimidating. Napoleon’s Imperial Guards, who had been fighting alongside him for a long time, wore them. These grenade throwers also received better pay, more rations, equipment, and quarters. Safe to say, they were The Little Corporal’s most elite fighters. And so, he sent out his most trusted, best French Imperial Guards against the British First Foot Guards at Waterloo in hopes to be once again the master of Europe. The British Guards successfully beat the Frenchmen, even though they were bombarded with artillery. The retreat of the French Guard demoralized the rest of the French Army as they cried up and down the battleline, “‘La Garde Recule!’[The Guard Retreats!]. More than just retreating, they were chased by the British Guards with charged bayonets. The British troops collecting the discarded bearskin hats of the French along the way.

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