The Gentlemen Pensioners were the forerunner to the modern Her Majesty's Body Guards. Henry VIII instated it in 1509, disbanded it in 1515/16, and re-created the unit in 1539.

They are described as the King's elite bodyguard (and here), but there is hardly any mention of them in public sources (most mentions seemed to refer to 18th/19th century fiction characters with a (a la 'The Gentleman Pensioner: A Romance of the Year 1569'). Their WP entry is nigh on useless for detail though it does mention two battles, one of which falls into the time when the aforementioned article says they were disbanded. WP does say this:

As the "Nearest Guard" to the Monarch, the unit attracted an aristocratic and aspiring membership, which could be utilised as a cadre of young officers when levies were raised for overseas service.

It also describes how the Gentlemen Pensioners were armed with battleaxes. Alison Weir describes their armament as poleaxes (talking about Mary Boleyn's husband William Stafford whose WP entry makes no mention of him belonging to the Gentlemen Pensioners). Weir's book also described how Stafford was meant to sleep (when on duty) in front of the King's bed/bedchamber, and to protect him from assassins.

WP also mentioned they partook of the Battle of the Spurs, but no specific mention is given.

The article above focussed on the Attempted Coup of July 1553 where many Gentlemen Pensioners sided with Northumberland (because they owed their positions is a simplified description) but there's no specific mention of combat, or of Mary being saved by the Pensioners who sided with her.

I should note that especially with Walsingham's prominence in the later Elizabethan court, a need for such a bodyguard (who sleeps on one's doorstep) seems to lessen slightly -- but I think this could be based on false assumptions (that Walsingham's spy ring would cut off all would-be assassins). In any case, Elizabeth kept the guard around so she must have seen value -- while Henry VIII clearly didn't think they were good enough value in 1515/16 if he actually disbanded them then.

Therefore, are there any specific recorded incidents where the Gentlemen Pensioners managed to fulfill their role as a bodyguard in the 16th century?

  • It looks like they were on the losing side in the succession crisis of 1553.
    – Spencer
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 18:33
  • @sempaiscuba: I should add that my interest was piqued because I'd never heard of them before -- even though I've read a biography of Walsingham, admittedly a long time ago. But, I'd expect an "elite guard" to be more... well.. known...
    – gktscrk
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 18:33
  • 4
    @gktscrk See An account of the King's honourable band of gentlemen pensioners, or gentlemen at arms from page 54. Commented May 15, 2020 at 18:36
  • 1
    @gktscrk Paywalled, so I'll have to take your word for it.
    – Spencer
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 18:37
  • 1
    @Spencer: I've got "free" access based on JSTOR statement: To support researchers during this challenging time in which many are unable to get to physical libraries, we have expanded our free read-online access to 100 articles per month through June 30, 2020. Don't you get the same access?
    – gktscrk
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 19:41

3 Answers 3


Notwithstanding the claims made in the source cited in the other answer, it appears that the answer to the question

are there any specific recorded incidents where the Gentlemen Pensioners managed to fulfill their role as a bodyguard in the 16th century?

is actually yes. Specifically they acted as bodyguard to Queen Mary I during Wyatt's rebellion.

A history of the Gentlemen Pensioners, titled Regia insignia : or, An account of the King's honourable band of gentlemen pensioners, or gentlemen at arms by W.M. Thiselton, published in the early 19th century.

Thiselton's source for the events during Wyatt's rebellion was Edward Underhill, Esq, who

was made a Gentleman Pensioner by Henry VIII. in which capacity he likewise served King Edward' VI. and Queen Mary.

and who was present during the events.

I have reproduced Underhill's account, as reported by Thiselton, here:

The part they took in this affair was as follows:

"The Queen, and her people at the Court, were in great consternation, when Wyat was come to Southwark, with his army, intending to enter London that way. The Gentlemen Pensioners were commanded to watch in Armour that night, for the preservation of the Queen's Person ; and they came up into the Chamber of Presence, with their Pole Axes in their hands. Whereat the Ladies were very fearful; some lamenting, crying, and wringing their hands, and said, Alas there is some great mischief towards us! we shall all be ff destroyed this night! what a sight is this to see the Queen's Chamber full of armed Men! the like was never seen or heard of." The Band in their usual Habits de la Cour, with their Battle Axes, was an object familiar to the Ladies; but the panic arose from seeing them in the same place in Armour and on such an occasion. Soon afterwards the danger encreased, and the Palace was beset by a party of the rebels from Westminster, and the gates closed. The Pensioners were then in the Hall, from whence they issued, and demanded that the gates might be opened, saying "it was too much shame that the gates should be thus shut for a few rebels - the Queen shall see us fell down her enemies this day before her face." The Gates were then opened; but the Queen - "earnestly requested that they (the Pensioners) would not go out of her sight," intimating that "her only trust was in them for the defence of her person that day."

The Queen was in the gallery over the gate. They then marched before the gallery window, "when she spake unto them, requiring them as they were Gentlemen in whom she only trusted, that they would not go from that place." There they marched up and down for the space of an hour, when news was brought that Wyat was taken. "Anon after," says Underhill's narrative,

"the Guard of Pensioners were all brought into the Queen's Presence, and every one kissed her hand; of whom they had great thanks and large promises, how good she would be unto them: but few or none of us got any thing, although she was very liberal to many others that were enemies to God's Word, as few of us were,"

  • pp 55-57

There is a footnote which states:

the above narrative is given from Fox's MS. in Strypes Memorials


It would appear that the answer is no. This article states that the Band of Gentlemen Pensioners:

were part of the standing force, although they did not, except on the field of battle, perform the regular duty of guarding the King's person. This function fell to the Yeomen of the King's Guard, a military body established by Henry VII immediately after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

EDIT: It must be noted that a source identified by @sempaiscuba states that during Wyatt's Rebellion: "The Gentleman Pensioners were commanded to watch in armour that night for the preservation of the Queen's person."

  • 1
    Are you implying that Weir was wrong in 'Mary Boleyn' with the GPs staying as close to the king as possible? I would quote the specific paragraphs but I listened to the audiobook and there's no accessible copy in Google. :/
    – gktscrk
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 18:36
  • 1
    That article may be incorrect. See the link I posted under the question. I'll try to post a proper answer later if I can. Commented May 15, 2020 at 18:38
  • Made an edit based on the above comments, thanks.
    – Brian Z
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 20:27

Sir George Beeston was the longest serving Pensioner, holding that role from 1547 till his death in 1601. In 1588, he was the Admiral of the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada, while captaining the Dreadnought.

If that counts as "protecting the monarch", then yes, absolutely.

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