“I was Her Majesty’s axe-keeper for 12 years”

3rd June 2022

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee brings back treasured memories for Chelsea Pensioner Alan Hayter.

After 25 years in the Scots Guards and 18 years at Mars Confectionery, Alan Hayter thought his working life was over. Then one day he had a call from a major he’d once served under…

A role created by Henry VIII

Alan was living in Windsor when his former major, who was a military knight at Windsor Castle, phoned him:

“He said, ‘Alan, I’ve got just the job for you’, I said, “But I’ve just retired!’ Then I discovered it was to be axe-keeper for Her Majesty and I thought, ‘Oh how marvellous’.”

The Queen’s axe-keeper is one of Her Majesty’s Body Guard of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen. Set up by Henry VIII in 1509, it is one of the world’s oldest existing military corps. 

The Guard is made up of a captain, a lieutenant, a standard bearer, a clerk of the cheque and adjutant, a harbinger, an axe keeper and 27 Gentlemen at Arms. 

Today, their headquarters, armoury, orderly room and mess is at St James’s Palace; their uniform remains that of a Heavy Dragoon Guard from the mid-19th century and the Gentlemen still carry battleaxes, dating from the early 18th century, at ceremonial occasions. 

Her Majesty summarises the significance of her elite guard in her introduction to David Edelstein’s book, The Nearest Guard:

“The evils against which the Sovereign required protection in 1509 have, I expect, changed a little over the years but the loyalty of the Body Guard remains undimmed. As individuals, the Gentlemen have given long and distinguished military service to the nation. As members of the ‘Nearest Guard’ their service to the Crown continues in a distinctive way and reinforces the very best values of those who came before.”

“I’d make sure the axes were in the right place at the right time”

In 1989, Alan started in the prestigious role he’d retain until 2001:

“I had a mess to look after in St James’s palace and the 20 axes. I used to have them displayed – with the colour of course – in a stand in the hallway of the mess.  I’d have to make sure they were in the right place at the right time. 

There were 35 Gentlemen in the Bodyguards, all retired officers. They only came in for state visits, the opening of Parliament, the Garter Service in Windsor Castle and things like that. Then the coach would come to me, I’d load up the axes and we’d go to Gieves and Hawkes, the top tailors in London who look after the Gentlemen’s uniforms. They’d go there to get dressed and then off we’d go.”  

“The Queen was always friendly”

Alan‘s role also included acting as butler to The Queen:

“They used to have a dinner in the mess when there was a State visit, before the function I’d organise the staff and my wife and I would lay the table and sleep the night on a lilo! I used to have to stand behind Her Majesty. On one occasion I was standing there, waiting to pull her chair out, and I looked down and saw that the captain on her left had his foot on her long dress! I had to tap him on the shoulder.”

Other duties included being on attendance at the door for Investitures, preparing people who were getting decorated and “helping out” when he was needed – whether that was ensuring things ran smoothly at an event such as the Duke of Edinburgh awards, or looking after the book of condolences when Princess Diana died.

Alan remembers the job as very interesting and felt “really honoured”. He clearly has a deep respect for The Queen but stresses that she was also “very friendly”.

“She’s a marvellous woman. She used to come and have a chat. So did the Queen Mother when she was alive and I met Prince Charles, Princess Anne, the corgis too! Every Christmas The Queen would give us a present. We used to line up and when your name was called out you went forward and received a present – a nice crystal glass perhaps. I remember the Duke saying, ‘I hope you keep those axes sharp, we use them on a few people!’ He had a good sense of humour!”

After 12 years as axe keeper, Alan says it was “time to give a turn to another chap”. One of his most treasured possessions is the signed photograph of The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh that she presented to him on his retirement. On the occasion of her Platinum Jubilee, he wishes Her Majesty many congratulations and looks back fondly on a very special time in his life when he was privileged to work for her. 

Photo of The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh given to Alan on his retirement.

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