Bearer of Sword of Spiritual Justice at coronation tells of military and monarchy link

Gen Lord David Richards is 'honoured' by leading role in ceremony that has spanned almost a millennium

Then Chief of the Defence Staff Gen Lord David Richards (far left), with Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh watching a flypast in 2012.
Powered by automated translation

For almost a millennium the Sword of Spiritual Justice has been carried in front of the king of England as an integral part of the ancient coronation service.

On Saturday, it will be Gen Lord David Richards who holds the unsheathed blade aloft, marching with two other sword-bearers ahead of King Charles III.

He will walk in the Westminster Abbey footsteps of great military leaders who have carried the sword over the centuries.

The former Chief of the Defence Staff has spoken to The National about the honour, the monarch’s importance to the armed forces, and his own personal relationship with King Charles III.

“It's a great privilege because I recognise that many other much greater people than I have historically had this honour,” Gen Richards said.

“And I'm now doing it for our new king, who I know reasonably well and have a very high regard for, so there's a personal element to it too.”

Ancient swords

Since the coronation of Richard the Lionheart in 1189, the Sword of Spiritual Justice has been carried by prominent figures, alongside the Sword of Temporal Justice and the Sword of Mercy.

The swords signify kingly virtues, and the blade carried by Gen Richards has been carried in the 15 coronations since Charles I was crowned in 1626. It represents the monarch as defender of the faith.

Gen Richards, who commanded Nato forces in Afghanistan in 2006, said he was uncertain why he had been selected for the role but was honoured to be “doing it on behalf of very many people who I served with”.

“Most of all, it's great to be part of such a historical occasion and that I've been asked by His Majesty the King and the Queen Consort to do this.”

The two other swords will be also carried by former chiefs of the defence staff, Gen Lord Nicholas Houghton and Air Marshal Lord Stuart Peach.

“The three of us will parade in front of His Majesty along with many others, standing near the altar in Westminster Abbey and observe proceedings and follow him around as he moves,” said the general, who as a lord will wear his ermine robe over his full-dress ceremonial uniform.

Normal, approachable officer

Gen Richards has known the king since the-then Prince Charles served as an officer in the Royal Navy in the 1970s.

“When I met him first he was a very normal, approachable officer and that's how he wanted to be treated and viewed,” he told The National.

“Since then I have met him on many occasions and I’ve always found him remarkably normal and lacking in pomposity or self-regard.”

The officer became more acquainted with the king as he moved into senior positions, especially when in charge of the Afghanistan operation at a time when British troops were struggling with equipment and manning issues.

“He wanted to know what was going on in Afghanistan as he had a great interest in aspects of Afghanistan, which I was involved in,” Gen Richards said.

The officer, who was made head of the British army in 2009, admitted that “where it made sense” he felt it was his duty to “speak truth unto power” during difficult periods for the forces.

“I don't know what he did with the information I shared with him but just the knowledge that the Prince of Wales as heir to the throne acknowledged it was helpful.”

He said the royals were “above politics and above politicians” and ultimately British service personnel swore an oath of allegiance to the sovereign as head of the armed forces.

“That was a really important factor, as we went through the process of arguing our case with politicians who weren't always that sympathetic or didn't in our view have the time to get down into the big issues that were affecting people in places like Helmand,” said Gen Richards.

“But the knowledge that the royal family, who have all served and are very close to the armed forces, did take a real interest, even if it was just their sympathy and guidance, that alone mattered a lot to all of us.”

Egregious orders

While the British military takes its orders from the elected government, “if we don't like them, or they're wanting in some way, the knowledge that ultimately our loyalty is to the monarch is very reassuring indeed,” he said.

If an issue arose that was “particularly egregious” then the military had an obligation to speak to the king or queen of the day.

“They will give us sound advice and might well bring it up in their weekly audiences with the prime minister, although I have no knowledge whether that ever happened in my case.”

Gen Richards said the separation “from the political rough and tumble and the prejudices of politicians” had passed down a royal line “that lasts hundreds and hundreds of years with the same relationship”.

“More recently [Field Marshals] Montgomery and Alanbrooke, but before that the [Dukes of] Wellington, Marlborough — that is a very special and reassuring relationship.

Queen's counsel

The general, who has worked as an adviser for the UAE government, had several private audiences with Queen Elizabeth II in his role as CDS.

“The late queen was so fantastic in her regard and affection for the armed forces, it'd be hard to beat that,” he said.

“But I think King Charles, having served in the Royal Navy, and having worn the uniform of the three services with such obvious pride over many, many years before he's become king, that will give him an added insight and make it a powerful influence for good.”

National pleasure

As it is the first British coronation in 70 years, the vast majority of those watching will have little idea of its impact on Britain and the wider world.

Gen Richards suggested that the occasion would “bring home to everybody that we really do now have a new monarch, King Charles,” and that he was evolving in the role.

Asked what it would mean for the country, he said people now recognised “what a decent person he is”.

“The things that have spoiled his image in the past have been put to one side. It’s a genuine national pleasure that we are so lucky to have a royal family and in particular, this king.”

Defender of faiths

The decorated officer also welcomed the diversity of religions and that the king had made it clear he was the defender of “faiths” rather than just the Church of England.

“The king has a genuine interest in people from all backgrounds and persuasions,” Gen Richards said. “When you think of Great Britain at the moment, how diverse we are, in all respects, but particularly in terms of faith.

"Many faith groups will be represented alongside all the well-established ones like Islam, Christianity, Buddhism.

"I think we're very lucky to have such diversity. Every time I get in an Uber cab in London and talk to the driver, they always say to me how lucky they are to live in such a tolerant country.

"I think this this coronation will bring that back to everyone in spades.”

Coronation regalia - in pictures

Updated: May 03, 2023, 7:58 AM