The Honourable Artillery Company

Walk south down City Road, past Bunhill Fields, and you will encounter, on your right, this forbidding building.

The City shield and Royal Arms over the doorway testify to its importance, but the only clue to its purpose is given by two brass plates on the heavily guarded alley to its south which indicate that the alley leads to ‘Armoury House’ and ‘The Honourable Artillery Company’. The City Road building (known as Finsbury Barracks) forms part of the London home of the oldest regiment in the British Army: the Honourable Artillery Company (or ‘HAC’)

The HAC’s roots lie in the Middle Ages but its first charter, granted by Henry VIII, is dated 1537. The HAC was then known as The Artillery Company and the charter stated that it was founded “for the better increase of the defence of this our realm and the maintenance of the science and feat of shooting in longbows, crossbows and handguns”.  In the 16th century ‘artillery’ meant ‘longbows, crossbows and handguns’ and the HAC still uses the modern equivalents of those weapons – rifles and machine guns. (Henry VIII would have described our ‘artillery’ as ‘great artillery’.)

Members of the Artillery Company fought in the Civil Wars when, according to the HAC’s history, some members “supported the Parliamentary side (in line with the City of London), other rallied to the Royalist cause, while some changed sides during the conflict”. Thankfully the Artillery Company came back together in 1657 and, in 1685 it acquired the title ‘Honourable’. Since then, members of the HAC, as part of the British Army,  have taken part in conflicts and peace-keeping duties around the world.

The HAC has always been based in London (first at Bishopsgate and from the mid-17th century at its present site). It is a voluntary organisation, and in its modern form it has three sections: 

Special Constables – members of the HAC who are aligned to the City of London Police and are particularly deployed at the Lord Mayor’s Show, royal visits and other major events;

the Regiment – which serves as the Army Reserve’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Regiment and has a current strength of around 400; and

the Company – a body composed of serving and veteran members of the HAC (and spouses of long-serving members of the Regiment).

As well as holding down their regular employment, each member of the Regiment commits to a training regime of one evening a week, one weekend a month and an annual two-week exercise.

Finsbury Barracks is only part of the HAC’s Finsbury establishment. By continuing down City Road to Finsbury Square and then taking the first right and first right again, you can see, through an ornamental gate, the whole six-acre site.

The early 18th century Armoury House (the HAC’s ‘HQ and Mess’) is in the centre (with later extensions on either side); the green playing fields serve as the HAC’s Parade Ground; and a corner of Finsbury Barracks can be glimpsed behind the rugby goalposts.

The site is not generally open to the public but when not being used by the HAC, Armoury House (and the Prince Consort Rooms behind it) and the Parade Ground, are in demand for public and private functions, with guests often being offered tours of the buildings.

Iain Monaghan leads walks in Clerkenwell and Islington, including tours of Canonbury Tower. Find out more about upcoming guided walks in Islington and Clerkenwell at our website.