The Queen's Messengers

By Lamont-Brown, Raymond | Contemporary Review, March 1997 | Go to article overview

The Queen's Messengers


Lamont-Brown, Raymond, Contemporary Review


The final destination is approaching for a group of civil servants who for centuries have transported Britain's most confidential messages around the globe. These royal and governmental couriers - the Corps of Queen's Messengers - are the oldest extant government utility which is employed to carry diplomatic bags to British embassies. The twenty-five couriers, under their superintendent Major I. G. Bamber, are all ex-serving officers of the Forces and are shortly to become victims of Whitehall economies and made redundant by the modem technology of faxes and secure air freight.

Called the 'silver greyhounds', from there distinctive silver badge, the couriers have a backup staff of five hundred employees which cost the Foreign Office [pounds]4,000,000 per year to administer. The messengers - with their special passports stamped Queen's Messenger Courier Diplomatique - register some 250,000 miles per year. Couriers, however, have to obtain visas, if a country's rules on such apply. And the custom developed for each of the couriers to have five passports; while one was being used the others could travel the circuit of the foreign embassies in London to collect the necessary stamp marking for prospective journeys.

Gone are the days too of luxurious first-class travel: messengers now go business class, which alone saved the Foreign Office half a million pounds per year. In the old days they travelled Europe in a reserved compartment of a wagon-lit, and once caused tongues to wag as they were delegated to escort diplomats' wives to new postings.

According to the codification of privileges and immunities, as stated by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, the bags should only contain diplomatic documents or equipment and items of diplomatic use. There has always, of course, been a certain 'flexibility' about this. Should a head of Chancery's wristwatch fail in some remote area, a replacement might be conveyed in the diplomatic bag. And it is not unknown for a barter system to have been linked between embassies . . . caviar in exchange for champagne!

The bags marked 'HM Diplomatic Service' have always had a certain romantic aura about them, but they are prosaic enough in themselves. These days they are made from sturdy white canvas by prison inmates.

Purists say that the history of the sovereigns' messengers goes back to 1199, yet the first known messenger was John Norman, who in 1485 earned 4d (1.5p) per day for carrying the state papers of Richard III. Nevertheless the messengers have always been proud of their links with Charles II. During his exile at Breda, Netherlands - from which in 1660 he issued his Declaration of Breda, offering amnesty to all those who had opposed him and his father - he used messengers to make his intentions known and to keep in touch with his British supporters; and the messengers retailed court gossip to increase the morale in England.

To each of these messengers the king gave a small silver greyhound; he broke them from a dish which his father had owned and which would have been readily recognised by royalists. …

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