The band of gentlemen pensioners, a body which, diminished in size and its functions altered almost beyond recognition, still survives at the English royal court under the title of “The Honourable Corps of Her Majesty's Gentlemen at Arms,” was instituted on Christmas Eve 1539 as part of a reform of the royal household. The group was a revival of the “spears” or “spears of honour,” an elite, sumptuously-outfitted royal bodyguard of gentlemen founded by Henry VIII in 1509, shortly after his accession, which appears to have lapsed in 1515 or 1516, because of the great charges involved in their maintenance, according to Hall's chronicle. The revived group was provided for in a rather more modest manner than its predecessor had been, but its members served much the same purposes. They were the king's elite bodyguard, his personal companions in arms when he went to war, the principal participants in tournaments and other martial sports at court and, more generally, a courtly and military finishing school for the sons of nobility and gentry.
From 1540 until 1670, when the band underwent its first reduction in size, its structural organization remained unchanged in all essentials. It consisted of fifty men and five officers, a captain, lieutenant, standard-bearer, clerk of the check and harbinger. The last two were ancillary offices, the keeper of the “check-list” or attendance roll and his deputy, and were not strictly speaking members of the corps, but its servants. The lieutenant and the standard-bearer were normally men who had served for a time as gentlemen pensioners before being appointed to these offices, while the captain, on the contrary, was a figure of some importance at court in his own right, and one who had not previously served in the band. After the death of the first captain, Sir Anthony Browne, Henry VIII's master of the horse, in 1548, subsequent captains under the Tudor and early Stuart monarchs were all peers and almost always held other great offices of state. Browne's successor, William Parr, marquess of Northampton, was Edward VI's lord chamberlain; he lost all of his offices and titles on Mary's accession and was lucky to escape with his life. Thomas Radcliffe, lord Fitzwalter, later earl of Sussex, succeeded him in the captaincy, holding it continuously until his death in 1583. From 1572 he held the office of lord chamberlain to the queen. His Elizabethan successors in the captaincy, the first and second lords Hunsdon, father and son, the queen's kinsmen, also held the lord chamberlainship.