The Queen is to grant Wootton Bassett ‘Royal’ status in tribute to the town’s support during the repatriation of fallen soldiers, the Prime Minister announced today.
David Cameron said the honour will be granted for the first time in over 100 years as an ”enduring symbol” of the nation’s gratitude.
Residents of the Wiltshire town have lined the streets 157 times since 2007 to greet the returning bodies of 357 soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The town will be officially re-named Royal Wootton Bassett from September when the nearby RAF Lyneham base shuts and repatriations through the town will cease.
Mr Cameron told the House of Commons: ”It has been over 100 years since a town was conferred with the title of ‘Royal’, but I can today confirm to the house that the Her Majesty the Queen has agreed to confer the title of Royal on the town of Wootton Bassett as an enduring symbol of the nation’s admiration and our gratitude to the people of the town.
”The town will be Royal Wootton Bassett later this year, in a move I believe will be welcome right across our country.
”From September military repatriations will no longer pass through the town of Wootton Bassett.
”I know the whole house will join me in paying tribute to the people of Wootton Bassett. their deeply moving and dignified demonstrations of respect and mourning have shown a deep bond between the public and our armed forces.”
Locals had initially rejected calls to rename the town – but welcomed the move yesterday.
Mary Champion, 60, Mayor of Wootton Bassett, received a phone call from 10 Downing Street late on Tuesday night to deliver the news.
She said: ”This is a great honour for our community as the repatriations move away from Wootton Bassett.
”Whilst we have never sought recognition for our simple act of respect, I am certain that this will serve to reinforce the pride and gratitude we feel for the members of our armed services who will always be in thoughts.”
Repatriated bodies are currently flown into RAF Lyneham, which is just five miles from Wootton Bassett and home to the RAF’s fleet of Hercules transporter planes.
The cortege which carries the coffins then passes along the High Street – dubbed the ‘Highway for Heroes’ – en route to the M4 and the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.
But the tradition will end in September when repatriation flights move to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire ahead of the closure of RAF Lyneham next year.
The idea of Wootton becoming a Royal town was first proposed in 2009 by retired Naval officer Bill Thomas, 65, of Porchester, Hants., who wrote to the Queen, the Prime Minister and MPs.
But townsfolk rejected the suggestion, claiming they did not want recognition simply for paying their respects.
Steve Bucknell, who was Mayor at the time, said: ”We are not doing this for any plaudits, honours or awards.
”We don’t want anything to take the attention away from the guys who have paid the ultimate price.”
Local MP James Gray even wrote a public letter with Mr Bucknell and Maurice Bake, president of the local branch of the Royal British Legion, playing down the idea.
It said: ”We’d also much prefer that there was no further discussion of any recognition for what we do, or at least not until it’s all over and that happy day has arrived when there are to be no more of these ‘repatriations’.”
But yesterday the 56-year-old Tory MP for North Wiltshire said his constituents were ”obviously delighted” with the news.
He said: ”The people of Wootton Bassett have not sought any kind of praise or thanks for what they have done on 156 occasions for 357 fallen soldiers over four years.
”But they are of course delighted by the way that the Queen has decided to honour the town.
”We will wear the title ‘Royal’ with pride for generations to come, remembering the way in which the people of the town and the surrounding districts turned out in all weathers, on so many occasions to pay our respects.
”A town has not been conferred with the title Royal for over 100 years, and the title is usually used for places which host the Royal family, so this is even more special.”
And yesterday former Mayor Mr Bucknall said: ”The time is now right for this.
”Every time someone sees the name Royal Wootton Bassett they will stop and remember why the name has been granted.
”Children in years to come will ask their parents about the name and so the reason for it will live on and be remembered.
”It is a reminder to everyone of the price that these soldiers have paid.”
Anne Bevis, repatriations liaison officer for the Royal British Legion in Wootton Bassett, said the poignant services had helped people keep the soldiers in their hearts.
She said yesterday: ”We have never asked for any rewards for the repatriations.
”We only started doing them because the town is near RAF Lyneham and there was no way we could let the soldiers go through the town without a tribute.
”Everybody pulls together during the repatriations and they have developed over time.
”Obviously this is quite an honour. We will accept it with good grace because it has been granted by the Queen.”
It is only the third time in history that a British monarch has granted a town the very special honour.
Royal Leamington Spa, in Warwickshire, was granted the title in 1838 by Queen Victoria.
Edward VII bestowed it on Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent in 1909.