VISITOR’S GUIDE TO HORSE GUARDS

All the pictures illustrating this guide are by Arthur McBryan unless otherwise stated

The current Horse Guards building dates from the mid-eighteenth century but the history of this site goes back much further. Its story, and the story of those who have lived and worked within its walls, is linked with some of the most celebrated Kings, Queens, Statesmen and Military Commanders to have lead our country, and it owes its existence to the development of important neighbouring sites.

A KING, A QUEEN AND A PASSION FOR ROYAL SPORT                           

On the Whitehall riverside, York Palace had been the official London Residence of the Archbishops of York since 1245. In 1529, King Henry VIII appropriated this huge Palace from Cardinal Wolsey, re-naming it The Palace of Whitehall and extending it almost from Charing Cross to Westminster. Across the road, St James's Park, as it is known today, was later acquired by the King as a private Royal hunting ground, encircled by a high brick wall. His luxurious hunting lodge survives as St James's Palace. In 1533, Henry VIII, passionate about horsemanship and martial combat, commissioned a Tiltyard, or Jousting Ground on the site where Horse Guards now stands. Henry's famous daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, was also extremely fond of the Tiltyard pageantry and instituted two annual jousting festivals, on her accession day and on her birthday. To this day the tradition of Royal Birthday Celebrations on Horse Guards continues with the annual Trooping (of) the Colour on the Queen's Birthday Parade. 

A GUARD FOR THE KING, CIVIL WAR… AND AN EXECUTION

Military presence on Horse Guards began in December 1641 when King Charles I commissioned "a Court of Guards in the Tiltyard before Whitehall" to house his personal guards and to protect the Palace. It was too late though, with the onset of the Civil War, Charles was forced to flee to Oxford and the area was taken over by the Parliamentarians. Seven years later, on a cold January day in 1649, the King was brought from St James's Palace through the Horse Guards area to the Banqueting House in Whitehall where a scaffold had been erected. There, after a wait of several hours while the warrant was signed, he was beheaded. A black mark on both clock faces at Horse Guards commemorates the time of his execution -2pm. 

THE OLD HORSE GUARDS BUILDING – SECURITY, SENTRIES AND A ROYAL PRIVILEGE

After his restoration in May 1660, Charles II needing a trusted military guard, created the original Household Cavalry and the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards. No such standing army had ever existed and there were no barracks to house them so in 1663 Charles had the first Horse Guards building constructed where Cromwell had stabled his guard on the old Tiltyard. Red-brick and costing around 4,000, it laid the blueprint for today's building, comprising three-storey wings around a courtyard with a central arch surmounted by a clock and cupola leading through to the park. Over one hundred horses were stabled on the ground floor. As today, there were two sentry boxes on the Whitehall side for Household Cavalry sentries to guard the Palace gates opposite as well as Horse Guards itself. The northern half of the building housed the duty troops of the Household Cavalry while the Foot Guard were housed on the south side with their own small courtyard formed from an area of the old Tiltyard not built upon. From this the Foot Guard acquired its name as the Tiltyard Guard. 

The Household Cavalry Sentries stood guard in their sentry boxes as today, with duty detachments providing travelling escorts whenever members of the Royal Family left the Palace of Whitehall. The Foot Guards Tiltyard Guard supported the Palace security and were also stationed at fixed posts across St James's Park, which served as the Royal Family's private leisure garden. At that time the only entrance to it was through the Horse Guards building and entry was strictly controlled by a system of passes. This tradition continues today with the allocation of oval plastic passes (formerly ivory) to selected courtiers. Only the monarch has the right to ride through Horse Guards Arch without displaying a pass to sentries. 

ABOUT FACE!

In 1698 the Palace of Whitehall was almost completely destroyed by fire and the Royal Court moved to St James's Palace in the Park behind Horse Guards. Having always had the Palace in front of them to guard, overnight old Horse Guards found that responsibility transferred to its rear. However, Horse Guards remained as the only official entrance to the Court and has done so ever since. 

THE “NEW” BUILDING – A TIME FOR CHANGE

Over the years the old building was increasingly used as a military administrative base and had become overcrowded and cramped. It had also fallen into disrepair and by 1745 the sentries were said to be in danger from falling masonry. In that year King George II agreed to replace the building and the design was entrusted to William Kent, who had also designed the new Treasury building just to the south. Not permitted to encroach on St James's Park, Kent kept the basic design of the old building, including the domed clock tower, but extended the wings around the courtyard, doubling its capacity. The building was intended as a dramatic Palladian-style entrance to what was going to be a new Palace where the old Palace of Whitehall had stood. However, George III instead bought Buckingham Palace as his principle residence, which of course is still in use today. Sadly, Kent died in 1748, a year before building started but the project was taken over by his assistant John Vardy and was completed in ten years at a cost of 65,000 (twice the original estimate!). When the original clock from the old building failed in 1768, a superlative new clock was built by Thwaites & Co., the oldest clockmakers in London. It continued the previous clock's proud tradition as the most accurate timepiece in West London until the installation of Big Ben in 1859. High above the arch on the Whitehall side are the Royal Arms of George II, carved in 1753. Halfway through the arch on the stonework overheard are the letters STMW/STMF, to show that the parish boundary of St Margaret's, Westminster and St Martin-in-the-Fields passes from East to West exactly through the centre of the building. 

A COFFEE HOUSE, A COCKPIT AND THE QUARTERMASTER SERGEANT’S CHICKENS

A coffee house, established in rooms of the floors overlooking Whitehall, rapidly acquired an unsavoury reputation. Horse Guards being considered a military garrison, any attempt by the civil police to deal with disorder was strongly resisted but after being described in a War Office Memo as "to all intents and purposes a common public house, occupied by people of the worst character and low women" it was finally closed in 1850. Absolutely no comparison should be made with the current NMFI canteen. Evidence of other non-military activities on the cavalry side of the building takes the form of a recently excavated cockpit in the basement, complete with fireplace and a small spectator area. Here, no doubt, excited punters once witnessed the gruesome eighteenth century sport of cock fighting. There seems also to have been a less sinister interest in poultry. The dismounted cavalry trooper who stands near the entrance to the stables is known to this day as the "chick sentry", in honour, it is said, of a sentry who was found asleep on guard. His response to questioning by an enraged commanding officer as to why he thought he was posted to that spot was that he supposed it was to keep an eye on the Quartermaster Sergeant's chickens which evidently roamed the area! (See map by clicking here.)

MOVING IN AND BUILDING ON

In 1755 the Household Cavalry was the first to move in to the new building, then as now occupying the northern wing with offices and stabling for 62 horses. Today these stables are used by the Queen's Life Guard which provides the mounted and dismounted sentries for Horse Guards and have room for only 17 horses, virtually the number required for the "Long Guard" when The Queen is resident in London. The Foot Guards were established in the southern wing with their own guardroom and offices. They mounted in the name of the Tiltyard Guard for the last time in November 1898. By the time of completion of the building the size of the army had almost doubled and the War Office Departments practically filled Horse Guards. Continuing expansion lead to the building scheme of 1803-5 whereby the single storey blocks connecting the north and south wings to the centre had two more floors added, giving the Horse Guards its present day appearance. 

THREE DUKES AND TWO DESKS

Perhaps Horse Guards most illustrious tenant, the great Duke of Wellington, the Victor of Waterloo, had two stints at Horse Guards as Commander in Chief, a year from 1827-28 and the last ten years of his life from 1842. His office, formerly the Court Martial Room, is now the office of the Major-General Commanding the Household Division and General Officer Commanding London District. A print shows Wellington receiving visitors at the very same desk which is still in use today, and the decor of the room unchanged. The Duke also had quarters at Horse Guards and what is now an office was once his bedroom with the bed situated under the arch. He had an ensuite closet and a private stairway to the stables below, now blocked off, its entrance used as a cupboard.

Another famous, or infamous, tenant was the Duke of York the second son of George Ill, immortalised in a popular children's nursery rhyme as "The Grand Old Duke of York". The last Commander in Chief at Horse Guards was the irascible Duke of Cambridge, who was so fond of the building that when the War Office moved out to Pall Mall he refused to go until ordered by his cousin Queen Victoria. Even after the move he still headed his letters "The Horse Guards, Pall Mall"

Additional Memorabilia within the General Officer Commanding's office includes busts of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, the Duke of York and Wellington's death mask. There are also major contemporary portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte. In an adjacent office now occupied by the Chief of Staff there is a table brought back from Germany in 1977. The provenance of the table dates back to 1945 when 5th Guards Armoured Brigade had its Headquarters in a hotel in Bad Godesburg and the table is reputedly the very table over which Hitler and Chamberlain had talked across in 1938. 

HORSE GUARDS TODAY

In this century Horse Guards has been principally Headquarters London District, administering all regular and Territorial Army units in Greater London. There is also Headquarters Household Division, from where are issued orders and minutely detailed instructions for important ceremonial occasions like The Queen's Birthday Parade, State Opening of Parliament and State Visits. Finally, there is the Regimental Headquarters of the Household Cavalry, which looks after records, contacts with old Comrades Associations and non-operational matters relating to the two Household Cavalry Regiments. One of these regiments -the Mounted Regiment - provides the one aspect of Horse Guards most easily recognised by the general public. Every day, whatever the season, whatever the weather, a new Queen's Life Guard comes down from Hyde Park Barracks in Knightsbridge to take over guard duties for the next twenty-four hours. As the mounted box men, facing Whitehall, or as the dismounted sentries in the Archway and the Front Yard, they stoically endure the attentions of countless tourists. At the same time they maintain one of the more enduring traditions of London life: a tradition of cavalry maintaining vigil on this site that stretches back over three and a half centuries from the troubled times of Charles I to the present day.

Prepared by HQ London District.