Known around the world for the stoic mounted troopers which stand guard here, this rather fanciful building straddling a site between Whitehall and St James’s Park was built in the early 1750s on land which had previously served as a tiltyard for King Henry VIII.
In the 1660s King Charles II had a barracks built here for the guards manning the entrance to what was then the Palace of Whitehall, but in 1749 it was demolished and the present building constructed.
William Kent had apparently drawn up designs but it was architect John Vardy who oversaw construction of the neo-Palladian building after Kent’s death in 1748. The windows on the St James’s Park side of the building are said to have been based on a drawing by Lord Burlington (he of Chiswick House fame – see our earlier post here).
While the site previously marked the entrance to the Palace of Whitehall, it is now considered the formal entrance to St James’s Palace (although the palace is located some distance away) and, as a result, only the monarch can drive through the central archway without displaying a pass.
Until 1904, the Grade I-listed building housed the office of the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces but the title was then abolished and replaced with Chief of the General Staff, who relocated to the War Office Building. Horse Guards subsequently became the home of the army commands of London District and the Household Division, a role it still fulfils.
As well as being the site of the daily Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard (this free event takes place at 11am every day; 10am on Sundays), Horse Guards is also now home to the Household Cavalry Museum.
Among treasures in the museum are two silver kettledrums presented to the regiment in 1831 by King William IV, a cork leg used by the first Marquess of Anglesey after his real leg was amputated following the Battle of Waterloo (and subsequently became a tourist attraction in its own right) and silverware by Faberge. Visitors to the museum can also see into the working stables via a glazed petition.
The parade ground behind the building is the site of the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony which officially celebrates the Sovereign’s birthday. Although the ceremony has only been held since 1748, it’s interesting to note that some of the birthday celebrations of Queen Elizabeth I were held in the same place.
WHERE: The Household Cavalry Museum, Horse Guards, Whitehall (nearest Tube stations are Westminster, Embankment, St James’s Park and Charing Cross); WHEN: Open 10am to 5pm (November to March)/10am to 6pm (April to October); COST: £6 adults/£4 children (aged 5-16) and concessions/£15 family ticket; WEBSITE: www.householdcavalrymuseum.co.uk.