The Horse Guards At Whitehall
Brian Harwood leads us through the history of one of the capital’s most iconic figures.
E national tradition doesn’t come much more evocative than the Household Cavalry sentries guarding London’s Horse Guards building. They seem always to have been there in fact, the Guard in its present form on that site dates from 1663.
Everyone who passes by takes a reassuring look, passing or longer, and then leaves knowing that, metaphorically, all is still well in Whitehall.
But when I was privileged to undertake my tours of duty in the front courtyard there in past times, I recall one uestion being predominantly audible in the milling tourist throng.
“What are they guarding what is this building ”
In mediaeval times the road we know as Whitehall was called ing Street it led to the ing’s palace at Westminster.
Between ing Street and the Thames, opposite the Horse Guards’ site, spread the luxurious London mansion of the archbishops of ork ork Place. It had been there since 1243 and by Tudor times was far more opulent than the flood- and fire-ravaged Westminster.
ing Street also had do ens of inns and hostels, and the southern half of Horse Guards’ site was occupied by the ancient Bell Inn.
In 1529 Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal Archbishop of ork, was evicted from ork Place by Henry VIII who then gave the mansion to Anne Boleyn as a present. She detested Wolsey.
Henry later married Anne in ork Place chapel in 1533.
The ing and Anne spent some five years expanding their new London palace, which he renamed Whitehall, as Shakespeare reminded later audiences.
Sir, you must no more call it ork Place that s ast or since the Cardinal ell, that title s lost is now the ing s and called Whitehall. (Henry VIII, IV, i) By 1535 Whitehall had grown to encompass all of St ames’s, too this became a hunting park and present-day St ames’s Palace was once Henry’s hunting lodge.
At its greatest extent Whitehall Palace would cover 23 acres, then the largest royal residence in Europe. By now, too, the Bell Inn had long gone, replaced by Henry’s Tiltyard for tournaments and
other Court festivities.
The Tiltyard, enclosed between ing Street and the park wall, covered all Horse Guards’ site as far north as the Admiralty today. Here were performed the great tournaments of Elizabeth I with her magnificent courtier knights competing to be champion at tilt, all organised by her Master of the Armoury, Sir Henry Lee, until his retirement in 1590, aged sixty.
Elizabeth watched these events from the ornate Tiltyard Gallery across the south end, where the Bell had been.
Her principal tournament annually commemorated her birthday, September 7, a direct predecessor of today’s Queen’s Birthday Parade Trooping the Colour, on virtually the same site.
The reign of Gloriana faded into the more prosaic world of the Jacobean masques and animal fights, both often in the Tiltyard.
It all changed in 1641 with the first Civil War insurgencies. To maintain order at Whitehall the Lord Chamberlain issued a warrant on 30 December “To Mr Surveyor for ye building a Court of Guard before Whitehall”.
This wooden guardroom occupied the south end of the Tiltyard, directly opposite the main Court Gate of the palace. From here the assembled Trained Bands issued forth and “cut and hacked the apprentices that were passing to Westminster” It was the first military guard stationed on Horse Guards’ site.
It was insufficient for the more serious later uprisings, so on October 20, 1649, Surveyor of Works Edward Carter received orders “To build a Guard House in the Tiltyard near the wall of St ames’s Park for better accommodation of the soldiers”.
The latter were the foot regiments of Cromwell’s Army his cavalrymen were where Scotland ard now is.
Edward Carter’s Guard House was the first permanent, masonry-built Guard building on Horse Guards’ site. Cromwell’s troops were still there when Charles II returned from exile in 1660.
But Parliament wouldn’t allow Charles to have an Army, only Guards and Garrisons’ units to provide security for the royal family. These forerunner regiments of the Household Cavalry and Foot Guards were officially raised on anuary 26, 1661, the birthdate of the British Army.
A couple of years later it was clear that this force could not be effectively commanded from the inherited and now run-down Tiltyard barracks. Charles, therefore, persuaded a still-reluctant Parliament to replace the barracks with Old Horse Guards.
Started in 1663, it took less than 1 months to complete, at a cost of about 4,066. The architect is not recorded, but Surveyor General Hugh May would have been the guiding force.
As today, the Household Cavalrymen guarded the central archway into the private Royal Park, as well as still providing security to the palace Court Gate opposite. They and their H occupied the central and north buildings of Old Horse Guards, while the Foot Guards occupied the southern end.
Here a section of the old Tiltyard was left undeveloped and used as a Foot Guard assembly point, leading to the Guard being formally named the Tiltyard Guard. It mounted as such continuously from 1663 to November 1 9 when its duty role was terminated.
A further feature was the famous Tiltyard Coffee House on the first floor of the south wing of Old Horse Guards, open to both military and civilian patrons.
The coffee house was rebuilt into the present building and survived (as a canteen) well into Queen Victoria’s time, being closed in 1 50 after becoming “occupied by people of the worst character and low women”.
In earlier times it had been much patronised by Boswell.
“No turbot but at the Tiltyard ” he happily enthused.
After the Jacobite 16 insurrection, the Horse Guards’ guard was augmented with the Dutch Blue Guards of William III, the mounted sentries taking guard on their greys. They would be there for a decade.
It was during this period that an accidental fire (by a Dutch maid) burned down most of Whitehall Palace. Old Horse Guards escaped, ing Street being a firebreak. However, William decreed that the Court would, henceforth, reside at St ames’s Palace.
St ames’s Park was still enclosed by its Tudor brick wall, with Horse Guards Arch forming the only official entrance to both court and park. It retains that distinction today, the Court complex comprising St ames’s Palace, Buckingham Palace, and Clarence House.
Replacing Old Horse Guards with a War Once able to control a now
worldwide Army, today’s Horse Guards was built between 1750 and 1760 to William ent’s designs. It cost over 64,000, the original estimate being 33,000.
The clock from Old Horse Guards by royal clockmaker Thomas Herbert was moved to the new cupola, but its aged mechanism failed by 176 , when the present movement was installed by Messrs. Thwaites Reed. The chime of bells came from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
Before Big Ben, Horse Guards was London’s premier timepiece. A closer look at it reveals a black mark painted under the Roman numeral II. It commemorates the time 2 p.m. of Charles I’s execution opposite outside the Ban ueting House on Tuesday, anuary 30, 1649.
A teenage Samuel Pepys bunked off school for the day to s uee e between Cromwell’s soldiers outside the Tiltyard and scribble notes of the scene he would recall many years later in his famous diary.
nder the clock tower used to be the Army Commander-in-chief’s o ce the Duke of Wellington’s desk still remains in the room with its Venetian window overlooking the Parade. When the post-crimean War radical Army revisions took place in the 1 70s, the then Commander-in-chief, the Duke of Cambridge, had his o ces moved to the new War O ce in Pall Mall by the Secretary of State for War Lord Cardwell. The incensed and irascible Duke retaliated by heading his correspondence Horse Guards, Pall Mall.
One tradition surviving from Georgian times is still enacted by the Horse Guards’ sentries. As a measure to discipline behaviour in the royal park it was decided by a Court memorandum of March 14, 1775, to forbid any wheeled vehicle to pass through Horse Guards Arch except those with specific permission of the Lord Chamberlain.
This was achieved with the issue to those so authorised of an Ivory Pass (today ivorine) to display to the sentries on exercise of the privilege. The Horse Guards sentries remain empowered today to refuse passage to any wheeled vehicle through the Arch which fails to display the approved pass.
Both the mounted and dismounted sentries at Horse Guards are neither immobile nor ornamental they are a proactive Guard responsible for the maintenance of public order within Horse Guards’ precincts. And the latter still technically includes all of Horse Guards Parade.
This responsibility has held since the 1663 inception of the Guard. nruly behaviour by anyone will be curbed by appropriate action taken by the sentries the history of Horse Guards records many instances of the exercise of it.
Some uninvited visitors made their presence felt in 1944 when hit-and-run “Little Blit ” German bombers rained high explosives across Horse Guards Parade two of these bombs gave the Park fa ade of Horse Guards its “battle honour” splinter marks still there now,
Today the visitor can browse through this most fascinating history of Horse Guards, and its guardian regiments, at the new Household Cavalry Museum housed within its walls.
Horse Guards Parade was one of the most iconic venues of the London 2012 Summer Olympics, hosting the beach volleyball competition, and in 2014 Olympic riders competed at Horse Guards Parade Ground.
The Royal Horse Guards Cavalry.