Horse Guards

Above: View of Horse Guards from the edge of St Jame’s Park.

The building called Horse Guards was erected in the mid-18th century, replacing an earlier building, as a barracks and stables for the Household Cavalry, later becoming an important military headquarters. It acts as a gatehouse, providing access between Whitehall and St James’s Park via gates at street level. It originally formed the entrance to Whitehall Palace and, because of that fact, it is still ceremonially defended by the Queen’s Life Guard.

In Tudor times the land on which Horse Guards stands had been the tiltyard of Whitehall Palace. During the Commonwealth, stables for the cavalry were built there. The first Horse Guards building was constructed in red brick for Charles II in 1663. It had a large building with a clock tower, under which an arch connected Whitehall Palace with St James’s Park. There were two large sentry boxes for mounted troopers on the Whitehall side, facing the palace gate. The park was then an enclosed private garden. As well as royalty, only selected courtiers were permitted to use the garden. The building was intended only to accommodate the King’s Guard and included stabling for more than a hundred cavalry horses, as well as separate barracks for the foot guards. Following a fire at Whitehall Palace in 1698, the court transferred to St James’s Palace, therefore the function of Horse Guards changed to controlling the ceremonial approach to St James’s from Westminster. During the following decades, Horse Guards was increasingly used as administrative offices for the growing regular army and soon became overcrowded. The fabric of the building had gradually deteriorated until it became almost a ruin.

In 1745, George II commissioned a new building – designed in Palladian style by the architect William Kent. Having to reuse the same plot of land, Kent managed to retain essentially the same plan as the original building while doubling the interior space. However, Kent died in April 1748 before the old Horse Guards had been demolished. Work on the new building commenced in 1750 under the direction of Kent’s assistant, John Vardy and also William Robinson from the Office of Works. It took nearly ten years to complete. The Household Cavalry moved into the northern wing of the incomplete building in 1755. Construction was completed in 1760. At that time, there was stabling for 62 horses. Today there are only 17 stables. Originally, the two wings were connected to the central block by single-storey ranges but in 1803-05 a further two floors were added, giving the building its present appearance.

Above: A clock face on top of Horse Guards, with the dark spot above the number two.

Although still in military use, part of the building houses the Household Cavalry Museum which is open to the public. One small feature of the building should be mentioned – the two clock faces high up on the building, one facing the road called Whitehall and the other facing the park. On each clock face, there is a dark spot above the number two. The marks are said to indicate the time at which Charles I was executed in 1649.

One of the well-known tourist attractions at Horse Guards is the daily ceremony of changing the guard of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment of the Queen’s Life Guard. Being the official entrance to St James and Buckingham Palace, Life Guards have been on sentry duty at Horse Guards from the time of the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. The ceremony lasts about half an hour. In addition, mounted sentries change every hour or half-hour in very cold weather during the day until 4.00 pm when a dismounting ceremony takes place.


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Putting it all Together 02

This is the second of a series to explain how all the Webpages are linked together. If you missed the first one, then go to the menu bar at the top of the Webpage and look for the ‘Putting it all Together’ tab. As the weeks go by each of the Webpages will be archived under this tab for easy reference in the future.

2 – What do all the Categories Mean?

The main use of the categories is to link the individual Webpages according to which London Borough they relate to. Each of the Inner London Boroughs starts with a different three letters. For example, Islington starts with ‘Isl’ and Lewisham starts with ‘Lew’. Today’s London Borough of Islington was once two Metropolitan Boroughs – Finsbury and Islington. Therefore, in the categories, there are two names for Islington – ‘Isl-Finsbury’ and ‘Isl-Islington’. Similarly, the London Borough of Lewisham was formed by combining the Metropolitan Borough of Deptford with the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham. The categories list Webpages for the London Borough of Lewisham either under ‘Lew-Deptford’ or ‘Lew-Lewisham’.

The principle applies to all the Inner London Boroughs. The City of London is divided into 13 groups of wards. The City of Westminster (post-1965) is divided into seven sections. ‘Wes-Paddington’ and ‘Wes-St Marylebone’ were added onto the pre-1965 City of Westminster. The pre-1965 City of Westminster is made up of five areas of study – ‘Wes-Piccadilly’, ‘Wes-St James’s’, ‘Wes-Strand’, ‘Wes-Westminster’ and ‘Wes-Whitehall’.

As time goes by, each category related to the areas of study will have an ‘Overview’ Webpage which explains the area of study.

In addition, there are a few Outer London Boroughs which have Webpages – like Bexley.

Finally, there are other categories (mixed in with those described above) which have sub-categories – like (c1) or (c5). To find out all about those categories, please look on the menu bar, select ‘Categories’ and read through the help section, in particular look at the ‘Special Categories’ heading.


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Gwydyr House

When Whitehall Palace burned down in 1698 only the Banqueting House was left standing. The Court moved to St James’s Palace and eventually the land was cleared. It was divided up into large and small plots on which grand houses were built by the nobility for a residence. Some of the houses were very large while others were of more modest size.

One of the smaller houses still remains standing today. It derives its name from Lord Gwydyr. The elegant building was erected 1770-72 as a private house and stands on the east side of the street called Whitehall. The house, by chance, stands almost opposite Dover House which was originally another private house. Gwydyr House today is in use as the Welsh Office.

Being among all the much larger office buildings in Whitehall, it is unlikely that many people notice Gwydyr House as they pass by. Although it is an elegant building, most visitors are too preoccupied with looking at other attractions – like the nearby Banqueting House and Horse Guards.


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Whitehall Palace Remains

Above: Looking south at Queen Mary’s Steps. The stonework to the right is the east wall of the Ministry of Defence.

When a fire broke out at Whitehall Palace, in 1698, there were plenty of buildings still constructed from timber and it must have been a terrible sight as the flames engulfed the structures. Being more modern and built of stone, the Banqueting House withstood the conflagration. The palace was not rebuilt because St James’s Palace was not far away and it was not really being used so the Court moved there.

Although the site at Whitehall was cleared and the land was sold off in plots on which to build townhouses, not everything was cleared away. Incorporated into the structure of the Treasury building are some of the old Tudor walls and other walls remain standing in Downing Street. Unfortunately, the public cannot gain access to any of this evidence.

The Banqueting House stands beside Whitehall and is an impressive reminder of what Whitehall Palace might have looked like if other buildings had been rebuilt on the old site. However, the Banqueting House is not Tudor and there are no other buildings from the time of the rebuilding in Tudor times left standing. Deep in the ground, below the Ministry of Defence, is a Tudor wine cellar. Until the 1970s it used to be open on Saturday afternoons for the public to make a booked visit. Sadly, the room is no longer open for public viewing. Private functions are sometimes held in that cellar which has restricted access from the Banqueting House.

One piece of masonry that remains from the days of Whitehall Palace stands on the eastern side of the Ministry of Defence. It is part of a landing stage that remains in the lawn of the Victoria Embankment. Known as Queen Mary’s Steps, the stonework was designed by Sir Christopher Wren for Mary II as a terrace overlooking the Thames in front of the old river wall of Whitehall Palace. The terrace, projecting about 700 feet into the bed of the river, was about 280 feet long. At either end were a curving flight of stairs to provide access from the Royal Apartments to the State Barge. The remaining piece of the terrace was discovered during excavations in 1939 for the Ministry of Defence which, due to the onset of the Second World War, was not completed until 1957.


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Whitehall Palace at Play

Above: Excerpt from the Agas map (c1561) showing the places where those who lived at Whitehall Palace enjoyed themselves within its precinct.

In the case of Henry VIII,  we seem to be obsessed with the details of his six wives. While that is, in the main, a tragic feature there were other sides to Henry’s life which can easily be overlooked. He was responsible for the founding of the Royal Naval Dockyard at Deptford and also for establishing Trinity House – an organisation responsible for lighthouses. They are just two examples to show that Henry had other matters on his mind as well as his matrimonial affairs.

The Tudors also enjoyed sport – whether taking part or as observers – and the buildings at Whitehall Palace have examples of both. We shall use the Agas map, published about 1561, to gain a glimpse of what went on there.

Privy Garden • The large garden was enjoyed by the royalty just to walk around. Those invited to the palace were also able to walk in the ornamental gardens which had a splendid fountain at its centre.

Privy Bridge • This was a large landing stage, accessed by a covered walkway. Above the walkway was a balustraded upper level from where the royalty could watch river pageants on the Thames. These displays of splendour only took place on special occasions but they were another form of entertainment.

Great Hall • Banqueting was one of the great events of Tudor life. The old hall shown on the map had been built by Wolsey (not to be confused with the later Banqueting House that still stands in the road called Whitehall today). On special occasions, it was the scene of Masque Balls. These were times when everyone wore fancy dress and generally enjoyed themselves at carefully themed events. The hall would have been lavishly decorated to match the theme of the evening. Performances of plays were also enacted in the hall. During the winter of 1600-01 – towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth I – eleven plays are documented. The first Court performances of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello and also of King Lear, took place at Whitehall Palace.

On the western side of Whitehall Palace, there was what might be described today as the sports complex. Some of it was designed for sports participation while one part was more of a spectator sport.

Tilt-yard • Every royal palace had a tilt-yard. Originally, the Palace of Westminster had one. A narrow lane near Eltham Palace is named Tilt Yard Approach from a tilt-yard being on the site in medieval times. It is assumed that the tilt-yard at Whitehall was built when Henry VIII had acquired the property. The yard itself is clearly shown – with the fence in the middle where two knights, in full armour, would charge at each other on horseback. Jousting events took place several times each year. The tilt-yard at Whitehall was the site of the Accession Day tilts in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.

Tennis Court • Tennis in Tudor times was a sport to be played in a covered court with high walls and roof. The brick building is shown on the Agas map. It was not until the 16th century that rackets came into use and the game began to be called ‘tennis’ – a word derived from French meaning ‘to hold’.

Bowling Alley • A sport enjoyed by many in Tudor times was bowling. It is still enjoyed today in various forms.

Cock Pit • Most grizzly of all was the grim sport of cock-fighting. Although the palace had a private one, there were others for the public nearby. Cockpit Steps off Birdcage Walk was on one site. Cockspur Street, near today’s Trafalgar Square, is said to be another site. The Cock Pit at Whitehall was later converted into a theatre.


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Whitehall Palace on Agas Map

The woodcut map, produced about 1561 and attributed to Ralph Agas, shows remarkable detail for the location of Whitehall Palace. The map view looks down on the palace with the southern end of what is now the street called Whitehall just off the bottom of the map. The northern continuation would lead to Charing Cross (now the site of Trafalgar Square). To the west of the palace is the early form of today’s St James’s Park. The eastern side of the palace extends to River Thames.

At the southern end of Whitehall Palace is the Holbein Gate which stands across the roadway now known as Whitehall. The large Privy Garden has large oblongs which almost certainly represent ornamental gardens, lined with box-hedges which was the Tudor style. In the centre of the garden, we see the representation of a water fountain. The water was probably pumped by a treadmill operated by a man – possibly one of the gardeners – who walked inside the wheel and caused the water to flow if the royalty were strolling in the gardens.

We can see that many buildings lay along the riverside of the palace. Shown in some detail is the ‘Preuy bridge’ (Privy Bridge) which is also seen in the drawing by Wyngaerde. Level with the Privy Bridge is the northern gateway into the palace precinct called, as the map shows ‘The courte gate’ (Court Gate). A large part of the land near the river was also part of the extended palace property. Just inland from where the mapmaker has written ‘The Court’ is the large roof of the Great Hall that was built by Wolsey. On its eastern side is shown the Chapel (similar style but much narrower).

Returning to the name on the map of ‘The Court’, remember that Henry VIII had acquired the premises in 1529 and that the map was made about 30 years later. The mapmaker might have been aware that the site had been known as York Place in earlier times and, not wishing to offend anyone, he diplomatically wrote ‘The Court’, using a title that always applied to a building where the monarch resided. Of course, we cannot know this for certain.

On the western side of the palace (near the park) we see the unmistakable shape of the tilt-yard. This goes back to ‘the days of old when knights were bold’ and tilted at each other, dressed in armour, while on horseback. This was not a sport for the faint-hearted. Every royal residence had a tilt-yard and the art of jousting was a great sport enjoyed by everyone – from the monarch downwards – on specially appointed days of the year.

Coming south of the tilt-yard are several buildings where other sports were enacted. The large building (looking rather like a chapel) was, in fact, a covered tennis court. On its immediate west side was a Cock Pit enjoyed (if that is the right word!) by the royalty where two fighting cocks fought to the death. Wagers were laid on which bird would survive.

If you are looking around the woodcut for the Banqueting House, you should be aware that it was not built until 1619-22, which was over 50 years after this map was completed.

The map is remarkable not only for its detail but also for its accuracy. If, when you were in primary school, you ever had to cut pieces out of a potato to make a pattern for printing onto a sheet of paper, you will have some small idea of the task of making this map. After finding a large, very flat piece of wood, all the lines on the map are formed by printing from that block and cutting out all the gaps between the narrow lines. It was a highly skilled job and, needless to say, one that needed great concentration. You could not make a mistake because it could not be rectified at a later stage.


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Whitehall Palace on Wyngaerde Panorama

Born in 1525 in Antwerp, in Belgium, Anton van den Wyngaerde was a prolific Flemish topographical artist. Between 1558 and 1559 he visited England – possibly more than once – and made views of places that Philip II of Spain had visited in 1555 when he had travelled to England to wed Mary I of England. The original of the Panorama of London is part of the Sutherland Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. It measures 10 feet by 17 inches across seven large sheets.

It is believed that the panorama was to form the basis of a detailed painting which was never completed. Not all of the drawing, which includes Westminster and the City of London, is entirely accurate. There are several known geographical errors which have been determined by comparison with other sources. For Whitehall Palace, there are no other records and so this is a valuable early record of the layout of the buildings – even if there may also be some geographical errors.

The drawing is a sketch of Whitehall Palace from the east. There are many interesting features which we shall look at (from left to right). On the far right is shown the Privy Garden which was laid out ornamentally with a fountain (shown in the centre of the garden). In the garden are also shown posts which were painted plinths with heraldic beats at the top of each one. The garden was quite extensive. Behind the garden is the bare outline of a building with four turrets. This was the covered tennis court.

Immediately to the right of the tennis court is the Holbein Gate, with four turrets – one at each corner. The site of the gate was on today’s road called Whitehall, near the junction with Downing Street. To the right of the gate, we can see part of the roadway. Not far from the Holbein Gate we see the large octagonal Cock Pit in which an audience watched the grizzly sight of two cocks fighting to the death. That building was later converted into a theatre.

Along the bottom of the sketch is shown the River Thames. Drawn in some detail is the Privy Bridge which was a covered landing-stage from where the royalty could be rowed upriver or downriver in a ceremonial barge. The balustraded upper level was where the royalty could watch river pageants on the Thames.

The large roof is shown, covering the Great Hall which was built by Cardinal Wolsey. The decorated stonework behind it is the top of the northern Court Gate. The roadway running north of that gate led to Charing Cross. The site of the Court Gate was quite close to today’s Whitehall Theatre (which in 2004 became called Trafalgar Studios).

On the horizon (on the far right) is a representation of St James’s Palace. Between that palace and Whitehall Palace is now today’s St James’s Park.


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