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.