The Guards Chapel, the spiritual home of the Guards Regiments in London, is a modern chapel built less than 100 years ago, but world famous for the tragic events which caused it to be rebuilt, when a German bomb destroyed it during a packed service in 1944. The chapel is open and free to all visitors. Next to it is the Guards Museum, which tells the story of the Guards Regiments. Sarah visited this March to learn more.
The interior of the Guards Chapel as it is today.
Historical Background of the Guards
Next to St. James Park, on Birdcage Walk, so named as that is where the royal aviary was once located, is Wellington Barracks, the home of the Foot Guards. There are currently five regiments of Foot Guards – the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards, Irish Guards, and Welsh Guards. They act as frontline troops, are the primary garrison for the capital city, protect the monarch and perform ceremonial duties.
The red coats, bearskin hats and musical instruments are the public, ceremonial side of the Guards, but they have fought in most wars since their formation.
The oldest regiment is the Scots Guards, raised by Charles I when he was fighting the English parliament, meaning he couldn’t use English soldiers. When Charles I was executed, the regiment was disbanded until 1661, when it was re-raised. During the Civil War, a foot regiment led by a Colonel Monck fought on the side of the parliamentarians, who after the death of Cromwell, marched from the town of Coldstream to restore order in London.
When Charles II was in exile, he raised his own regiment of Guards (now the Grenadier Guards) to form the basis of his new army. When Charles II arrived in London back from exile, he told Monck’s regiment to lay down their arms as they fought for Cromwell, then told them to raise them up again in service to him, and that they would be the 2nd Regiment of Foot Guards, after his Grenadiers. This didn’t go down well with Moncks regiment, who said they had been formed before Charles II regiment, and who changed their title to the Coldstream Guards, defiantly adopting the motto Nulli Secundus; Second to None.
Queen Victoria raised the Irish Guards in 1900 after their sterling performance in the Boer War, and the Welsh Guards were raised in 1915.
Foot Guards have fought in nearly every war since the 17th century, their role being primarily as infantry. Together with the Blues & Royals and Household Cavalry, they make up the Household Division, which performs ceremonial duties for the monarchy, and it is the Guards who are so frequently photographed by tourists to London, with their red coats and huge bearskin hats.
The Guards Chapel
The outside of the chapel is modern and white, giving little away about what is on the inside.
Wellington Barracks, only 300 yards from Buckingham Palace, opened in 1833. The Chaplain to the Brigade, William Dakins, campaigned for them to have a chapel, which was built at the east end of the barracks, holding its first service in 1838. It was an austere looking building based on a greek Doric temple, with a plain and ugly interior, until the 1870s when enough funds had been raised to enhance it. Described as having a beautiful interior decorated in alabaster, marble and mosaic, it was filled with memorials to members of the brigade. The chapel received further beautification over the years, with work continuing until 1939 when one of the last memorials put up was to William Dakins who had ensured that the chapel was built.
After the rubble was cleared, this was all that remained of the chapel. Photograph © The Household Division
The chapel received some minor damage during World War II, until Sunday 18th June 1944 at 11.10am, when a V1 flying bomb entered the chapel through the west end and exploded, during a church service. The roof and walls collapsed in on the congregation, trapping them under the rubble. When the rescue crews arrived, they found scenes of utter devastation and had to scramble through the wreckage to find survivors and to administer morphine. It took 48 hours to free everyone. The bomb completely destroyed the chapel, except for the apse, where the six silver candlesticks used in the service were still burning after the chapel had crashed into ruins. It was a tragedy of epic proportions. One hundred and twenty one people were killed, both military and civilian, and many more were injured.
Light from the stained glass window reflects onto the Register of Service which describes the events of the bombing.
On display in the chapel is a Bible and a Book of Common Prayer retrieved from the wreckage, as well as the Register of Services, which has the page open on the entry made after that fateful day, with the remarks made by the Chapel Keeper.
By the Christmas service in 1945, a Romney Hut had been erected inside the ruins attached to the apse, which was used until 1962. In 1963, a new chapel was designed, which was built on the foundations of the old one. All of the old memorials and embellishments were laid under the floor, still in their fragments, as if the new chapel is a phoenix rising from the ashes. Only the apse, font, candlesticks and altar cross were salvageable. The names of everyone who had had a memorial in the old church is inscribed in a memorial on the outside wall of the new church.
The golden apse is very much the focal point of the chapel.
The new church has made no attempt to replicate what was gone before, and is a modern, white, simple building. The apse has been integrated within an open portico, and is the unmistakable heart of the building, it’s curved gold tesserae, coloured marble and shining mosaics highlighted by the white walls which surround it, the Lombardo-Byzantine style a complete contrast to the modern, angular, plain building.
The only surviving section of the chapel is the glittering apse.
There are 52 slit windows of etched glass along the side walls, each a different memorial and all of plain white glass. There is only one stained glass window, which is at the west end of the church, which was made from all of the pieces found from the old chapel. The expanse of the high white walls are filled with an array of flags, standards and colours which make a dramatic impact when you first walk into the chapel.
The stained glass windows on the west wall are made from fragments found in the ruins of the old chapel.
A walk around the church reveals countless memorials to the great and good: Lord Mountbatten who was Colonel of the Life Guards until his assassination in 1979, Viscount Gort, Commander of the Grenadier Guards and the BEF, soldiers killed after D-Day and the Hyde Park bombings. Regimental chapels lead down the cloisters, each with their own memorial books and a candle burning on the altar of those regiments who are currently deployed on active service
It is a place of simplicity, peace, and sadness and is most definitely worth a visit.
The Guards Museum
The entrance way to the museum is underground.
Opposite the Chapel and down some steps is the Guards Museum, a small museum which is packed full with artefacts and ephemera from the centuries of Guards history. It is a fascinating place to spend a couple of hours and has far more in it than you would imagine on first glance. Sadly you are not allowed to take any photographs inside, which is always a shame in a museum.
There are a plethora of uniforms on display, along with regimental drums, bearskin hats, medals, pikes, muskets, halberds, swords and militaria that you would expect. But if you look closely amongst that there are some real gems with some captivating stories behind them, that show another side to regimental life.
Implements like this were used to tattoo deserters. This one is in the National Army Museum in Chelsea.
There is a cat o’ nine tails, used on a Private Lacey who went AWOL and was given 50 lashes and six months hard labour in 1850. A punishment book from 1799 which lists all of the misdemeanours and their ensuing punishments, “Edward sentenced and received 200 lashes for being in liquor and incapable of dismounting”, conjures up a wonderful image of a soldier too drunk to get off his horse. Someone got 200 lashes for stealing a pair of shoes. There is a branding implement which was used to tattoo deserters with a ‘D’, and one to tattoo them with a ‘BC’, which stood for Bad Character.
The Guards were heavily involved at Waterloo and there are some amazing artefacts from the battle on display There is a piece of tail hair from Wellington’s charger, Copenhagen, a shako worn at the battle, bullets from the battle and even the gate posts from Le Caillou, where Napoleon spent the night before the battle. Most impressively, there is the lock, chain and fragments of the gates at Hougoumont Farm, which was so decisive in the battle. The Duke of Wellington declared that “the success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont.”
There is a model of Private Matthew Clay, who wrote the definitive account of the battle, biting off the end of a paper cartridge containing gunpowder and a musket ball. The silver Chaplains chalice used in the service the day before the battle is on display, along with the Duke of Wellington’s coat. A woman’s red silk cloak looks somewhat out of place amongst all of the militaria, but it was reputedly worn by a Captain Bridgeman the night before the battle, a memento from his Spanish paramour, who he had to wait a further three years before he could see again, only to find she had married someone else.
My favourite item has to have been the head of Jacob the Goose, a member of the Coldstream Guards. In 1839, while the Guards were stationed in Quebec, a sentry saved a goose who was being chased by a fox. From then on, the goose would do sentry duty with whoever was on duty, as well as march with the soldiers. Sometime later, the original sentry who had saved Jacob was under attack, and Jacob flew at them to give the sentry time to attack, saving his life in the process. After that, the soldiers bought Jacob a gold collar which he wore for the rest of his life. He returned to London with the Guards, remaining on duty with them until he was run over by a delivery van in 1846. It is a sad, but rather heartwarming, tale.
A display showing the modern side of life in the Guards Regiments. Photograph © The Guards Museum
A tableau shows the guards saving the colours at the Battle of Alma, the first battle in the Crimean War. A sick book from the Crimean War is displayed along with a brass candlestick holder used by Florence Nightingale during her night time rounds, as well as a bible she gave to soldiers in Scutari, and a mini chamber pot which she used to give rum or gin to the more severely wounded soldiers.
The World War I display has some remarkable artefacts, including a captured German lantern, the bullets used in the execution of German spy, Hans Carl Lody, a caltrop (spikes) from No man’s land, a trench dagger, a folding periscope and a brass knuckle duster, all minutiae that reveal so much more than uniforms and battle statistics. The best item from World War II is an air raid siren, the actual one which was used in the opening credits of the theme music to Dad’s Army, as it was the band of the Coldstream Guards who played the original music.
The museum has countless other objects with stories to tell and it was a thoroughly absorbing place to visit. Make sure you allow plenty of time as we found it very easy to lose track of time there.
There is a small shop attached to the museum, although not one that sells your usual tourist paraphernalia. This one stocks an endless amount of toy soldiers of every variety, and must be a dream location for those who are into such things.
The Flanders Fields Memorial Garden
The memorial garden is next to the chapel and filled with soil from the battlefields of Flanders. Photograph © Gareth Kegg
Opposite the museum and next to the chapel is the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden, a small area in the barracks dedicated to those who participated in World War I. A raised bed of lawn contains soil collected from 70 different war cemeteries and battlefields of Flanders, and delivered by gun carriage. Trees native to Flanders and a stone bench of Flemish bluestone complete the garden. It is a small area and easily overlooked, but worth taking the time to pause and read the words of John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields, which are engraved around the outside of the memorial.
Getting to the Guards Chapel and the Guards Museum
Both the Chapel and the Museum cane be accessed through Chapel Square, the gated entrance to which is on Birdcage Walk
What3Words for the gate to Chapel Square: future.wedge.lives
Nearest Underground Stations: St James’s Park and Westminster
Visiting The Guards Chapel
Monday to Friday: 10h00 – 16h00
Entrance is free
Visiting the Guards Museum
Daily 10h00 – 16h00
Children (under 16) Free
The Guards Museum is included in the London Pass
Military History Itinerary of London
For anyone interested in military history, you will know there are many attractions and points of interest to see in London. We have created a specific itinerary that includes those sites and memorials within central London, all of which can be visited in one day. Given its significance, we have included the Guards Chapel on this itinerary, along with, along with the Household Cavalry Museum, the Royal Hospital Chelsea and the National Army Museum.
Get more ideas and information about what there is to see and do nearby and in Greater London in our London Guide for History Buffs >>