One of the first regiments in the British Army, the Household Cavalry has long been connected with the tradition and pageantry that comes with protecting the English Monarchy. Their base in London is in Horse Guards, next to Whitehall and St.James’ Park. A small but packed museum depicts the story of the regiment from its inception 350 years ago, which Sarah visited earlier this year to learn more about one of the oldest regiments in the British Army.
Horse Guards is the large white building on the right and is just one of the impressive buildings which surrounds the parade ground.
At the ceremonial heart of London is a small museum packed with history. Filled with emotive objects such as the Napoleonic standard and one the first remembrance poppies, as well as providing a window on to the Household Cavalry’s functioning stables – this is as much a history of pageantry as it is about the military. The Household Cavalry Museum is housed in a part of those stables, stables used to house the horses for mounted bodyguards, hence ‘Horse Guards’.
Horse Guards is a mid-18th century replica of a building which had been commissioned by Charles II in 1663. It was originally the main entrance way to the park and royal palaces, which was then out of bounds to the public. Today it remains as the official entrance, guarded by two mounted and two foot sentries, through which only the monarch may enter without a special pass. The sentries cause quite a stir amongst the tourists who visit to admire them sitting completely still on their horses with bright red coats, gleaming black boots and golden plumed helmets.
Now the headquarters of the household division of the British Army and home to the Household Cavalry, a small area of the building is open to the public as a museum. The entrance to the museum can be found through the archway and to the right, on the original cobblestones from the 18th century stables.
The Household Cavalry
The Household Cavalry was formed in 1661 by Charles II on his return from exile after the Civil War which killed his father, Charles I. He was in a precarious position returning to a country ravaged by Cromwell and the Puritans, so he created a new mounted bodyguard, based on one he had seen protecting the King of France. Formed of gentlemen who had gone into exile with him as well as the bodyguard of his brother, the Duke of York, the Lifeguards were created, the first regiment of the regular British Army.
The Blues & Royals on the left and the Lifeguards on the right make up the Household Cavalry. Photograph © Phillip Alfrey
The Household Cavalry is now formed of two regiments, the Lifeguards and the Blues & Royals. The Royals (Dragoons) were formed in 1661, a cavalry regiment formed from Cromwell’s army which spent much time overseas. In 1969 they merged with the Royal Horse Guards (Blues) and in 1991, the Blues & Royals joined with the Life Guards to form the Household Cavalry Regiment, although both keep their distinct uniforms, traditions and have separate colonels.
For over 350 years, they have protected the monarchy. After the civil unrest of 1677, Charles II instructed that an officer accompany him at all times, creating the position of Gold-Stick-in-Waiting and his deputy, Silver-Stick-in-Waiting, roles which still exist today, albeit in a ceremonial capacity. Ceremonial duties are very much at the heart of what the regiment does, escorting the monarch in all cases of pomp and pageantry and providing security. As well as the glamorous side however, they are regular soldiers and have taken part in their fair share of active service.
Before the formation of the police force, the army was often used to keep order in times of unrest. Pistols, a truncheon and a small card from which soldiers would ‘read the Riot Act’ all provide evidence of their earlier roles.
As there was no official police force until 1829, the regiments were used to maintain public order during national crises such as the Great Fire of London in 1666, riots over food prices, the Gordon Riots of 1780 as well as anti-smuggling operations against the illegal tea and tobacco trade, or hunting down the highwaymen that plagued travellers on Britain’s roads. A display case in the museum includes a pair of pistols, medals awarded to soldiers for their part in the Jacobite Rebellions, Gordon Riots and others, as well as a tiny copy of the Riot Act written onto a small card, which a soldier would keep with him at all times to read out before deploying weapons.
Varying styles of swords and helmets show how the uniform has always had a dramtic flair.
Household Cavalry Museum
The museum has a collection of some of the wonderful uniforms from over the centuries. Colourful and smart with gleaming metal buttons, breastplates and fancy epaulettes, they all glisten under the spotlights behind the glass cases. There is an array of highly ornamented helmets with plumes of horsehair, swords and scabbards of every size and shape; tricorn hats and cocked hats decorated with gold lace and swan feathers, a stunning display of pageantry.
The musicians’ uniform hasn’t changed much over the years and is still based on the same livery as Charles II’s jockeys. Only the initials of the monarch on the front change.
The ceremonial uniform they wear today was introduced by Queen Victoria, based on an 18th century design of breastplates, helmets and jackboots, with a few alterations over the years. This uniform has never been worn in battle as they wear standard khaki when on active service, it is purely part of the pomp and tradition for ceremonial occasions.
Peer into Working Stables
Horses are naturally an essential part of the regiment with 85% of recruits undergoing training with horses. Whereas in the past gentlemen would arrive already knowing how to ride, many recruits these days have never had experience with horses so they are put through a rigorous 20 week training programme. The stables has many of the different types of saddle and sheepskin used, which you are allowed to handle, as well as films explaining more about the horses and an area for kids to try on the various different types of uniform.
Visitors can look through to the other side of the stable and watch the soldiers at work. Here, a mounted guard is waiting to go out on sentry duty.
Perhaps the highlight of the museum, certainly for children and anyone who loves horses, is being able to look through a partition into functioning stables. Here you can see the horses in their stalls, soldiers cleaning their kit. With hourly sentry changes (between 10h00 and 16h00), a daily Guard Change on Horse Guards Parade (10h50 each day except 09h50 on Sunday), and the Guard Inspection (16h00), there are not only a number of opportunities to see the Household Cavalry in action, but their preparations for these events. Surprisingly, it makes for captivating viewing.
The inspection of soldiers at 16h00 each day is a tradition that was started by Queen Victoria who once visited the barracks at that time and found them loafing around. Her punishment was to order a daily inspection which would continue for 100 years. Although the 100 years has now passed, the tradition has continued.
A lot of work and equipment is needed to keep the uniform looking so pristine.
It takes 10 hours to prepare for inspection, as soldiers must clean breastplates and helmets with brasso, brush leather straps with shoe whitener cleaning each buckle hole out individually with a nail, soak the boots in beeswax before polishing and wire wool them, as well as get their horses up to equal standards. Everything must be perfect, even the angle of the helmet, with the best soldier awarded mounted sentry duty and the worst punished with dismounted foot duty.
What is On Display in the Household Cavalry Museum?
The Battle of Waterloo was a significant event for the regiments, as cavalry was heavily involved in the action.
A section of the museum focuses on the Battle of Waterloo, where they played a significant part as heavy cavalry fighting with swords on horseback, suffering heavy losses. Objects on display include a Napoleonic Eagle standard captured by the Dragoons, a hoof and a lock of hair from the mane of Napoleon’s horse, Marengo (you can see the rest of the horse in the National Army Museum) and a battered bugle used by 16 year old John Edwards to call for the decisive charge of the 1st Life Guards.
This Napoleonic standard was captured during the battle by the Dragoons.
The field bugle used by John Edwards to call for the decisive charge of the 1st Life Guards during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
The artificial leg of the Earl of Uxbridge is also on display; he had his real one amputated at Waterloo, without any anaesthetic and was apparently terribly British about the whole thing (you can also see the saw which cut it off and the cloth used to stem the flow of blood on display in the National Army Museum).
Emphemera from the vibrant social lives of officers of the Household Cavalry.
A large display focuses on the social life of the cavalry, these gentlemen who moved in the highest echelons of society, as officers bought their commission and the Life Guards was the most expensive. Dance cards, spurs, cigarette cases, a ladies fan, snuff boxes and even a Faberge silver gilt box bearing miniatures of the royal family in 1912 all fill the display cases. There is an impressive array of silverware; it was the custom when leaving the regiment to present a piece of silver to the Officers Mess, so they have accumulated quite a lot of it.
The Zetland Trophy is the massive piece of silverware in the centre of the display, and a warning to all who failed to make the customary gift on their departure.
The best piece has to be The Zetland Trophy from 1874. When the Earl of Zetland left The Blues, he failed to make the customary leaving gift, and when asked about the omission, he casually said to ‘buy a piece of silver and put it on my bill’. So they bought an enormous silver table centerpiece, so heavy that it needs four men to lift it. It cost the sum of £1,000, a huge sum back then, worth about £120,000 today. It is huge and garish and I like to think that no-one ever forgot to leave without giving a parting gift after that.
When the nature of warfare changed, and blending in became more advantageous than standing out, the uniforms changed too.
The Cavalry didn’t see any military action for a while after the Crimea, as Queen Victoria wanted to keep them in London with her. They got restless until she finally relented and they were sent to Egypt in 1882, followed by the Boer War. They suffered terrible losses during World War I, particularly in Ypres in 1914, until it became obvious that a cavalry was no use in trench warfare. The soldiers were reformed into infantry and machine gun battalions, while the horses served behind the front lines. The displays which cover this period show how the uniform changed to khaki, with Vickers machine guns replacing swords, map cases replacing pouches and an instruction manual teaching the cavalry how to adapt to this new type of warfare. War had changed.
After World War I the Household Cavalry continued to mechanise, converting to lorries and armoured cars during World War II, leading the advance into France and Germany the month after D-Day. In subsequent years they fought in Cyprus, Iraq, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and many other places around the globe.
One of the first rememberance poppies is on display. It had been found wrapped around a newspaper clipping of a fallen soldier from the regiment.
This helmet was worn by Trooper Tipper, who was killed in the tragedy of the IRA bomb in Hyde Park.
One display focuses on some of the losses experienced by the Cavalry. Death medallions, campaign medals, a posthumously awarded Victoria Cross, telegrams, a dictionary and cigarette case with a bullet hole from 1915. There is a shattered helmet which belonged to Trooper Simon Tipper who was killed when the IRA detonated a nail bomb in Hyde Park during the Changing of the Guard ceremony in 1982, which killed four soldiers and seven horses. One horse which survived the explosion, Sefton, needed major surgery to extract 34 pieces of shrapnel and had a severed jugular and a wounded eye, became something of a celebrity, winning Horse of the Year. His bridle is on display in the museum.
The final display is of the modern Household Cavalry soldier as part of their role in the War on Terror, and the modern equipment and uniforms. There is a small display about the care packages soldiers receive from home when they are serving abroad, from the small tin of chocolate sent by Queen Victoria to soldiers in the Boer, to the modern day shoe-boxes stuffed with essentials.
Horse Guards Parade
Horse Guards Parade Ground is regularly used for ceremonial occasions.
Outside the museum is Horse Guards Parade, the large parade ground where Changing of the Guard, Trooping the Colour and Beating Retreat take place. It was once a tilt-yard, a Tudor courtyard used for jousting and other tournaments, and has been used for royal events since the time of Henry VIII. There are now a number of monuments in the parade ground, such as the Royal Naval Division Memorial, the Viscount Wolseley Statue, Earl Roberts Statue, Lord Kitchener Statue, the Lord Mountbatten Statue and a Turkish canon from 1524. It is worth taking a walk around the parade ground to look at them all.
Military History Itinerary of London
For those who are interested in military history, you will know there is a lot to see in London. We have created an itinerary that takes in the sites and memorials within central London, all of which can be visited on a single day. Given its historical significance as much as the quality of the museum, the Household Cavalry Museum is included on this itinerary, along with 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 >>
The entrance to the museum on Horse Guards Parade, behind the Viscount Wolseley statue.
Visiting The Household Cavalry Museum
Getting to the Museum
The entrance to the museum is on Horse Guards Parade, behind the equestrian statue of Viscount Wolseley.
Nearest Underground Stations: Charing Cross, Westminster and Embankment
The museum is open daily, except for London Marathon Day, Easter Friday and from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day.
April to October: 10h00 – 18h00
November to March: 10h00 – 17h00
Opening hours can vary during the ceremonial season (May and June), for the specific opening hours on these days get up-to-date times on the official website.
Children (5 – 16): £7.00
Groups tours are available for groups of eight people or more, but there is the option of a private tour for smaller groups – details and prices are on the website.
Buying Tickets for the Household Cavalry Museum
Although you can buy tickets when you arrive at the museum, it is a popular attraction and so it is advisable to book tickets in advance. You can book online on the official website, but take note of refund/cancellations policies set out in the Terms and Conditions. Not only is it cheaper to book a ticket on the Viator website, you can reserve a ticket and pay closer to the time, and are able to cancel up to 24 hours in advance – More Details and Book Online with Viator >>
A visit to the Museum is included in the London Pass.
Good To Know Before You Go
Besides the two mounted cavalry troopers of The Queen’s Life Guard that are stationed on either side of the entrance arch on Whitehall from 10h00 to 16h00 each day, you may also want to see the following:
Life Guard change on Horse Guards at 10h50 each day except Sunday, 09h50 Sundays
Mounted sentry changes on the hour 10h00 – 16h00
The Guard Inspection daily at 16h00