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The Horse Guards Building
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The Horse Guards Building

From 1664 to the present time.

After his Restoration, Charles II formed England's first standing army by creating The Household Cavalry and the Foot Guards. In 1664 the first Horse Guards building was constructed to house the King's Life Guard, a permanent guard to protect King Charles at the Palace of Whitehall. The building housed both The Household Cavalry and Foot Guards, with stabling for over 100 horses. Household Cavalrymen did not live in, but were billeted in inns across London.

In 1698 the Palace of Whitehall burnt down and the Court moved to St James's Palace. Horse Guards became its official entrance and remains the ceremonial entrance of Buckingham Palace to this day.

By 1749, the old building, near collapse, was demolished. William Kent designed the replacement - a classical building which mirrored the old one in shape but was larger. Kent died before work began, and his assistant, John Vardy, completed the project for the then enormous sum of L65,000. In 1755, The Household Cavalry moved into the new building whose stables are still used today by the Queen's Life Guard.

The Horse Guards Building

Horse Guards as it is today.

As well as a barracks, Horse Guards was the headquarters of the general staff of the British army. Perhaps its most illustrious occupant was the Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo, who was commander-in-chief in the mid nineteenth century. His office, formerly the court-martial room, is now used by the Major General commanding the Household Division.

Nowadays, Horse Guards is a military headquarters commanding army units in London. Its tradition of a permanent guard is maintained by the presence of the Queen's Life Guard.

The Horse Guards Building

The 'New' Horse Guards Building designed by William Kent and opened in 1755, as painted by Canaletto. [Bridgeman Art Library]

The building has several less visible but interesting features. The clock, the most accurate in West London until the installation of Big Ben in 1859, has black marks on both of its faces to commemorate the hour (2 pm) of King Charles I's execution outside the Banqueting House in 1649.

The Horse Guards Building

The former office and desk of the Duke of Wellington.

Above the arch on the Whitehall side can be seen the Royal Arms of George II, while halfway through the arch on the stonework overhead are the letters STMW/STMF. These mark the boundary between the parishes of St Margaret's, Westminster, and St Martin-in-the-Fields. In the building's basement is a cockpit where the eighteenth-century members of the Life Guard once indulged in the gruesome sport of cock fighting.

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