Cavalry Charge

29th March 2008

The Household Cavalry Museum is the new kid on the block among London’s museums, having opened just last summer. Tucked away in a reconditioned part of the guardsmens’ stables (still occupied), it proves to be a more than just a routine quick-march through the regiment’s history.

Jack Watkins went to take a look.

There must have been a serious danger that the Household Cavalry Museum could have ended up as a rather empty exercise in tourist grandstanding. Situated in the heart of Whitehall, just up from Downing Street, and behind the spot where the immaculate, bearskinned-hatted guardsmen sit astride their horses outside Horseguards Parade, it is one of the first places foreign visitors to London head for. Too much pomp and circumstance, too many glinting swords and clinking spurs may have proved satisfying for them, but would have been off-putting to most native Britons. In fact, it’s a definite triumph, a worthy addition to anyone’s London itinerary. What emerges is a very human story, and it is clear that much thought and imagination has gone into its telling.

There’s no denying the historic value of its location. You pass through the arch from Whitehall, beyond the guards and the ever-constant crowds, into Horse Guards Parade, which occupies the former tiltyard of the lost, lamented Whitehall palace where, in a nostalgic echo of the days of medieval chivalry which, even then, were but a distant memory, Henry VIII held a tournament in 1540, attended by knights from across Europe.

The immense Palladian building that rises up behind you, with its mass of arches and pediments, is The Horse Guards itself: the HQ of the Queen’s Household Division, designed by the multi-talented William Kent – gardener, designer, painter and architect – and executed after his death in 1748 by John Vardy. Each year it forms the grand stone backdrop to the pageantry of the Trooping of the Colour, and it is here, in the stable quarters, that the new museum is found.

Tragically, Whitehall Palace burnt to a cinder in 1698, but not before Charles I had been beheaded on a scaffold from one of the windows of its Banqueting House (which, of course, still survives) in 1649, or before the restoration of Charles II in 1660.

Receiving, therefore, day after day, a gloomy reminder of his father’s horrible fate as he passed along Whitehall, Charles was understandably queasy about the continuing strength of anti-monarchical sentiment. Learning from Louis XIV about the value of a personal bodyguard, he ordered the creation of the Household Cavalry in 1661. Today, it is formed of two regiments – the Life Guards, and the Blues and Royals – and the ceremonies they still perform thus date back over three hundred years.

You pass over the original cobbles of the Household Cavalry stables inside the museum, which is lent added appeal by a glass partition allowing you to see the still-in-use area of the stables. You can watch the horses at rest in their stalls, or being fed, watered or groomed by the guards. With its high-vaulted ceiling, this was the largest purpose-built stable of its type when erected in the 1750s, and as you stand in the handsomely appointed stalls, with their stone mangers and heavy iron-coped walls, you may feel the hand of history tapping you on the shoulder, as you contemplate the brave soldiers and their steeds who must have occupied these stables en route to military campaigns overseas.

The museum has succeeded in the tricky job of recounting history whilst making a visit appealing to children. They can try on helmets, gauntlets and cuirasses (breastplates), and there are touch-screens that enable them to play regimental dressing games, choosing suitable military attire for different occasions, and horsey quizzes. In these you also learn about the occasionally unlikely backgrounds of some of the horses called in to service. Cicero, for instance, was leading a humble existence pulling a milk float around the streets of Glasgow, until the Queen saw him one day and summoned him for royal duty.

A large majority of new recruits to the Cavalry have never even sat on a horse when they join up. They are required to become proficient horsemen within 24 weeks. ‘Practice makes perfect’ is clearly a watchword, and the emphasis on spit and polish is plain: ten hours is the average time required for preparation for the day inspection, and failure to meet the demanding standards is punishable by a spell of dismounted duty.

These early sections of the museum are about the ‘here and now’, reminding us that the Household Cavalry is still very much an operational part of the British Army, with soldiers recently distinguishing themselves in Bosnia. Currently there are units in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the fighting capacity is matched by the strategic role played in international peacekeeping and humanitarian work, which seldom accrues much newsprint.

The second half traces the history of the regiment, its campaigns and some of the deeds of its most colourful characters. Some of the costumes on display are magnificent – impossibly theatrical for use on the battlefield, you might think, and yet, frequently, they were indeed worn there. It is interesting to compare the stark functionality of the plain old helmets and breastplates, worn in the 17th century, with the extravagantly plumed and silver gilted versions, bearing intricate motifs from classical mythology, of the Peninsula War. George III was especially keen on the uniform of the Blues, adopting it as court dress at Windsor, where it still remains the ‘uniform’ of the Royal Family when in residence.

Fascinating, too, are the tales of some of the most illustrious soldiers. Here is a portrait of John Manners, the Marquess of Granby, for example, so concerned for the welfare of his men after they demobilised that he helped many of them set up as publicans. It is for this reason that so many pubs still bear his name today. Corporal John Shaw of the 2nd Life Guards was already famous as a boxer before achieving further distinction at the Battle of Waterloo, killing ten French cavalrymen. When his sword eventually broke, he carried on striking out at them with the remaining hilt. He was celebrated in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, and in the work of that incurable romantic Sir Walter Scott, who had a plaster cast made of Shaw’s skull.

Scott saw the exploits of the cavalry at Waterloo as a kind of last flowering of the age of chivalry, and visited the battlefield. There is no question that some of these soldiers feel as if they have sprung from the pages of some adventure novel by GA Henty or John Buchan – most typically Lt Col Frederick Burnaby, immortalized in a painting by Tissot as some kind of mess room stuffed shirt, reclining in his chair in full military regalia and boring everyone with tales of his exploits. In fact, he was a terrific sportsman, traveller and linguist. His Ride to Khiva, a bestseller in its day, described his unofficial mission to the caravan city of Khiva to gather intelligence about a possible Russian invasion of India. Typically, he was killed in hand-to-hand fighting in Sudan in 1885.

Burnaby’s exploits revived the prestige of the increasingly antiquated Household Cavalry, which had flagged since Waterloo. But by the First World War, there was little place for horses on the modern battlefield, and a new role was forged, using armoured cars and tanks. The glamour days of the charge may have gone, but the Household Cavalry has adapted itself to new challenges, combining its ceremonial role with active service in current global crisis zones, as seamlessly it seems as the institution of the Monarchy that it has guarded for so long.

Open daily: 10am-6pm
Telephone 020 7930 3070 or visit for more details.

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