Pass through the archway from Whitehall onto the Horse Guards parade ground, turn right and you’ll find yourself outside the Household Cavalry Museum.
Occupying a small section of the 1750 Horse Guards building (which is still the headquarters of the Household Division, who perform ceremonial duties for the monarch), the Household Cavalry Museum looks at the histories of the Life Guards and Blues & Royals regiments, from their formation in the mid-1600s by King Charles II all the way through to the present day.
The museum contains display cases and information boards focusing on various aspects of these ancient mounted regiments, with their colourful uniforms, polished cuirasses (breastplates) and plumed helmets understandably making up the majority of the collection. On a visit to the museum you will also discover a lot of interesting facts about the British Army’s most prestigious units, for example:
- The elaborate uniforms worn by the cavalrymen have never been seen on the battlefield – they were introduced purely for ceremonial purposes during the early reign of Queen Victoria, based on designs from the 18th century. The regiments have worn khaki and camouflage on active service since the 1880s, just like the other army regiments.
- John Manners, the Marquess of Granby, was the General who led the cavalry regiments during the ‘Seven Years War’ of 1756 to 1763 and is responsible for a peculiar tradition that still persists today. During the Battle of Warburg he lost both his hat and his wig and so was forced to salute his superiors bare-headed – since then non-commissioned officers and troopers of the Blues and Royals have been allowed to give a salute without wearing headdress. Granby was also keen to see ex-soldiers gainfully employed when they left the army, so encouraged many to set up as publicans. Now you know why there are five pubs in London called the Marquis of Granby…
- Until the establishment of Sir Robert Peel’s police force in 1829, the cavalry regiments were largely responsible for public order in and around Whitehall, as well as regularly scouting the roads into London for highwaymen and safeguarding shipments of money travelling to and from the Treasury
- The First World War took a terrible toll on the household regiments as their mounted charges were met by the machine guns of the Germans. One cabinet records this tremendous loss of life, in particular the Battle of Ypres in October of 1914 where many men and horses died (this battle features heavily in the stage play and recent film, ‘War Horse’).
This being an Olympic year, the Household Cavalry Museum also looks at the sporting achievements of it’s members with a special display. Several medals were won by serving soldiers from the Life Guards and Blues & Royals in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008 for rowing, and Captain Dominic Mahoney, who won Bronze in Seoul in 1988 now leads the British Olympic Modern Pentathlon Team. Of course there’s an equestrian medal winner too – Major A Lawrence Rook, a Gold medal winner in 1956, went on to become a leading light on the international equestrian scene through to the mid 1970s.
There are lots of military museums to visit around London but the Household Cavalry Museum has a couple of secret weapons. As well as being able to see the young men in their finery outside every day, you also get a glimpse behind the scenes. Separated from the museum by a single glass wall is one of the working stables of the Household Division – if they are not out exercising or taking part in ceremonial duties you can take your time to study these magnificent beasts who are just a few feet away from visitors…
Entry to the Household Cavalry Museum costs £6 per person (£4 concessions) and is open every day except for certain public holidays. You can find out more about the museum on their website.