In 1529 Henry VIII appropriated York Palace, the London residence of the Archbishops of York, from Cardinal Wolsey. Henry extended an already enormous building, and renamed it Whitehall Palace. Horse Guards Parade stands on the site of Whitehall Palace tiltyard built in 1533. Here Henry would indulge his appetite for jousting, a sport in which he would eventually injure himself, leading to the immobility which contributed to his famous size. Henry's daughter Elizabeth I also loved jousting, sensibly as an observer not a participant. She began a tradition of two jousting festivals, one on her birthday, 7th of September, and one on the anniversary of her succession, January 15th. These jousting events are early manifestations of the Trooping the Colour ceremony which is still carried out every year to celebrate the monarch's birthday.
This famous parade ground suggests long historical continuity. It also recalls great turbulence in the long walk of monarchs into the present day. In January 1649, at the end of the English Civil War, Charles I was taken from St James's Palace, through Horse Guards Parade to the Banqueting House, where he was executed by Parliament. If you look carefully at the clock overlooking Horse Guards you will see a black mark on the clock face. This commemorates the time of Charles I's execution, 2pm. When Charles I's son Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 he was understandably concerned for his personal security. He created the Household Cavalry, Grenadier Guards and Coldstream Guards as a standing army ready to protect the monarch. His father had tried to do something similar, but the Civil War overtook his preparations. To house the men and horses of the Guards, barracks and stables were built around Horse Guards, and these formed the basis for buildings seen today. The Household Cavalry sentries, so popular with modern tourists, were originally placed on duty in their sentry boxes by Charles II. In those days detachments of Household Cavalry would also be placed out in St James's Park, to keep an eye on the royal family when they were out in what was already a public park. The Horse Guards buildings survived the fire that destroyed Whitehall Palace in 1698, but by 1745 they were in a poor state of repair. William Kent designed a new series of Horse Guards buildings, based on the former layout. The arch leading into Horse Guards with the dome on the top remains therefore a good representation of how Horse Guards would have looked in the reign of Charles II.
St James's Park from Horse Guards Parade
Today, as during the seventeenth century, Horse Guards provides the headquarters for the Household Cavalry. The monarch's birthday continues to be celebrated here with a horse riding display called Trooping the Colour. This event combines former jousting traditions started by Elizabeth I, with manoeuvers of cavalry put in place by Charles II.
Horse Guards Parade was the scene of an IRA mortar attack on 10 Downing Street in February 1991. At that point Horse Guards was used as a car park when not in ceremonial use, and it was from this car park that the attack was mounted, over the garden wall of Number 10 which backs onto Horse Guards. Since then Horse Guards has been returned to its beautiful wide open space.
Directions: Horse Guards Parade is just off Whitehall in Westminster, London. The nearest Underground stations are Westminster and Charing Cross. Click here for an interactive map centred on Horse Guards Parade.
Contact: For information on attending Trooping the Colour see http://www.army.mod.uk/ceremonialandheritage/household/trooping.htm