The Household Cavalry Museum: where history, humans and horses come together in a very British manner

Household Cavalry Museum

Until today, I’ve never really given much thought to the Household Cavalry and the role it plays, other than being vaguely aware that it guards the Queen on ceremonial occasions. I’m not sure I was even aware that the Cavalry has its own Museum, until I walked past it on the way to Banqueting House.

I do love a museum (as must be fairly obvious by now), so was determined to check this one out as soon as possible. Here’s what I learned upon my visit…

The first section of the Museum is dedicated to the style and tradition of the various uniforms worn by the Household Cavalry. I’ll be honest; this part of the exhibition left me cold – uniforms aren’t a subject that particularly interests me. That said, if you’re taking children with you they will have a great time here, as there’s a “dressing up” area where they can try most of the uniforms on and take photos: it’s a very child-friendly place.

As regards the actual building which houses the Museum, though, I fell in love with it immediately; it is redolent with history. Based in Horseguards, this must be one of London’s most iconic buildings – complete with its original 18th century cobble stones. Designed to house soldiers and their horses, it is still the headquarters of the Household division of the British Army, in which the Household Cavalry plays a central role.

This was news to me, but Horseguards provided the original gateway into St James’s Park, to which the Crown controlled access – first by a password and later, from 1775, by issuing ivory passes that allowed carriages to pass through the gateway. These passes became a sign of particular royal favour and, understandably, were highly sought-after. Today, members of the royal family and senior government official still use them and you can see some modern examples here.

I was interested to learn that the origins of the Household Cavalry date back to 1660, the year in which Charles II returned from overseas exile to an unstable and unpredictable England. Based upon how he had seen the French King protected, Charles created a new bodyguard comprised partly from 500 “private gentlemen”, who all paid for the privilege of protecting him, and partly from former Cromwellian troops.

This select body of men went on to provide public order during the Great Fire of London and during riots including Weaver, Corn and Gordon. It safeguarded national elections and maintained the rule of law that later would be carried by the Metropolitan Police, which was not founded until 1829. This role brought it into all kinds of operations: anti smuggling operations against illegal trade in tea, hunting down highwaymen, destroying illegal crops of tobacco and escorting money carriages delivering pay to the Royal Navy.

Charles II - Household Cavalry

Today, the Household Cavalry provides protection for the Queen on a daily basis, with The Queen’s Life Guard, and on other ceremonial and State occasions, playing a key role in both the security and the pageantry surrounding these events.

This, also, came as a surprise to me: Household Cavalrymen have died in almost every British military campaign, from the Dutch Wars of 1660 to the recent Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. They suffered particularly heavy casualties – both men and horses – in World War 1. Demonstrating how the role of the Cavalrymen has evolved, the Museum offers some interesting examples of their new technology, ranging from night vision goggles and body armour plates to mine extraction kit.

The bloodiest battle in which the Household Cavalry ever fought, however, was Waterloo. The Life Guards, the Blues and the Royals were all heavy cavalry and fought on horses with swords. On display at the Museum are swords, saddles, uniforms and medals used in this horrendous conflict.

I enjoyed learning about the life of a Household Cavalry trooper, which as you might expect is highly regimented. Apparently, your typical trooper takes at least 10 hours to prepare for daily inspection, beginning with cleaning his breast plates, helmets and buckle holes. He will go on to white-sap his breeches and soak his jack-boots in hot beeswax before polishing them, using wire wool to rub out any imperfections. His horse’s hooves will be brushed with oil and its white legs chalked up.

This daily inspection is taken by the Adjutant, with the trooper graded best awarded guard duty in the sentry boxes and the worst carrying out guard duty dismounted. I was amused to learn that the inspection’s nickname is ‘Punishment Parade’ and that it dates back to 1894 when Queen Victoria, having found the entire Guard gambling and drinking, ordered a daily inspection at 4pm for the next 100 years. Over a century later, the tradition continues, much to the delight of the many tourists who flock to Whitehall every day.

The troopers, it is evident, pride themselves on the close bonds that they form with their horses. Horseguards is a working stable and is used daily by The Queen’s Life Guard. Ordinarily, you would be able to see horses being brought in and out, groomed, fed and watered, their hooves being oiled and their shoes checked, their saddles tested & readjusted. You would also see the stables being mucked out and the bedding replaced. Sadly, since the Westminster terror attack the stables have been closed to the public – understandably so, but I do think the Museum should note this fact on its website, instead of promoting the stables as one of its main attractions.

A slightly disappointing way in which to end my visit, but overall this was a positive experience. I wouldn’t say that this is my favourite of the museums in London that I’ve visited, but it has some fascinating aspects and I came away knowing that I’d learned quite a lot – always a pleasing feeling.

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