Mark Mason

Assassination attempts, executions and volleyball: a history of Horse Guards

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Will they never learn? The signs are very clear: ‘Beware! Horses may kick or bite.’ Yet last week a woman became the latest tourist to get a shock at Horse Guards, when the animal she was fussing suddenly turned its head and bit her arm. She was unhurt, but you can see why the animals occasionally lose their rag. They’re there to protect the monarch, after all. Sending a gentle message once in a while can’t do any harm.

This small patch on Whitehall is where the King’s Life Guard do their thing because it’s still classed as the official entrance to Buckingham Palace. The building also used to house the office of the commander-in-chief of the British Army. Prince Frederick (the ‘Grand Old Duke of York’) and Wellington both worked there; the latter’s coffin rested in the room the night before his funeral. These days the ground floor is home to the excellent Household Cavalry Museum, where you’ll find the wooden leg used by the Earl of Uxbridge after his real one was hit by a cannon ball at Waterloo. ‘By God sir, I’ve lost my leg!’ he cried. ‘By God sir, so you have!’ replied Wellington.

Look closely at the clock on top of the building and you’ll see the stone underneath the two (marked as ‘ten’ – the face spells out minutes rather than hours) has a black dot on it. This is said to commemorate the time of Charles I’s execution on 30 January 1649, outside the Banqueting Hall over the road. The dot isn’t a regular shape, which might imply an accidental blemish – but the authorities certainly haven’t done anything to clean it up, so they obviously like the story as much as anyone.

The parade ground gets its annual day in the spotlight as the venue for Trooping the Colour, which originated with different regiments being shown their flags (‘colours’) on the battlefield, so they could stay together during the fighting. The ceremony used to take place on the monarch’s actual birthday, but Edward VII’s was 9 November and he didn’t fancy the weather, so he created an ‘official’ birthday in the summer. In 1981 Marcus Sarjeant fired blank shots at Queen Elizabeth II. The previous week he’d stolen a copy of The Day of the Jackal (Frederick Forsyth’s novel about a plot to shoot Charles de Gaulle) from one of his fellow college students. This just happened to be Shaun Williamson, who later went on to play Barry in EastEnders.

A decade later, Horse Guards was the scene of another assassination attempt, when three mortars sailed across the parade ground towards 10 Downing Street. The IRA were more professional than Sarjeant, but they were unlucky. A mark had been left on Horse Guards Avenue, near the junction with Whitehall, telling the driver of the van from which the mortars were fired exactly where to park. But snowfall had covered it up, so the driver had to guess. The mortars fell short. John Major survived.

During the 2012 Olympic Games, Horse Guards Parade was the venue for one of the most eagerly anticipated events. There was some speculation that the foreign secretary might take a look, but sadly it wasn’t to be. ‘For those asking,’ tweeted William Hague, ‘I can’t see the beach volleyball from my office.’ He did, however, confirm that he’d tried.

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Mark Mason

Mark Mason talks about trivia via books, articles, guided walks and the pub.

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