In this part . . .
Here are some interesting snippets of information about the monarchy that didn’t fit into the other parts of this book. You can find information about some of the most interesting people who have been close to the monarch at various points in history - the royal consorts (the wives of the kings and husbands of the ruling queens) and some of the men who have held the title Prince of Wales. In addition, this part contains details of many of the most interesting places - both royal homes and other sites - where visitors can experience royal history at first hand.
In This Chapter
● Exploring the royal family’s official residences
● Revealing the private royal homes
● Discovering architectural structures created by members of the royal family
The British monarch has several houses, and they’re all large historical piles. One, Windsor Castle, has been in the family for around 1,000 years. Several houses are official residences, buildings that go with the job and play a part in the work of the sovereign - holding receptions and banquets, for example, and housing the offices of key members of royal staff.
Others are private houses, personally owned by the monarch and used by the royal family as homes. Many official residences are often open to the public, so you can visit Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, or the Palace of Holyroodhouse and see for yourself the settings of state banquets and royal rituals. The royal homes, like Sandringham and Balmoral, contain exhibition rooms that are regularly opened to the public.
This chapter also includes Highgrove in Gloucestershire, the country house of the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, where the Prince has created a garden that is now famous throughout the world.
The most famous royal house is the sovereign’s official London residence, Buckingham Palace. It became a royal home in 1761, when George III bought it for his wife, Queen Charlotte. At the time of the purchase, it was known as Buckingham House because it had been the London home of the Dukes of Buckingham.
George IV had the builders in and upgraded the palace in the 1820s, employing his favourite architect, John Nash, to double the size of the main block. Many of the state rooms date from this time. Another upgrade occurred during Victoria’s reign, when more private rooms, such as nurseries, were added to accommodate the queen’s large family. Victoria also added the Ballroom, the palace’s biggest room - at nearly 37 metres long, it was the largest room in London when it was built. The palace’s famous front, where red-uniformed soldiers stand on guard, dates from a still later remodelling from the time of George V.
Many visitors are attracted to the palace by the ceremony of changing the guard. It’s a kind of ritual hand-over when one bunch of guards departs, and the next contingent take over. The new guard arrives, complete with military band. After a certain amount of marching and music, the old guard departs, and the new one takes its place. The men who perform this ritual are real soldiers and come from some of the most prestigious regiments in the British Army.
As well as being the sovereign’s London home, Buckingham Palace is a working building, housing all kinds of offices for royal staff. It’s also the setting for countless royal occasions - receptions, dinners, investitures, and the famous royal garden parties that take place in the grounds. More than 50,000 people a year visit the palace to attend all these events.
For years, Buckingham Palace was a private building - only the monarch’s invited guests got to look inside. But Queen Elizabeth II now opens the palace to the public at times during the summer months when the royal family isn’t in residence. Now tourists can see the grand state rooms and marvel at the gilded furniture and the stunning paintings by the likes of Rembrandt,
Rubens, and Poussin. Visitors can also look at part of the palace garden, a vast green oasis in the middle of London.
One of the other big attractions at Buckingham Palace is the Queen’s Gallery, which displays many important items from the royal collections. The gallery was originally built in 1962 on the site of the palace chapel, which was destroyed when London was bombed during World War II. The gallery has hosted many exhibitions highlighting areas where the royal collection is especially strong - paintings by Canaletto, drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, and glorious jewelled items made by Faberge.
Buckingham Palace is also home to the Royal Mews, a large stable block that houses extraordinary state vehicles like the Gold State Coach (used for coronations) and the other coaches that are used during important royal events. The limousines used by the queen on state occasions are also kept here. Some garage!
The oldest royal residence is Windsor Castle. It was originally built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century and has been expanded, modified, and made over many times. It is now a fortress-palace and the largest occupied castle in the world.
Several monarchs contributed to making Windsor Castle the truly spectacular place it is today:
● Henry II rebuilt the large Round Tower and many of the castle walls in the 1170s.
● Edward III built the vast St George’s Hall for the use of the Knights of the Garter.
● Edward IV and Henry VIII built the magnificent St George’s Chapel in the 15th and 16th centuries.
● George IV, in the 1820s, rebuilt many of the state rooms and added the large Waterloo Chamber, designed to hold portraits of the characters involved in the defeat of the French emperor Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
● Elizabeth II had to restore nine main rooms and around 100 smaller rooms after the castle caught fire in 1992.
All that investment and involvement has made Windsor a very special place, and it’s a favourite of the royal family. Queen Victoria spent much of her time there, and Queen Elizabeth II spends a month over Easter and most weekends throughout the year at the castle.
As well as being a much-loved family home, the castle is also the venue for all kinds of state occasions. St George’s Hall (55.5 metres long) is a good room for big banquets - it houses a table that can seat 160! Many foreign rulers, heads of state, and dignitaries have enjoyed visits to Windsor.
St George’s Chapel is one of the main attractions in the castle. This large late-medieval building is stunning, its soaring windows and stone vault making it the equal of many cathedrals. Services are held there regularly, but it has also been the scene of major royal occasions, notably weddings (like that of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones) and funerals (such as that of the current queen’s late sister, Princess Margaret). The chapel, dedicated to the chivalrous Saint George, is the setting for the annual celebration of the Order of the Garter. Every year, the queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, and their fellow Knights of the Garter process through Windsor Castle wearing the badge of the order, the Garter Star. Their destination is St George’s Chapel, where the annual service takes place.
Visitors to Windsor Castle can also see the Drawings Gallery, which stages exhibitions from the unrivalled royal collection of prints and drawings, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, a perfect miniature designed by the major architect Edwin Lutyens, and, of course, the lavish state apartments.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse
The official royal residence in Scotland is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, in Edinburgh. The palace is at one end of Edinburgh’s famous royal mile, the long street that connects Edinburgh Castle at one end with Holyroodhouse and the new Scottish Parliament building at the other. The Palace of Holyroodhouse is big, imposing, and very Scottish - with its round towers and conical roofs, it looks like an even grander version of many Scots baronial halls and tower houses. Holyroodhouse looks the part, and it has the history, too. Scottish kings and queens lived there before Scotland and England were united under one ruler in the 17th century.
The weird name, Holyroodhouse, comes from the palace’s early history. The story goes that it was first founded as a monastery by David I in 1128. David had a vision of the cross, also known as the Holy Rood, and took it as a signal to found the monastery - hence the strange name.
In the 16th century, James IV began the palace next to the monastery, and a few decades later, the palace became the home of Mary, Queen of Scots. One of the most dramatic events of her reign, the murder of her secretary, Rizzio, took place in the queen’s apartments at Holyroodhouse.
Charles II made a lot of improvements to the palace in the late 17th century, but for a couple of hundred years, the royal family didn’t use Holyroodhouse very much, although George IV visited it and ordered that Queen Mary’s rooms should be preserved. But Queen Victoria, who loved Scotland, stayed there quite a lot on her way to and from her beloved Scottish country house, Balmoral.
The present queen stays at Holyroodhouse quite regularly, whenever she’s busy with royal engagements in Scotland and especially at the end of June or in early July, when she usually spends a week in Edinburgh. This week sees a large garden party with some 8,000 guests and sometimes visits from world leaders.
Visitors to Holyroodhouse can see the state apartments, with their memories of Mary, Queen of Scots, their fine series of portraits of the kings of Scotland, and some of the best tapestries in the world. The Queen’s Gallery houses items from the royal collections.
Prince Albert Edward (the future King Edward VII) bought this country house in Norfolk in 1862. He rebuilt the house completely so that it was big enough to house the large gatherings he regularly hosted as heir to the throne, and he also made many changes on the surrounding estate, building new roads and cottages and relandscaping the garden, for example.
Sandringham became a much-loved family home and was the base for the shooting parties that were a favourite royal pastime. During the time of Edward VII and George V, Sandringham clocks were moved on an extra half an hour during the winter so that the royals and their guests could have more daylight hours shooting. When people on the estate asked the time at midday, for example, the reply would be 12.30 ST - in other words 12.30 Sandringham Time. Edward VIII abolished Sandringham Time, but the house remained a favourite country retreat for the royal family. It’s the house where the royals spend Christmas.
Because it was bought privately, Sandringham is still held by the monarch as a private house - it doesn’t belong to the nation. It’s attached to a large country estate, which is run by a land agent on behalf of the sovereign. More than half the land is let to tenant farmers; the rest is farmed or used for forestry on behalf of the monarch.
As well as the farmland, the estate includes the Sandringham Country Park, 600 acres of woods and heathland, which is permanently open to the public. The Country Park’s facilities include nature trails, caravan sites, a shop, and a restaurant. At some times of the year, Sandringham House and its gardens are open to the public. The house also has a museum that houses royal memorabilia and an impressive collection of vintage royal vehicles, from a 1900 Daimler car to a bright red fire engine of 1939 once used on the estate.
The Balmoral estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, was bought for Queen Victoria by her beloved consort, Prince Albert, in the mid-19th century. The existing 15th-century castle was too small for Albert, Victoria, and their family, so Albert quickly set about building a new castle. Albert himself contributed to the design of the new building, which is very grand, and very Scottish, with an impressive tower at one end. Like Sandringham, Balmoral is a private house of the monarch and is not owned by the state.
The estate at Balmoral is enormous - there are around 50,000 acres in total and the scenery, from mountain to moorland, is spectacular. Part of the estate is farmed, but there’s not that much good farmland as the royal land contains seven mountains that rise to more than 3,000 feet above sea level. But a large area of the estate is forested, including a 2,500-acre forest that Queen Victoria bought when she heard a timber merchant was going to chop it down. There are also thousands of acres of land given over to game resources, especially deer and grouse. Conservation is a high priority for the royal family, and measures are in place to protect the area’s important wildlife and to plant native species of trees.
The grounds, gardens, and exhibitions of Balmoral Castle are open to the public for several months each year.
St James's Palace
Although it’s not very well known, St James’s Palace, tucked away in central London, is actually the sovereign’s main official residence. It was mainly built in the 1530s and was a royal home for some 300 years. The monarch doesn’t actually live there any more, but it’s still the official residence of the queen. Foreign diplomats are always referred to as Ambassadors to the Court of St James.
Henry VIII built St James’s Palace, and quite a bit of his red-brick building survives. Later rulers added to the palace, producing the complex of buildings and courtyards that survives today. Visitors can only see these from the street, though, because St James’s Palace isn’t open to the public.
The palace is now used for lots of different functions. It’s the London residence of the Princess Royal and Princess Alexandra. It contains numerous offices of royal staff, housing the Royal Collection Department, the Yeomen of the Guard, and the Queen’s Watermen, amongst others.
St James’s Palace is the place where the accession council meet whenever a reigning monarch dies. After the meeting, the reign of the new monarch is announced from the Proclamation Gallery, which overlooks one of the palace courtyards.
Clarence House is in the middle of London near the street called Pall Mall. It’s right next to St James’s Palace. The house was built in the 1820s and was first of all the home of Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence, which is how it got its name. The Duke of Clarence eventually came to the throne as William IV, and he continued to live there when he was king.
But Clarence House is well known today because, for nearly 50 years, from 1953 until 2002, it was the home of one of the most popular members of the royal family, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. After the Queen Mother died in 2002, the house became the official residence of the Prince of Wales, his sons, Princes William and Harry, and Prince Charles’s second wife, the Duchess of Cornwall.
The house accommodates offices for the staff of the Prince of Wales and is the nerve centre from which the Prince’s charitable work is coordinated. As the residence of the Prince of Wales, Clarence House is the last royal home in London to be used for the purpose for which it was originally designed. Part of the building is opened to the public during the summer months. The public rooms, where the Prince of Wales holds receptions and other events, are still largely furnished as they were in the time of the Queen Mother and contain pieces from her large collection, including numerous works by 20th-century British artists.
The royal family first had a palace on this site in west London when in 1689 William IV bought a building called Nottingham House and employed the architect Christopher Wren to extend it. The result was Kensington Palace, and this elegant house was the favourite home of every ruler from William III until George II.
Kensington Palace is best known today because Diana, Princess of Wales made it her official home and had her office there. The palace now contains the London residences of a number of royal family members, notably the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. The state apartments, together with a number of rooms housing royal exhibitions, are open to the public.
The country home of the Prince of Wales is at Highgrove, near the small Cotswold town of Tetbury in Gloucestershire. Highgrove was built from 1796-98 and altered about 100 years later. The house was bought by the prince’s estate, the Duchy of Cornwall, in 1980. It attracted the prince because it is in southwest England, near to many of the Duchy’s other properties.
Since then, the prince has altered the house, adding decorative touches to the exterior and making other changes, such as building a function suite in the grounds where he can hold meetings and other events.
But perhaps the biggest changes the prince has made at Highgrove have been in the gardens. When he took over the house, the garden was rather run down and windswept, but Prince Charles redeveloped it, adding new sections year by year and doing a lot of the planting himself. From the rose garden to the kitchen garden, it is now widely admired.
Frogmore is a little-known house near Windsor Castle on land that came into royal ownership in the time of Henry VIII. Frogmore House itself was used by George III’s queen, Charlotte, as a retreat away from London. It was also a favourite residence of George V and Queen Mary. Today, the elegant white house is occasionally used by the royal family for receptions and is open to the public on a few days each year.
Nearby is one of the great monuments of Victorian Britain, the Royal Mausoleum. It was built in the time of Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert. When she died, her body, too, was placed there beside her beloved husband’s.