Buckingham Palace is one of the most famous sights in London, as the home of the Queen and the Royal Family. What else has happened here over the years though?
So as you can imagine, the Royal Family have always lived somewhere pretty fancy – they’re not going to live in some tiny flat like the rest of us! But they certainly haven’t always lived in Buckingham Palace. The official royal residence has switched location a few times – though always somewhere in London, as the capital, and where the government is also located. For a time, they used the Palace of Westminster – today still in use as the Houses of Parliament. But after a while, the Royals decided they didn’t want to live and work in the same place – though, of course, they had, and still do have, other homes in London and throughout Britain too!
In 1530, King Henry VIII bought and remodelled Whitehall Palace which became his new main residence. For a time, it was the largest palace in all of Europe, until it was overtaken by Versailles, in France. That only lasted until 1698 though, when a fire destroyed most of it. However, by then the Royals had been favouring Kensington Palace for a few years already. But, it was St James’s Palace that officially became the main royal residence now, and would remain so until 1837, when Buckingham Palace replaced it.
Before it was a Palace
Now, the Royal Family didn’t entirely build Buckingham Palace themselves. Its history actually starts more than a century before the monarchy moved in. Historians believe there was a stately home of sort on the site since the early 17th century. But the core of the present building dates to 1703, when the 1st Duke of Buckingham acquired the site. He demolished what was there before and built a three storey private townhouse, with two flanking service wings, and named it Buckingham House – it was certainly not a palace yet!
This would be his home until his death, after which he was succeeded by his son. If you’re wondering if there’s still a Duke of Buckingham somewhere today, sharing his name with the palace, then it’s worth pointing out that the 2nd Duke had no children and the title died with him. The 1st Duke’s illegitimate son, Sir Charles Sheffield, then inherited the house. In 1761, King George III bought it from him for the sum of £21,000 – it’s definitely worth a good deal more than that nowadays!
The Georgian Era
King George III bought Buckingham House to be used as a private retreat for his wife, Queen Charlotte, and the house was soon nicknamed ‘The Queen’s House’. Remodelling was done at this time, under the architect Sir William Chambers, and Queen Charlotte gave birth to almost all her children there. It wasn’t until around 1791 that people began referring to it as ‘Buckingham Palace’. But, it was still St James’s Palace that served as the main royal residence in London, where state and ceremonial affairs took place.
In 1820, King George IV succeeded his father to the throne, and decided to transform the house into a palace. The architect John Nash took on the project, keeping the core of the house in an effort to save money. He demolishing the flanking wings, to rebuild them on a larger scale. He also built the Marble Arch, which was later moved to Hyde Park corner. Yet despite his cost-cutting efforts, he massively blew the budget – £150,000 soon turned into half a million! – and was fired in 1829. George IV died the following year, and never saw the project completed.
His brother, King William IV, continued the work with a new architect, Edward Blore. The palace ended up with three wings, around a central courtyard, in the Neoclassical style that George IV favoured. William IV never lived there either though, preferring to remain in Clarence House instead. He offered Buckingham as the new Houses of Parliament, after Westminster was destroyed in a fire in 1834, but the offer was refused.
Queen Victoria in Residence
After William’s death, Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. She decided to formally move from St James’s Palace, to Buckingham Palace, which has been the official royal residence ever since. It’s location, next to St James’s Park, means it is central enough to London, but still offered space and privacy away from the Houses of Parliament. However, the palace still needed a lot of work – the chimneys smoked terribly, and there was little ventilation throughout! Much remodelling took place in the early years of reign, especially from 1840 when she married Prince Albert. He reorganised the household, and fixed many of the design faults.
But as their family grew – Victoria had nine children! – the palace had to grow with them. In 1845, they called on Edward Blore again, who added an attic floor, and designed a whole new wing, completed in 1847. This is the East Front, the most famous side of the palace, facing The Mall, and which the public sees the most of today. His design included the now-famous balcony, at the suggestion of Prince Albert. The palace is now massive – it has a total of 775 rooms, including 19 state rooms, 240 bedrooms, 92 offices, and 78 bathrooms!
Buckingham Palace was transformed, and now served as the heart of both the Queen’s family life, and her courtly life. Lavish balls, banquets, musical performances and state events were held inside over the years. Until, in 1861, Prince Albert died and Victoria became a widow. She withdrew from public life, departing London to spend most of her remaining years in Windsor Castle or Osborne House.
The Buckingham Palace Balcony
Prince Albert’s suggestion of a balcony on the new East Front of the palace would prove to be an excellent idea, as the balcony has now become probably the famous feature of the palace. The Royals first used it in 1851, with the opening of the Great Exhibition, Albert’s passion project. He and Victoria stepped out on to the balcony, to wave to the crowds waiting below. Since then, the Royals have made dozens more appearances on the balcony for ceremonial occasions.
The Royals step out annually for the Trooping of the Colour, a military pageant in front of the palace in honour of the monarch’s birthday. Yes, if you’re the Queen, you get a birthday parade every year! King George VI added an RAF fly-past over the palace to close the Trooping of the Colour, which also continues to this day. Other occasions that call for an appearance include jubilees, coronations, and weddings. Normally the Queen takes centre stage, but for weddings it’s the royal couple in the spotlight instead.
20th Century to the Present
After Victoria’s death in 1901, her son, Edward VII brought the palace to life once more. It has continued to be the home of every monarch since. A few more remodels have taken place since then as well. In 1913, Blore’s facade was suffering from air pollution, so Sir Aston Webb designed a replacement, made from Portland Stone instead. At the same time, he also designed the Victoria Memorial, to be installed in front of the palace gates. And The Mall, the long road linking the palace to Trafalgar Square, to be used for ceremonial processions.
London took more than a few bombings during both World Wars. During these times, the Royal Family continued to live in Buckingham Palace, choosing not to evacuate from London. In WWI, luckily the building escaped undamaged. The palace wasn’t so fortunate in WWII though, taking nine direct hits. Some of these occurred while the Royals were in residence, though no one was harmed. The most significant, in 1940, completely destroyed the chapel. After the war ended in 1945 (with another balcony appearance, including Prime Minister Churchill), repair works took place.
Today the palace is the main residence of Queen Elizabeth II, and her husband, Prince Philip, as well as two of her sons (Princes Andrew and Edward). Most of the other Royals live in various other residences, including Kensington Palace and Clarence House. She also spends time at her other homes throughout the year, including Holyrood Palace, Windsor Castle, Sandringham House, and Balmoral Castle. At Buckingham Palace, she hosts receptions and audiences for people from all walks of life, and from all around the world, including three large garden parties in the summer.
When the Palace is Closed
Buckingham Palace is a working palace, meaning the Queen is resident for most of the year, so it is usually closed to the public. However, most visitors to London will still want to see from the outside at least! The East Front is the most famous view, at the end of The Mall. Visitors can stand at the gates and look through at the palace, with the guards stationed inside the fence. If the Queen is in residence, the palace will fly the Royal Standard, representing the ancient Kingdoms that originally made up the UK. The three gold lions for England, the red lion rampant for Scotland, and the gold harp for Ireland. If the Union Jack is flying instead, then she must be staying elsewhere for a time.
If you time your visit right, you can also watch the Changing of the Guard around the palace and The Mall. This happens daily in summer, but less frequently at other times of year. You can check the official website here for all the details to make sure you don’t miss out! It starts at 11am sharp and the ceremony lasts 45 minutes. The Queen’s Guard are infantry, and the Queen’s Life Guard are mounted cavalry. And all of them are fully trained soldiers – they’re not just there for tourist photos! More guards are present when the Queen is in residence than not, and they use many regiments to provide the troops.
When the Palace is Open
If you’re lucky enough to be in London when the palace is open for visitors, usually for around 10 weeks in the summer – while the Queen heads north to Balmoral – you can take a glimpse at Royal life! The State Rooms are the area open to the public – so not the whole palace, but it still takes about 2 hours just to see these! There are 19 rooms in total, mostly designed by John Nash during George IV’s reign. You’ll enter by taking the Grand Staircase, as impressive as the name suggests, with red carpets and gold railings!
While every room is lavishly decorated, there are a few notable highlights. The Ballroom is the largest of all of them, a space for balls and banquets, completed during Victoria’s reign. It has glittering chandeliers, a musician’s gallery, and two thrones set under an arched canopy, topped with statues. There are more thrones in the – you guessed – Throne Room, which contains the chairs used for Elizabeth II’s coronation. This room is often used for court ceremonies and entertaining visitors. The White Drawing Room is possibly the most elaborate of all the rooms, richly decorated in white and gold, and used as a reception room.
You’ll also be able to visit the Palace Gardens at the end of the route. This space covers 16 hectares, though visitors can only access part of this. There is the Garden Café to relax in, or take a stroll past the 19th century lake. Look out for the Waterloo Vase, a 15 foot tall urn made from a single piece of marble! This is where the Queen hosts her summer garden parties, and was the location of ‘Party at the Palace’, a concert open to the public to celebrate her Golden Jubilee in 2002.
Adults £25, Seniors & students £22.80, Children & disabled £14, Under 5s free
You can also choose to buy a ‘Royal Day Out’ ticket, including entry to the Royal Mews and Queen’s Gallery
As it is a working palace, Buckingham Palace is only open to the public for select weeks in summer. Other dates may be available throughout the year for exclusive tours – check website for details. There may also be last minute closures even during these dates.
20th July – 31st Aug 2019: 9.30am-19.30pm, last entry 17.15pm
1-29th Sep 2019: 9.30am-18.30pm, last entry 16.15pm
Note that the palace operates a timed ticketing system, so you must arrive at the correct time on your ticket. It is highly recommended to prebook as well! You will go through security as you enter, and there is no photography, eating, or drinking allowed in the State Rooms. Multimedia guides are available in several languages, including those for the blind and deaf. There is a cafe and toilets in the garden, after the State Room visit.
The best way to get to Buckingham Palace is on the tube (underground railway). Get off either at Victoria, Hyde Park Corner, or Green Park, or slightly further away at Westminster to then walk through St James Park. You can also take several bus routes to the area as well, or a taxi. If you’re driving, there is paid parking in the Westminster area, with a 10-15 minute walk to the palace. If you’re also visiting Trafalgar Square, walk The Mall, the large boulevard connecting it to Buckingham Palace.
Have you visited Buckingham Palace before? Leave a comment about your experiences!