Inside Britain’s Palaces

The dramatic exteriors of Britain’s royal residences shape the country’s historic landscape, while their decadent interiors have been moulded by the kings and queens who lived in them

 Hampton Court Palace gatehouse
Hampton Court Palace gatehouse © Historic Royal Palaces/Newsteam

Royal homes have always inevitably been gloriously ostentatious. In 1592, for example, the soon-to-be Duke of Wurttemberg found Hampton Court Palace to be “the most splendid and most magnificent royal edifice… in England”. This was precisely Cardinal Wolsey’s intention when he built it in 1521; he gifted it to Henry VIII shortly after. But Britain’s palaces, to which might be added stately buildings and castles, were also essentially built with one purpose: as homes. “A palace,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “is more than a house, but it must be a house, at least.”

It is our good fortune that many royal residences have stood the test of time well. Monarchs have left their individual mark on properties – either in structural changes or in furnishing the interiors. At Hampton Court, for example, the influence of Henry VIII survives in the Great Hall. Hung with tapestries and crowned with a breathtaking hammer-beam roof, it is Britain’s finest building of its kind. The Chapel Royal, meanwhile, had been there almost since the palace was built; but it was Henry who added the sumptuously gilded ceiling.

The King's bedchamber at Windsor Castle
The King’s bedchamber at Windsor Castle The Royal Collection © 2002, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

More than a century later, William and Mary decided they wanted something altogether more modern at Hampton Court. They therefore commissioned Christopher Wren to produce the goods. The exterior work he completed within a matter of years; the interiors took longer, the highlight being the King’s Staircase, for which the artist Antonio Verrio produced the murals.

Luxury was probably the last thing on William the Conqueror’s mind when he built Windsor Castle. A wooden building on the site of a Saxon fort, it was to be many years before its conversion from defensive structure to palace was completed. It is the oldest royal residence to be in continuous use, having been home to 39 of Britain’s monarchs.

Many have added their own touches. St George’s Chapel was begun under the direction of Edward IV in 1475. It is the church of Britain’s highest rank of chivalry, the Most Noble Order of the Garter, and the final resting place of several kings. But of all the sovereigns to have influenced the castle’s development, it was probably George IV (and to a lesser degree, his father George III), who did most.

Previously, royalty had favoured Hampton Court, but George III set about making Windsor Castle a residence fit, once more, for a king. He afforded James Wyatt the post of surveyor general, George IV later appointing Wyatt’s nephew, Jeffry, to continue the work. The Waterloo Chamber, a banqueting hall built to mark the defeat of Napoleon, is one of Jeffry’s finest achievements. Among its treasures are fine 17th-century panelled wall carvings.

Windsor Castle's Long Walk
Windsor Castle’s Long Walk © ISTOCK/ David Joyner

To Windsor Castle, too, must go the accolade of being the only treasure house to contain… a treasure house. Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House was given to George V’s wife in 1924. Built to a scale of one inch to one foot, it was designed by Edwin Lutyens, and the garden by Gertrude Jekyll. Famous artists and authors were commissioned to produce paintings for the walls and books for the library.

Most royal residences have accumulated such vast quantities of treasure that it has become impossible to show it all at once. Special exhibitions are periodically mounted – no more so than in this Diamond Jubilee year*. Kensington Palace, another masterpiece by Christopher Wren, is open to the public – a tradition that was started by Queen Victoria in 1889. Here, she was born, bred and educated. A new exhibition, Victoria Revealed, will examine her life and reign, while Jubilee: A View from the Crowd, will commemorate Victoria’s own Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Kensington still serves as a home for members of the extended Royal Family; previous residents include George II, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana – who lived here until her death in 1997.

Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace © Nick Wilkinson

Clarence House, two miles to the east, is well known for having been the home of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. It was built for the soon-to-be-crowned William IV in 1828: he was the only member of the Royal Family who lived there as monarch. Again, it has been used as a residence for members of the extended Royal Family, the newly-married Princess Elizabeth and The Duke of Edinburgh among them.

Despite its relative youthfulness, it has undergone several changes, not least when the Prince of Wales (whose official residence it now is), moved in. Five rooms are usually open for public viewing, and invariably contain pieces from the Royal Collection. Clarence House, however, will not be open during 2012 as the surrounding area hosts Olympic events.

Historic Royal Palaces conservators
Historic Royal Palaces conservatorswork on various artifacts for the Palace’s exhibition © Historic Royal Palaces

The adjacent St James’s Palace is one of central London’s older royal homes. Built for Henry VIII in 1532, it is in theory the sovereign’s principal home – although none has lived here since William IV and that role is now performed by Buckingham Palace. St James’s is not open for viewing.

Among Scotland’s royal residences, Balmoral Castle is the official Scottish home of the Royal Family. Associated with Victoria and Albert – who acquired the estate and built a new castle during the 1850s – it is still used regularly. As such, little is available for viewing, but the largest room, the Ballroom, is – along with the formal gardens and vegetable garden.

The Ballroom is particularly noted for its fine wooden panelling. Costumes, furniture, silverware and paintings by Edwin Landseer – a favourite artist of Queen Victoria – are usually displayed. To mark the Jubilee, a collection of The Queen’s gowns – with a diamond theme – will be on show.

Balmoral Castle
Balmoral Castle – the Royal Family’s summer residence © imagebroker / Alamy

There is rather more to see at Edinburgh’s Palace of Holyroodhouse. Famously the home of Mary Queen of Scots, and infamously the scene of the murder of her secretary, Rizzio, it is now The Queen’s official residence in Scotland. The current palace dates from around 1670, the staterooms still seeing frequent use by the Royal Family.

They are usually open to the public, and are particularly noted for their delicate plasterwork. The Great Gallery is one of the most impressive, running along almost the entire north side of the palace. It contains the portraits of 110 Scottish monarchs, ordered by Charles II from the artist Jacob de Wet. And if 110 monarchs seems rather a lot, it is generally considered de Wet let his imagination run riot.

Returning to England, Sandringham, birthplace of George VI, is another relatively new royal home. The estate was bought for the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), in 1862. Considering the house inadequate for his needs, he had it demolished – most of the new building being finished by 1870. Still regularly used by The Royal Family, it was first opened to the public to commemorate The Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. The gardens had been opened as early as 1908 by Edward VII. The principal ground floor rooms are usually open, much of the décor reflecting the house’s Edwardian heyday. They are lavishly appointed with furniture, objets d’art, paintings and accoutrements gifted by visiting royalty.

The Changing of the Guard ceremony
The Changing of the Guard ceremony taking place in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace © photolibrary.com

But rightly or wrongly, Buckingham Palace is the most famous of royal residences. In such terms it is a relative newcomer, Queen Victoria being the first monarch to live there permanently. While Christopher Robin and Alice got no further than witnessing the Changing of the Guard, present day visitors fare rather better. The palace’s 19 staterooms, a miniscule proportion of the 775 rooms with which it is furnished, open each summer. The tour, across the ground and first floors, takes in such icons as the Grand Staircase; the Green Drawing Room; the Picture Gallery that, although home to various masterpieces, serves more as a reception room; and the Ballroom. At 34m x 18m (112ft x 59ft), and with a 14m (46ft) high ceiling, it is one of the larger rooms in the palace.

*This article was originally printed in the May/June 2012 issue of BRITAIN Magazine. Some information may therefore be outdated.

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