Throughout the centuries, Britain’s kings and queens have built or bought palaces to serve as family homes, workplaces and as centres of government. Some of these are still being used today as official Royal residences and many can be visited by the general public. The residences still standing today can be roughly divided into three categories:
Official Royal residences
Are held in trust by the Queen for future generations. As well as being family homes for members of the Royal Family, these are also working buildings which are used for housing the offices of staff from the Royal Household, entertaining official guests and hosting formal events and ceremonies. The best-known of these residences are Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, as well as St. James’s and Kensington Palaces.
Are owned by The Queen and are often used to generate private income through farming or public access to Royal residences, they also house some well-known private residences such as Balmoral Castle and Sandringham House.
Unoccupied Royal residences
Are all other buildings in Great Britain which once housed members of the Royal Family and are therefore of historical interest. These buildings are owned by numerous bodies and individuals and many are open to the general public.
Buckingham Palace – has served as the official London residence of Britain’s sovereigns since 1837 and today is the administrative headquarters of the Monarch. Although in use for the many official events and receptions held by The Queen, the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace are open to visitors every year. Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms. These include 19 State rooms, 52 Royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms. In measurements, the building is 108 metres long across the front, 120 metres deep (including the central quadrangle) and 24 metres high.The Palace is very much a working building and the centrepiece of Britain’s Constitutional Monarchy. It houses the offices of those who support the day-to-day activities and duties of The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh and their immediate family. The Palace is also the venue for great Royal ceremonies, State Visits and Investitures, all of which are organised by the Royal Household. Buckingham Palace is furnished and decorated with priceless works of art that form part of the Royal Collection, one of the major art collections in the world today. It is not an art gallery and nor is it a museum. Its State Rooms form the nucleus of the working Palace and are used regularly by The Queen and members of the Royal Family for official and State entertaining. More than 50,000 people visit the Palace each year as guests to banquets, lunches, dinners, receptions and the Royal Garden Parties. For those who do receive an invitation to Buckingham Palace, the first step across the threshold is into the Grand Hall and up the curving marble stairs of the Grand Staircase. Portraits are still set in the walls, as they were by Queen Victoria. The Throne Room, sometimes used during Queen Victoria’s reign for Court gatherings and as a second dancing room, is dominated by a proscenium arch supported by a pair of winged figures of ‘victory’ holding garlands above the ‘chairs of state’.
It is in the Throne Room that The Queen, on very special occasions like Jubilees, receives loyal addresses. Another use of the Throne Room has been for formal wedding photographs. George IV’s original palace lacked a large room in which to entertain. Queen Victoria rectified that shortcoming by adding in 1853-5 what was, at the time of its construction, the largest room in London. At 36.6m long, 18m wide and 13.5m high, the Ballroom is the largest multi-purpose room in Buckingham Palace. It was opened in 1856 with a ball to celebrate the end of the Crimean War. It is along the East Gallery that The Queen and her State guests process to the Ballroom for the State Banquet normally held on the first day of the visit. Around 150 guests are invited and include members of the Royal Family, the government and other political leaders, High Commissioners and Ambassadors and prominent people who have trade or other associations with the visiting country. Today, it is used by The Queen for State banquets and other formal occasions such as the annual Diplomatic Reception attended by 1,500 guests. This is a very formal occasion during which The Queen will meet every head of mission accredited to the Court of St James’s. For the diplomats it is perhaps the highlight of the annual diplomatic social calendar.
The Ballroom has been used variously as a concert hall for memorial concerts and performances of the arts and it is the regular venue for Investitures of which there are usually 21 a year – nine in spring, two in the summer and ten in the autumn. At Investitures, The Queen (or The Prince of Wales as Her Majesty’s representative) will meet recipients of British honours and give them their awards, including knighting those who have been awarded knighthoods. From the Ballroom, the West Gallery, with its four Gobelin tapestries, leads into the first of the great rooms that overlook lawn and the formal gardens – setting for the annual Garden Parties introduced by Queen Victoria in 1868.
The State Dining Room is one of the principal State Rooms on the West side of the Palace. Many distinguished people have dined in this room including the 24 holders of the Order of Merit as well as presidents and prime ministers. Before the Ballroom was added to the Palace in the 1850s, the first State Ball was held in the Blue Drawing Room in May 1838 as part of the celebrations leading up to Queen Victoria’s Coronation. The Music Room was originally known as the Bow Drawing Room and is the centre of the suite of rooms on the Garden Front between the Blue and the White Drawing Rooms. Four Royal babies – The Prince of Wales, The Princess Royal, The Duke of York and Prince William – were all christened by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Music Room. One of its more formal uses is during a State Visit when guests are presented to The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh and the visiting Head of State or for receptions. The last of the suite of rooms overlooking the gardens on the principal floor is the White Drawing Room. Originally called the North Drawing Room, it is perhaps the grandest of all the State Rooms. The Room also serves as a Royal reception room for The Queen and members of the Royal Family to gather before State and official occasions. The Bow Room is familiar to the many thousands of guests to Royal Garden Parties who pass through it on their way to the garden. It was originally intended as a part of George IV’s private apartments – to be the King’s Library – but it was never fitted up as such. Instead, it has become another room for entertaining and is where The Queen holds the arrival lunch for a visiting Head of State at the start of a State visit.
Windsor Castle – is an official residence of The Queen and the largest occupied castle in the world. A Royal home and fortress for over 900 years, the Castle remains a working palace today. The Queen uses the Castle both as a private home, where she usually spends the weekend, and as a Royal residence at which she undertakes certain formal duties. Every year The Queen takes up official residence in Windsor Castle for a month over Easter (March-April), known as Easter Court. During that time The Queen hosts occasional ‘dine and sleep’ events for guests, including politicians and public figures.
The Queen is also in residence for a week in June, when she attends the service of the Order of the Garter and the Royal Ascot race meeting. The Order of the Garter ceremony brings together members of the senior order of chivalry for a service in St George’s Chapel. Beforehand, The Queen gives a lunch for the Knights of the Garter in the Castle’s Waterloo Chamber. Any new Knights of the Garter are invested by The Queen in the Garter Throne Room. On the walls are portraits of monarchs in their Garter Robes, from George I to the present Queen, whose State portrait by Sir James Gunn was painted in 1954. Windsor Castle is often used by The Queen to host State Visits from overseas monarchs and presidents. Foreign Heads of State enter the Castle in horse-drawn carriages through the George IV Gateway into the quadrangle in the Upper Ward, where a military guard of honour is drawn up.
The traditional State Banquet is held in St George’s Hall (55.5m long and 9m wide), with a table seating up to 160 guests. Recent State visits held at Windsor Castle include those of President and Mrs. Mbeki of South Africa (2001), and King Abdullah II and Queen Rania of Jordan (2001), as well as a special visit by President and Madame Chirac of France to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale (2004). St George’s Chapel remains an active centre for worship, with daily services open to all. The Chapel is a Royal Peculiar, that is, a chapel which is not subject to a bishop or archbishop but which owes its allegiance directly to the Sovereign. The Chapel, together with the remainder of the College of St George (a school for 400 children and St George’s House, a consultation centre), is governed by the Dean and Canons of Windsor, who, with their officers and staff, are independent of the Royal Household.
Many Royal weddings have been celebrated in St George’s Chapel, most recently that of Prince Edward and Miss Sophie Rhys-Jones in June 1999. In 2005 a service of dedication and prayer was held in the Chapel following the marriage of The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall. Funerals such as those of Princess Margaret and Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, have also taken place there. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother lies buried in the Chapel with her husband, King George VI, and Princess Margaret, her younger daughter. Various departments of the Royal Household are based at Windsor Castle. The ancient Round Tower houses the Royal Archives and the Royal Photograph Collection. The Print Room and Royal Library house precious drawings, prints, manuscripts and books in the Royal Collection. These are shown in a programme of changing exhibitions in the Castle’s Drawings Gallery.
Those who live and work within the Castle include the titular head of the Castle community, the Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle; the Dean of Windsor, Canons and other staff who run the College of St George; the Military Knights of Windsor; the Superintendent of Windsor Castle and his staff, who are responsible for day-to-day administration; the Housekeeper and her staff; and soldiers who mount a permanent military guard in the Castle. Windsor Castle is also a busy visitor attraction. Many parts of the Castle are open to the public, including the precincts, the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s famous dolls’ house, St George’s Chapel, and the Albert Memorial Chapel. When The Queen is in official residence, Changing the Guard provides a colourful spectacle in the quadrangle.
The Queen’s Garden is the largest private garden in London – an ecosystem all its own!
Palace of Holyrood House
Palace of Holyroodhouse – Founded as a monastery in 1128, the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh is The Queen’s official residence in Scotland. Situated at the end of the Royal Mile, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is closely associated with Scotland’s turbulent past, including Mary, Queen of Scots, who lived here between 1561 and 1567. Successive Kings and Queens have made the Palace of Holyroodhouse the premier Royal residence in Scotland. Today, the Palace is the setting for State ceremonies and official entertaining. During The Queen’s Holyrood week, which usually runs from the end of June to the beginning of July, Her Majesty carries out a wide range of official engagements in Scotland. The Investiture held in the Great Gallery is for Scottish residents whose achievements have been recognised in the twice-yearly Honours List which appears at New Year and on The Queen’s Official Birthday in June. King George V and Queen Mary held the first garden party in the grounds of Holyroodhouse and the tradition has been maintained to the present day. Each year, The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh entertain around 8,000 guests from all walks of Scottish life during Holyrood week.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse is The Queen’s official residence in Scotland. It stands at the end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile against the spectacular backdrop of Arthur’s Seat and is closely associated with Scotland’s rich history. The State Apartments reflect the changing tastes of successive monarchs, and are renowned for their fine plasterwork ceilings and unrivalled collection of Brussels tapestries. They are furnished with numerous fine paintings and other works of art, many of which have long associations with Holyroodhouse. Today the State Apartments are used by The Queen and other members of the Royal Family for official ceremonies and entertaining, most notably during Holyrood Week. The Throne Room is where the luncheon is held for the Knights and Ladies of the Order of the Thistle, on the occasion of the installation of a new Knight. In the Morning Drawing Room The Queen gives private audiences, for example with the First Minister of Scotland, the Lord High Commissioner or other visiting dignitaries. Scottish residents who are awarded an honour in either the New Year’s Honours List or The Queen’s Birthday Honours List receive their award at an Investiture ceremony in the Great Gallery.
One of the most famous rooms in the Palace, the Great Gallery is hung with Jacob de Wet’s portraits of the real and legendary kings of Scotland. It is the largest room in the Palace, connecting the King’s Suite on the east side with the historic apartments in James V’s Tower to the west. Included on the tour of the Palace is a display about the Order of the Thistle, the highest honour in Scotland. The Order honours Scottish men and women who have held public office or who have contributed in a particular way to national life. Shown alongside historic insignia is an example of the mantle worn at the Thistle Ceremony at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, which The Queen attends during her summer visit to the Palace.
St. Jame’s Palace
St. James’s Palace – is the senior Palace of the Sovereign, with a long history as a Royal residence. As the home of several members of the Royal Family and their household offices, it is often in use for official functions and is not open to the public. St. James’s Palace is one of London’s oldest palaces. It iS situated in Pall Mall, just north of St James’s Park. Although no sovereign Has resided there for almost two centuries, it has remained the official residence of the Sovereign and the most senior royal palace in the UK. For this reason it gives its name to the Royal Court (the “Court of St James’s”). St James’s Palace is still a working palace, and the Royal Court is still formally based there – foreign ambassadors are still accredited to the Court of St James’s, even though they are received by the monarch at Buckingham Palace. It is also the London residence of the Princess Royal and Princess Alexandra, The Honourable Lady Ogilvy.
The Palace forms part of a sprawling complex of buildings housing Court offices and officials’ apartments. The complex includes York House, the former home of the Prince of Wales and his sons, Princes William and Harry, Lancaster House, which is used by HM Government for official receptions, as well as the nearby Clarence House, the home of the late Queen Mother and now the residence of the Prince of Wales. The Queen’s Chapel, built by Inigo Jones, adjoins St James’s Palace. While the Chapel is open to the public at selected times, the palace is not accessible to the public. St James’s Palace is one of the four buildings in London where guards from the Household Division can be seen (the other three are Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Horse Guards). Since the beginning of the 2000s, the Royal Philatelic Collection has been housed at St James’s Palace, after spending the entire 20th century at Buckingham Palace. From October 2008 onwards, and officially from 6 January 2009, the staff of Princes William and Harry moved into their own rooms in St James’s Palace and began reporting directly to the royal princes for the first time. Until recently the brothers’ duties were looked after by Prince Charles’s office at Clarence House.
Clarence House – which stands beside St James’s Palace, was built between 1825 and 1827 to the designs of John Nash for Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence. He lived there as King William IV from 1830 until 1837. During its history, the house has been altered, reflecting the changes in occupancy over nearly two centuries. It was the London home of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother from 1953 until 2002 and was also the home of The Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, and The Duke of Edinburgh following their marriage in 1947. Today Clarence House is the official London residence of The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall. It is open to the public during the summer months each year.
Balmoral Castle – on the Balmoral Estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland is the private residence of The Queen. Beloved by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Balmoral Castle has remained a favourite residence for The Queen and her family during the summer holiday period in August and September. The Castle is located on the large Balmoral Estate, a working estate which aims to protect the environment while contributing to the local economy. The Estate grounds, gardens and the Castle Ballroom are open to visitors from the beginning of April to the end of July each year, under the management of the Balmoral Estate Office.
Sandringham House – in Norfolk has been the private home of four generations of Sovereigns since 1862. The Queen and other members of the Royal Family regularly spend Christmas at Sandringham and make it their official base until February each year. Like Balmoral, the Sandringham Estate is a commercial estate managed privately on The Queen’s behalf.
Kensington Palace in London is a working Royal residence. Of great historical importance, Kensington Palace was the favourite residence of successive sovereigns until 1760. It was also the birthplace and childhood home of Queen Victoria. Today Kensington Palace accommodates the offices and private apartments of a number of members of the Royal Family. Although managed by Historic Royal Palaces, the Palace is furnished with items from the Royal Collection.