The eyes of the world were on St James’s Palace on 10 September 2022 when David White, Garter King of Arms, read the Accession Proclamation formally announcing the succession of King Charles III following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. If royal palace expert Simon Thurley had been watching or listening, he might well have been frustrated to hear the BBC commentators say repeatedly that ‘very little is known about the history of the palace’. In fact, Simon and his two co-authors, Rufus Bird and Michael Turner, had completed a new history of the palace based on primary sources and a study of the surviving building fabric, some three years previously.
Following on from the monograph on Windsor Castle (see CA 341), this was intended to be the second of a series of comprehensive new histories of the occupied royal palaces to be published by the Royal Collection Trust (RCT). The Trust, however, is entirely dependent on the income from visitors to the palaces, and when the pandemic struck, the book had to be put on ice. Now Yale University Press has stepped in to publish the work in association with the RCT. We can at last make sense of what Simon Thurley calls ‘a mysterious and confusing place’ and which HRH The Prince of Wales (now King Charles III) describes in the foreword to the new history as ‘the least well-known of all the official royal residences’.
Leprosy to luxury
The palace has its origins in the Hospital of St James, which was possibly established in the late 12th or early 13th century to house up to 16 women with leprosy, one of whom served as the prioress. They, and the Augustinian priests who ministered to the community, dedicated their lives to saying prayers for the souls of the hospital’s wealthy benefactors. Such communities had to remain isolated from the rest of the population, and the site for the new hospital was chosen with that in mind. It was built on the lower of two gravel terraces (Piccadilly now runs along the upper terrace, with Pall Mall on the lower one) in an undeveloped and rural part of the lower Thames Valley. A branch of the River Tyburn flowed through the site, providing a source of water needed for the relief of skin conditions.
This might seem like a humble origin for what became a palace, but this was a royal foundation within the jurisdiction of Westminster Abbey, which means that useful records have survived in the abbey’s archives. These show that the master, brothers, and sisters of St James’s were censured several times for their laxity, immorality, and the neglect of their assets. In the 1320s, for instance, their lands were described as uncultivated, their rents dilapidated, and the roof of their church caved in. John de Sydenham was appointed as a reforming master in 1331, and the work he carried out, detailed in the abbey accounts, provides our earliest record of the hospital’s appearance.
In 1332-1333, the walls and gatehouse surrounding the hospital were renewed and a new hall was begun for the brothers: built of stone, with chalk foundations, roofed with tiles, painted within, and containing a pulpit from which Psalms could be read at mealtimes. Next to the hall was a chamber furnished with a heavy lock and lead-lined shutters. A covered walkway led from the hall to a new kitchen, also of stone, with a tiled roof and containing a fireplace and oven. Water was supplied to this, and to a washing place in the hall, by brass pipes, and next to the kitchen were two ‘solars’, or private rooms.
In 1333-1334, the brothers acquired a new bakehouse and the sisters a new stone hall, entered by a porch and with three windows. The adjoining kitchen was furnished with a new oven, fireplace, and lead vat. New gutters were made for the infirmary building, which stood beside the sisters’ hall. These buildings – together with a mill, dovecote, barns, a walled vineyard, and other structures – give the impression of a comfortable residence. In addition, the brothers’ dormitory was divided into individual rooms with beds, while the great hall was fitted with a lavabo, fireplace, and chimney.
The Crown claimed the hospital as a royal foundation and asserted its right to appoint the master over the rival claims of the abbey, and from 1340 the mastership became a royal sinecure. Masters appointed by successive monarchs treated the hospital as a comfortable residence conveniently close to the royal court at Westminster, one of many perks enjoyed as a result of a close personal relationship with the sovereign. Religious observance continued, though the female inhabitants by now were no longer needy sufferers of leprosy, but wealthy widows.
A 15th-century document describes the hospital as having a main house, with tower, hall, chamber, and parlour, surrounded by a garden and orchard. It is probable that this, the most prestigious part of the complex, formed an inner court on the southern part, with an outer court to the north and a gatehouse on what is now Pall Mall. The sisters’ house lay to the west, while the church and churchyard, with an inner and an outer cemetery, lay to the east. The long buttressed north wall of the church was found by workmen in 1925, along with late 13th-century encaustic tiles and five burials. The outer court also contained what were described as the ‘houses of husbandry’ – a barn and a granary – joined by a ‘longhouse’, plus a dovecote, and, somewhere nearby, a mill. There was a kitchen garden, too, and a herb garden.
The hubris of two Henrys
In 1529, this elegant, fashionable, and peaceful enclave on the periphery of Westminster caught the eye of Henry VIII, as he began to contemplate his first, and ultimately largest, building project. Between 1530 and 1545, with the help at first of Thomas Cromwell (c.1485-1540), formerly Cardinal Wolsey’s land agent, Henry acquired by one means or another an estate of some 1,200 acres (485.6 hectares) of mainly rural farmland. This encompassed much of modern London’s West End and included two residences: the principal mansion house at York Place – soon to be known as Whitehall – and a subsidiary residence at St James’s.
Henry’s pursuit of his new project was single-minded, particularly as, by the end of 1532, he knew that Anne Boleyn (d. 1536) was pregnant. Henry was convinced that she was bearing a son, and St James’s was chosen as a residence for this future Prince of Wales – remote and secure from the hazards of the densely populated city, but close to king and queen.
Though the hospital buildings were in good order, Henry decided to rebuild them completely. What remains from this period are the Great Gatehouse in the northern façade – probably completed in 1533 and with the initials ‘H&A’ (for Henry and Anne) carved into the spandrels of one of its doorways – and the chapel, with its ceiling painted with heraldic devices marking the six-month marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves (1515-1557) and therefore pre-dating their annulment in July 1540. An original fireplace survives in what today is called the Tapestry Room. One of its carved quatrefoils contains an ‘HA’ and a true lover’s knot, showing it was carved before the fall of Anne Boleyn in 1536.
In cataloguing his list of achievements in Henry’s service around 1536, Thomas Cromwell recorded that he had masterminded the building at St James’s of ‘a magnificent and goodly house’, and he was the person who used the house most after its completion. State papers contain many letters and documents that he signed there while using it as a base for undertaking royal business.
At his death in 1547, Henry VIII had left a house that was started in a burst of optimism, but one that never fulfilled his intention to provide a home for his male offspring. Since none of his immediate successors had children, St James’s was not used for its intended purpose until the early 17th century, when it became the home of James I’s sons, Prince Henry and Charles, Duke of York, as well as the young aristocrats chosen to be their companions. Surveys of the time show that there was a tennis court and next to it a ‘pell mell’ alley: a narrow strip half a mile (0.8 km) long made of crushed cockle shells rolled into the loam along which balls were struck with a croquet-like mallet, aiming to go through hoops positioned at intervals along the alley. There was also a large stable block and a riding house for the practice of dressage, the first purpose-built structure of its type in England.
As Prince Henry grew older, a library was provided for him, stocked with 2,000 books, in a room above the privy kitchen at the heart of his lodgings. This warm, dry room was fitted out by Maximilian Colt, the sculptor of Elizabeth I’s monument in Westminster Abbey, who was appointed the king’s master-carver in 1608. Christopher Wren made a sketch of the room in 1701 with its 620 shelves and central book stack, carved with human and beast heads on tapering pedestals and with the prince’s coat of arms.
At the same time, the three long galleries were panelled to form a continuous U-shaped corridor that was to be the setting for a spectacular party on Twelfth Night 1611, when the 18-year-old Henry came of age. The gallery also provided the setting for the prince’s picture collection. He began buying paintings that same month, and ambassadorial visitors from Venice, Tuscany, and the Netherlands were encouraged to make diplomatic gifts of works of art, like the two large paintings by Hendrick Vroom (1566-1640), depicting a battle off Gibraltar (now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) given by the States General of the Dutch Republic. Along with paintings that he purchased, Henry rapidly created what was, at the time, the largest picture gallery in England, measuring more than 325ft (99m) long and hung with perhaps as many as 50 paintings.
From Charles I to Cromwell
Henry died just before his 19th birthday, probably of typhoid, and the next major addition to St James’s Palace was the construction of a new chapel to accommodate the religious practices of Prince Charles’s intended Spanish spouse, the Infanta Maria Anna (1606-1646). Inigo Jones was given the task of designing the first Catholic place of worship to be built in England for nearly a century – one that would satisfy the Spanish bride and her advisers, yet still be acceptable in Protestant London. Based on his extensive first-hand knowledge of churches in Italy, Jones’s Renaissance-style chapel was the first building in England to use what became known as a Serlian or Venetian window. Separated now from the main palace complex by Marlborough Road (built over the site of buildings destroyed in a fire in 1809), the Queen’s Chapel has a very fine interior, with many carvings added by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) when Sir Christopher Wren restored the chapel after a fire in 1682.
After the accession of Charles I and his marriage to Henrietta Maria, sister of the king of France, the royal couple based themselves at Whitehall, but St James’s was chosen as the birthplace of all five of their children, between 1630 and 1637. This entailed some modernisation of the Queen’s bedchambers, but the internal improvements were minor compared to the ambitious laying-out of a new garden in 1630-1633. Henrietta Maria sent to France for one of the most fashionable gardeners of his day, André Mollet (d. 1665), who laid out one part of the new garden with an elaborate scrolling parterre in box, interplanted with flowers designed to provide year-round colour, and the remainder as an orchard, with fruit trees planted in a chequer pattern – both of them novel designs for the time.
An open-sided Tuscan-style colonnade, with columns of oak, was built against the south wall to serve as a gallery for the collection of sculptures that Charles I purchased from the impoverished dukes of Mantua. These, and the large number of paintings he bought from the same family, transformed the royal art collection in quantity and quality. In 1634, the writer Henry Peacham (1578-1644), author of The Compleat Gentleman (1622), described ‘a whole army of old foreign emperors, captains, and senators’, most of whom were nude, so a painter was paid for ‘covering the naked places of divers figures’.
When an inventory of the contents of St James’s was compiled by parliamentary surveyors in 1649-1650, the list included 550 paintings, 300 pieces of sculpture, and more than 100 hangings, plus beds and carpets. St James’s thus became the centre of royal connoisseurship as well as a home for the royal offspring. This role was reinforced by the appointment of Abraham van der Doort (c.1575-1640), the Dutch artist and expert in coins and medals, as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, responsible for the care of the royal collection (the post held by Sir Kenneth Clark in 1934-1944 and Anthony Blunt in 1945-1972).
It was at St James’s, too, that Charles I spent the final days and hours of his life where, having been tried for the crime of making war on his own people, he was attended by the Bishop of London, William Juxon. On the day of his execution, he walked to Whitehall between two companies of halberdiers, their great drums beating, and taken to his bedchamber for his last prayers before walking on to the scaffold. The king’s head and body were then placed in a coffin and exposed to public view in Whitehall for several days, before being taken to St James’s to be embalmed and, finally, moved to Windsor for burial.
The events that led to the trial and execution of the king saw London come under military occupation, and St James’s was used as an army garrison and prison. Acts were passed in 1649 and 1651 to enable the sale of royal property, including the contents of St James’s, except for the library, which the new power elite at Whitehall decided to retain. When Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, St James’s was offered to his widow as a dower house. The soldiers were ordered out and work began on cleaning up the palace, but in the end it was the commander-in-chief of the army, George Monck (1608-1670), who took up residence, using it as his base for safeguarding the Commons in the chaotic period following Cromwell’s death. It was thus from St James’s that Monck choreographed the Restoration.
The present-day palace
St James’s Palace opened to the public for pre-booked tours in 2022. Such was the demand that further tours are now under consideration. From St James’s Street, the palace looks superficially like the Tudor complex that Henry VIII built, but what the visitor will see today beyond the Great Gatehouse is an amalgam of many periods, including much rebuilding after the damage caused by aerial bombing during the Second World War. The Armoury has the remains of the decorative scheme introduced by Philip Webb in 1866, including stencilled patterns of gold and green on a dark green background, influenced by 17th-century Italian silks. William Morris also undertook a comprehensive redecoration in 1880-1881: he had some of the large glass windows remade with smaller panes to harmonise with the earlier architecture and designed wallpapers, stencilled decoration, carpets, and wall-hangings especially for the palace.
Works of art that were moved to Welsh slate-mines for safekeeping during the Second World War are back on the walls, which are densely hung with paintings, some of them so large that they would be difficult to move and display in, say, the Queen’s Gallery, to the rear of Buckingham Palace, where the Royal Collection Trust mounts special exhibitions.
The Chapel Royal is another highlight, with its remarkable original ceiling, made in a pattern of interlocking hexagons, octagons, and crosses and printed with putti, scrollwork, and the arms of three of Henry VIII’s wives – Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Anne of Cleves – as well as the badges of Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Prince of Wales. The latest addition there is the stained-glass north window, designed for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 and depicting a tree bearing the names of the Commonwealth nations.
The Throne Room is the main reminder of the role of St James’s as the senior royal palace. Forming the climactic room in the suite of state apartments, this richly decorated space has a coved ceiling with embellished plasterwork incorporating the stars and collars of the four major orders of royal chivalry – the Garter, the Thistle, St Patrick, and the Bath. It was here until the 19th century that the monarch received ambassadors, cabinet ministers, and officers of state – and where, on 10 September 2022, some 200 members of the Privy Council gathered to witness the proclamation of Charles III as Sovereign. Of another ceremonial event held in 1858, The Times disparagingly described the palace as a ‘dingy mausoleum of departed grandeur’ that compared unfavourably with ‘the spacious courts and lofty ceilings of Continental palaces’, but it went on to concede that ‘St James’s is not so much a residence as a tradition’.
You can listen to Chris Catling discuss what this book brings to our understanding of the palace and its place in British monarchical history in an episode of The PastCast.
Further reading Rufus Bird, Simon Thurley, and Michael Turner (2022) St James’s Palace: from leper hospital to royal palace (Yale University Press in association with Royal Collection Trust, ISBN 978-0300267464, £60).