They are sometimes said to be the nation’s real crown jewels: the various palaces, castles and other grand houses which for centuries have formed the backdrop to royal life in the United Kingdom – from Sandringham and Windsor in England to Hillsborough in Northern Ireland, and from Balmoral and Holyrood in Scotland to Llwynywermod in Wales.
With the recent change in monarch, however, the future of these splendid (and undeniably costly) royal residences seems now to be under the spotlight. A source close to King Charles III told The Sunday Times in October that plans are afoot to turn at least some of them from ‘private spaces to public places’ – a cause for celebration, perhaps, but also potentially a major change in outlook.
Under particular scrutiny is Buckingham Palace, the main London residence of the British monarch since 1837, which is currently undergoing a £369m refurbishment, due to be completed in 2027. According to the source, the new king feels that ‘its upkeep, both from a cost and environmental perspective, is not sustainable’, and sees it as a home that is not ‘fit for purpose in the modern world’. Tellingly perhaps, no plans have yet been announced for King Charles and Queen Camilla to move out of their own long-standing London base at nearby Clarence House, part of the sprawling St James’s Palace complex.
As we discover this week on The Past – and as King Charles is certainly already aware – St James’s actually has a longer and more complex history than its upstart, garden-party-hosting neighbour. Built by order of Henry VIII in the 1530s on the site of a former leper hospital, it is where the future Charles II was born, where the 15-year-old Princess Mary married William of Orange, and where Queen Victoria tied the knot with Prince Albert. Though it has seen its reputation rise and fall – George IV wanted it demolished, while George V called it ‘beastly’ and ‘unhealthy’ – it remains the official seat of the sovereign, and home to the important diplomatic business of the Court of St James’s.
In the latest issue of Current Archaeology magazine, Chris Catling celebrates the publication of a fascinating new history of St James’s Palace, going behind the scenes to delve into the 800-year-old origins of what King Charles himself has described as ‘the least well-known of the official royal residences’.
Elsewhere this week, we have been delving into the archives for more about royal palaces, castles and houses: we visited Hampton Court as excavations revealed Thomas Wolsey’s Renaissance wonder; we travelled to Dover to marvel at the castle that guarded the entrance to Henry II’s English kingdom; and we even found pomp and pageantry in the archaeology of royal weddings.
And finally, if all that leaves you hungry for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around royal residences. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!
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