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Great London Buildings – A Brief History of Buckingham Palace – The Queen’s Official London Home

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Perhaps the greatest residence in the city, Buckingham Palace has been the home of royalty for centuries and has been the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II since she ascended the throne in 1952, though she had lived there since her father, King George VI, became monarch in 1936.  The site where Buckingham House is located was once in the possession of William the Conqueror following the Norman Invasion, though he subsequently gave it to Geoffrey de Mandeville.  From here, the property changed hands several times, with Sir William Blake building a mansion there in 1624, but it was only 50 years before the house burned down.

Eventually, John Sheffield, the First Duke of Buckingham and Normandy acquired the property and had Buckingham House built in 1703.  The architect, Captain William Winde, designed a three-story block house with a couple of flanking service wings.  On the Duke’s death, it came into the possession of his heir, Sir Charles Sheffield, who subsequently sold it to King George III in 1761.  George intended the house to be a getaway for his wife, Queen Charlotte, and a comfortable family home for her and their children, even though St. James Palace would continue to be the official royal residence.

To make the home fit for a queen, George submitted Buckingham House to extensive renovations.  Sir William Chambers was in charge of the designs and construction began in 1762 with an ultimate cost of £73,000 when completed in 1776.  The ceilings designed by Robert Adam and painted by Giovanni Battista Cipriani were said to be some of the most sophisticated of their time and thoroughly appropriate for what was now dubbed The Queen’s House.

King George IV was going to use the house for much the same purpose when it passed to him in 1820, but after he changed his mind, he set about giving Buckingham House the extravagant touch for which he was known.  Hiring architect John Nash and requesting £450,000 from Parliament for the renovations, George wanted to transform the house into a palace.  Nash kept the main block, but demolished the north and south wings.  He reconstructed them to be much larger around a courtyard while also adding a new suite of rooms to the main block.  Everything was done in the neo-classical French style that George favoured.

Photo: Derry Moore
Photo: Derry Moore

Despite all these renovations, George never resided there and neither did his brother, King William IV.  When the Houses of Parliament burned down in 1834, William offered Buckingham Palace as a new Parliament building, but the Lords and Commons turned down the offer.  When William died in 1837, Buckingham Palace became a true royal residence when Queen Victoria moved into it.  Since the building hadn’t been lived in since George IV’s renovations, Victoria discovered that the chimneys smoked badly, the ventilation was poor, and there were hardly any guest bedrooms.

Thus began another series of renovations.  The Marble Arch that was part of Nash’s design was moved to north-east corner of Hyde Park and Victoria and Albert had a fourth wing built, enclosing the courtyard and forming a quadrangle.  Architect Edmund Blore created this new East Front that became the face of Buckingham Palace and included the famous balcony on which the royal family continue to make appearances.  Another renovation would take place under her grandson, King George V, in 1913 when the façade on the East Front was changed to its current appearance.

While remodeling and rebuilding would occur again not thirty years later, this was due to necessity as the palace was bombed seven times during the London Blitz, with one bomb going off and destroying the chapel in 1940.  Another detonated in the quadrangle and had the effect of blowing out all the inner-facing windows.  Despite Hitler’s attempts to destroy Buckingham Palace and damage British morale, the opposite effect occurred as the people felt emboldened by the monarchy’s resiliency and loyalty to the people.

Today, as Queen Elizabeth II’s official resident, Buckingham Palace continues to be a working building.  It has 775 rooms, including 19 state rooms for receiving guests, personal investitures, and other important functions.  50,000 people pass through annual on official business as well as guided tours when the palace is open to the public.  The best way to know whether the Queen is in or not is to love above the palace to see whether the Royal Standard is flying.  Whether you visit the palace for yourself or just pass by, it’s worth taking a moment to bask in the history of this great London building.

John Rabon
Author: John Rabon

John is a regular writer for Anglotopia and its sister websites. He is currently engaged in finding a way to move books slightly to the left without the embarrassment of being walked in on by Eddie Izzard. For any comments, questions, or complaints, please contact the Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson's haircut.

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  1. John Sheffield was Duke of Buckingham and Normaby, not Duke of Buckingham and Normandy. Queen Elizabeth II is Duke of Normandy.

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