There are eight royal parks in London that are royal because the lands have been owned by Kings and Queens. Most have been used as hunting grounds, so I thought it would be interesting to find out more about each park. Knowing you can take a stroll or stop for a picnic on a location once frequented by marauding royal hunters certainly adds to the sense of history in London.
Five of the parks are in central London – Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, St James’s Park, Green Park and The Regent’s Park – and three are in greater London: Greenwich Park, Richmond Park and Bushy Park. Collectively, they offer around 5,000 acres of green space for Londoners.
There is public access to all of the Royal Parks, and they receive no royal funding. Instead, a registered charity, The Royal Parks*, was created in 2017 to manage the parks and fundraise from events. Essentially, the parks are still owned by the Crown, were managed by the government Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and are now maintained by this new charity. The deer that roam freely in some of the parks do still belong to the sovereign.
* The Royal Parks also manages other important open spaces in the capital, including Brompton Cemetery, Grosvenor Square Gardens, Victoria Tower Gardens and the gardens of 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street, although they are not classed as Royal Parks.
In 1427, Henry VI licensed 200 acres in Greenwich to the Duke of Gloucester (his uncle) to hunt deer away from the peasants and, in theory, the poachers. Henry VI came to the throne in 1421 at the age of nine months, so was still a young child when this decision was made. As the Duke of Gloucester was the child king’s Regent, he may well have chosen to ‘claim’ the hunting ground for his own enjoyment.
Henry VIII was born at the Palace of Placentia/Greenwich Palace in 1491. His passion for hunting knew few bounds as he founded three private hunting grounds.
In 1529 he acquired Bushy Park in west London as a gift from Cardinal Wolsey along with Hampton Court Palace. In 1533 he created St James’s Park on the site of a former leper hospital. And after he didn’t get his annulment from the Pope to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he began the Church of England and the English Reformation and so acquired Hyde Park in 1536.
The animal hunted was ordinarily the stag, which in the Tudor Age was usually called the hart. When a hart or buck was killed, it was eaten. Harts could be hunted at most times of the year, but not in mid-winter, and the King and his nobles then engaged in hawking instead. Falcons were trained for this sport, and statutes were passed to punish any poacher who stole their eggs.
Charles I loved to hunt too, and we have him to thank for the many deer in Richmond Park. The area had been popular with previous kings (Henry VII built a palace there), but it was when Charles fled central London in 1625 to avoid a plague and still wanted to hunt that the park was stocked. He ignored all other claims on the land and made it a royal hunting ground by 1637. (See more below.)
Greenwich has had settlements since prehistoric times as being close to the River Thames with naturally dry ground (the park is set on the side of a hill) made it ideal.
Greenwich Park was inherited by Henry V’s brother in 1427 and was passed down through generations of monarchs. In 1428 it became the first Royal Park to be formally enclosed.
As mentioned above, Henry VIII was born in Greenwich in 1491, and he grew up there. He added plenty of deer to the park for his hunting pleasure. He wasn’t always the overweight tyrant who we think of when his name is mentioned. He was a tall and dashing young man who was married to his first wife for over twenty years. He loved outdoor sports and was well-accomplished. Sadly, it was two accidents while taking part in jousting tournaments, both at Royal Parks, that changed him.
In 1524 at Whitehall on the edge of St James’s Park, he was struck in the face by a lance after forgetting to lower his visor. He suffered from severe headaches for the rest of his life. Then in 1536, he had an even more serious accident in Greenwich Park. While testing a new suit of armour, he was knocked from his horse. The horse fell on top of him –also in full armour.
Henry’s personality changed following the accident as he became irascible and paranoid. His leg wound never healed, which meant he could no longer take part in sports, so he gained weight from banquets and feasts.
Back to Greenwich Park, James I’s wife, Queen Anne, had the Queen’s House built between 1616 and 1635.
And Charles II commissioned Christopher Wren to build the Royal Observatory in 1675.
The red time ball on the octagon room has signalled the time at 1 pm daily since 1833. Each day, at 12.55 pm, the time ball rises halfway up its mast. At 12.58 pm it rises all the way to the top. At 1 pm the ball falls to provide a signal of the exact time which was useful for passing ships. Note, the time ball drops at 1 pm GMT during the winter months and 1 pm BST during the summer.
Later in the 17th century, the French royal landscape gardener André Le Nôtre, who laid out the gardens at Versailles, was invited to design one at Greenwich. The broad avenue, rising south up the hill, was part of the plan.
St. James’s Park
Laid out in English naturalistic style in a patrician environment of palaces and government offices, St James’s Park commands a famous view of Buckingham Palace, Horse Guards Parade and Whitehall Court from the Blue Bridge. This picturesque park extends over 57 acres and has a lake harbouring ducks, geese and pelicans.
Henry VIII commissioned St James’s Palace as a retreat away from his main court at the nearby Whitehall for himself and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Built around 1531-36, although close to Whitehall, it was at the time still part of the farmland and countryside outside London. The site of the palace was on the leper hospital of St James the Less. The park is, therefore, also know named after this long-gone hospital.
He adored hunting, so he acquired the land between his palaces in 1532 as a park to hunt deer. It was marshy, so he had the land drained and incorporated into his hunting grounds that extended north to the future Regent’s Park. As the park is relatively small, it was used for breeding young deer. (Once old enough, they were moved out to Hyde Park or Regent’s Park for hunting.)
James I made several changes to the park on his ascension to the throne — mainly to cater for the exotic menagerie he wanted. He had the park, which still sat on marshland, drained and landscaped before moving in camels, crocodiles and elephants.
In 1649, Charles I walked across the park from St James’s Palace to Whitehall, on the morning of his execution.
During the austerity of Oliver Cromwell’s rule that followed, many local people chopped the trees down in St James’s Park to use them for fuel.
And here in 1660, Pepys had his first view of Charles II on his return to London: ‘Found the King in the parke. There walked. Gallantry great.’
Under the early Stuarts, St James’s Park was the resort of the court and other privileged persons. After the Restoration (1660), the French landscaper André Mollet was employed to make ‘great and very noble alteracions’, and the scattered ponds were united to form a ‘canal’. James I’s aviary was enhanced along the park’s full southern edge – hence Birdcage Walk; the street where the aviary once was. (Birdcage Walk was a private road until 1828, only open to the royal family and the Duke of St Albans.) The park was then opened to the public and still remains the only large park in London which has not been enclosed with railings.
It became a fashionable resort, where the King was frequently to be seen strolling unattended and feeding the waterfowl. The lake in the centre is still patronised by numerous water birds, for which Duck Island at the east is reserved. Pelicans have lived in St James’s Park for nearly 400 years. They were originally presented as a gift from the Russian Ambassador to King Charles II in 1664. Today’s pelicans are the descendants of the original arrivals.
For the Restoration poet John Wilmot Earl of Rochester, the park was little more than a profligate pimping ground, an ‘all-sin-sheltering grove’ where he is mortified to see his beloved Corinna skip away into a hackney-coach with three suitors: a ‘Whitehall blade’. A ‘Gray’s Inn wit’ and a ‘lady’s eldest son’ not yet of age.
Buckingham House that became Buckingham Palace, was built nearby in the late 17th century. Read more about the history of Buckingham Palace.
A major Fair was held across St James’s Park, Hyde Park, and Green Park on 1 August 1814 to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which ended hostilities between Britain and France. Plus, the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile and the centenary of the ascension to the throne of George I, the first of the Hanoverian monarchs. Lots of entertainment was laid on, and it was free for all to enjoy.
A seven-storey pagoda was the centrepiece in St James’s Park. It was adorned with Chinese lanterns, and fireworks were launched from it in the evening. Unfortunately, the pagoda caught on fire and was destroyed, although many thought this was part of the planned entertainment. Sadly, two workmen were killed during the fire.
The Chinese-style bridge, though, did remain until 1825.
Duck Island Cottage was built by the Ornithological Society of London in 1837. That same year, the Society donated some birds to the park. The cottage is Grade II listed, while the rest of the island it sits on is home to the water treatment facilities and pump for the fountain in the middle of the lake.
And until 1905, a dairy herd was grazed at St James’s Park, and milkmaids sold mugs of fresh milk, warm from the cow to passers-by.
The land was once the property of the monks of Westminster Abbey, but after the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536), Henry VIII appropriated it and turned it into a royal deer park. The royal hunts were grand and extravagant occasions attended by the glitterati of the day. Visitors watched from grandstands and enjoyed great feasts in temporary banqueting houses.
The Park remained private until King James I (r. 1603–1625) allowed limited public access to wealthy aristocrats. Then In the reign of Charles I (r. 1625–1649), the carriage drive known as The Ring was built, and the park was opened to the public in 1637. Later, Queen Caroline, the wife of George II (r. 1727–1760), created the lake known as the Serpentine by damming the Westbourne stream in the 1730s.
It was here, in 1816, that Harriet Westbrook, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s first wife, drowned herself aged twenty-one. (Shelley was a major English Romantic poet.) Shelley was estranged from his wife and settled with Mary Wollstonecraft by 1814 (author of Frankenstein).
Hyde Park has a long history as a site of protest and still hosts rallies and marches today. Visit Speakers’ Corner on a Sunday morning to hear people from all walks of life share their views.
There’s so much more to say about Hyde Park, which is why I’ve written a full blog post about it for Londontopia. Do have a look to discover more about Rotton Row and horse riding, the monuments and history.
Kensington Gardens was originally part of the neighbouring Hyde Park. It was included in the land that Henry VIII put to use as a hunting ground. The two parks weren’t separated until 1728, when Queen Caroline, who was staying at Kensington Palace, wanted to create a more formal landscape garden with avenues of magnificent trees and ornamental flower beds.
The beautiful Italian Gardens were laid out for Prince Albert by Sir James Pennethorne in 1861. And the Pet Cemetery opened in 1881 near Victoria Gate. (Do note, it is closed to the public.)
As well as Kensington Palace, you can visit the Serpentine Galleries for contemporary art and architecture. And the Albert Memorial is truly stunning.
Families appreciate the Diana Memorial Playground with its huge wooden pirate ship, sensory trail and play sculptures, inspired by the adventures of fictional park hero Peter Pan. Lesser seen is the park allotment where you can get advice on growing veggies at home and even see the resident chickens. Interestingly, sheep were used to keep the grass down until the 1950s, but lawnmowers are used today.
Green Park is a triangular, 40-acre oasis of grassland and trees, without formal flowerbeds, that extends from Buckingham Palace and Constitution Hill towards Piccadilly.
It is said that Thomas Wyatt’s 1544 rebellion against Mary I’s marriage to Philip II of Spain crossed this land. It was called Upper St James’s Park until around 1746, suggesting it was part of the original St James’s Park seized by Henry VIII in 1532. (It had belonged to the St James’s Hospital for female lepers on the site of St James’s Palace.) The new name, Green Park, probably reflected the open meadow with few trees.
Charles II enclosed the park in 1668, constructing ice houses from which chilled drinks were served at royal picnics.
By the 18th century, Green Park was a fashionable pleasure garden: high society promenaded along Queen’s Walk (named after Queen Caroline, wife of George II), which skirts the mansions of St James’s on the eastern side. The Broadwalk, through the centre of the park, covers the ancient Tyburn river (it still flows beneath).
In the 1820s, Nash landscaped the park, and in 1826 it was opened to the public.
There’s a tale that Green Park does not have formal flower beds because Catherine, the wife of Charles II (r.1662–1685), saw him picking flowers there for a mistress and ordered the removal of all flowers. The park still has no formal flowerbeds but is a riot of yellow in spring, when around one million daffodil bulbs are in bloom.
Do look for the Canada Memorial (1994), a slanting sculpture with water gently lapping over bronze maple leaves and a central walkway that commemorates those in the Canadian forces who lost their lives during both World Wars.
The Regent’s Park
Henry VIII’s passion for hunting meant he kept looking for more land. The next area was further north towards the then less fashionable area of Marylebone Park. In 1538 he seized the park from the Abbess of Barking to create a large hunting chase.
The area was thickly forested and full of deer. A ditch and rampart kept the deer in and poachers out. For the next 50 years, it was one of the several Royal Parks in London where the king or queen entertained visitors.
By 1646, the land had passed to Oliver Cromwell. Over 16,000 trees were cut down to create lettings of farmland smallholdings. Then with the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the Park returned to the Crown.
It was redeveloped by John Nash in the 1800s at the same time as nearby Regent Street (also part of the Crown Estate) for the Prince Regent, sometimes known as the playboy prince, who later became King George IV (r. 1820–1830). This is when the name changed to The Regent’s Park. Regent Street was built to link Regent’s Park to Carlton House, near Piccadilly.
The Regent’s Park combines large open spaces with tree-lined pathways, elegant flowerbeds in the Avenue Gardens, plus 12,000 roses in Queen Mary’s Gardens. It has central London’s largest outdoor sports area, a boating lake and four children’s playgrounds. The Open Air Theatre has a summer season, and London Zoo is open all year round. The Park itself has a large wetland area and is home to around 100 species of wild bird and a breeding population of hedgehogs.
Before the famous Palm House at Kew (completed in 1848), another Palm House existed in London, in the centre of Regent’s Park. The now-defunct Royal Botanic Society, established in 1939, was based where Queen Mary’s Gardens can now be found. As well as an experimental garden, which was open to the public, the Society built palm houses (opened in 1846) and a water lily house in the park, which existed until the Society ended its lease in 1932. The palm houses were designed by Decimus Burton (also partly responsible for Kew’s Palm House and the Giraffe House at London Zoo).
St John’s Lodge Gardens is often known as ‘The Secret Garden’. Just inside the Inner Circle, St John’s Lodge is a private residence, but the gardens are open to the public to visit for free. The centrepiece is a Grade II listed statue, donated to the gardens by the Royal Academy of Arts, and the garden also has a pergola walk, a fountain and a sunken lawn.
The park itself is Grade I listed, but it contains plenty of building, sculptures, monuments, gates and bridges, including large parts of London Zoo, which are listed separately. Villas designed by John Nash make the list, as well as the footbridge over Regent’s Canal to Primrose Hill.
As mentioned near the start, Henry VIII acquired this land from Cardinal Wolsey along with nearby Hampton Court Palace in 1529. At the time, the area now known as Bushy Park was composed of three smaller parks; Hare Warren, Middle Park and Bushy Park. Once again, the King put the land to use as a hunting ground.
Linked to Hampton Court Palace by the Longford River, Bushy Park is large at 1,099 acres. It has waterways, gardens and grassland, plus roaming herds of red and fallow deer. You may also spot woodpeckers, kingfishers and kestrels.
The bronze Diana fountain was designed in 1637 by Hubert Le Sueur and can be seen at the end of the mile-long Chestnut Avenue.
During the Second World War, part of Bushy Park became the US airbase, Camp Griffiss, and it was from here that General Eisenhower planned the D-Day Landings.
Along with Bushy Park and Hampton Court Palace, Henry VIII acquired Hampton Court Park too. It is not managed by The Royal Parks but by Historic Royal Palaces as part of Hampton Court Palace. Hampton Court Park is the site of the annual Hampton Court Flower Show each summer. The formal gardens surrounding the palace are covered by the palace admission charge, but the rest of Hampton Court Park is separate and is free to visit.
Richmond Park is the largest of London’s eight Royal Parks and is the biggest enclosed space in London. It covers an area of 2500 acres and is an enjoyable balance of wilderness and parkland. Richmond Park has protected status as an important habitat for wildlife and is a National Nature Reserve, London’s largest Site of Special Scientific Interest and a European Special Area of Conservation.
Royalty had taken a close interest in the Richmond area from the late 15th century when King Henry Vll built a palace here. His former title was Earl of Richmond, relating to the town in Yorkshire.
It was a favourite residence of Henry VIII, who stayed at Richmond Palace at Christmas 1510, aged 19, with his new wife Catherine of Aragon. They regularly visited until he received nearby Hampton Court Palace, but he probably still hunted in the deer park.
In 1625, Charles I brought his court to Richmond Palace to escape the plague. He saw the opportunity for hunting close to London and decided to establish the deer park nearby. Later in 1637, Charles I built an 8 mile-long brick wall to enclose the royal park as a hunting ground. He ignored all claims on the land from farmers and locals and introduced around 2,000 deer. Eventually, he had to pay compensation to some landowners and restore the right of people to walk in the park and collect firewood by installing a ladder in the wall. By the middle of the 18th century, public access was severely restricted. The ladder stiles that were used by pedestrians to climb over the wall had been removed, and only those with a specially-issued token were allowed to enter through the gates.
Today the significant herds of Red and Fallow deer still graze among the chestnuts, birches and oaks, and generally keep a wary distance from the thousands of park visitors. (While no longer hunted, the deer are discreetly culled.)
When Charles I was executed in 1649, the park was passed to the City of London Corporation but was returned to royalty when Charles II returned to London in 1660. He created new ponds for the deer to drink from and gave permission for gravel to be dug in the park.
In the 18th century, two planned vistas were created to show important guests the best views of the park and beyond. One looked down to the grand avenue of Queen’s Ride to White Lodge, a hunting lodge built for George l (r. 1714–1727). The other looked out from King Henry’s Mound – a high point, said to have been used by Henry Vlll to watch hunting. It is also where in 1536, the king, staying in Richmond Palace, awaited the signal that his former wife, Anne Boleyn, had been executed. You can still stand here and look down a specially-maintained avenue in Sidmouth Wood across London to St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Palladian White Lodge, built-in 1729, is home to the Royal Ballet School. And Richmond Gate, in the northwest corner, was designed by the landscape gardener Capability Brown in 1798.
In late spring, the Park highlight is the beautiful ornamental Isabella Plantation woodland gardens with its spectacular display of azaleas. Nearby Pen Ponds, dug in 1746, are very popular with optimistic anglers.