In the heart of Westminster, St. James’s Park is a Royal Park in the truest sense. St. James’s borders Buckingham Palace on one end and 10 Downing Street on the other, with St. James’s Palace a stone’s throw from the park’s northern border. As with many of the Royal Parks, it began as the personal property of King Henry VIII which was later developed under King James I and King Charles II. It was later redesigned by John Nash, who also did Regent’s Park. Read below to find some more information about its royal history and some fascinating facts.
While King James I did have a hand in developing the park, it is not named after him. The spot where St. James’s Palace sits today was a leper hospital named after Saint James the Less. The palace was commissioned by King Henry VIII and adopted the name of the hospital, and as the future park was part of the grounds, it shared the name.
St. James’s Park is roughly 57 acres big, almost one-seventh the size of nearby Hyde Park.
The Birdcage (Walk)
The Birdcage Walk is on the southern side of the park and was so named for the aviaries for exotic birds that King James I installed along it. Until 1828, it was a private road that could only be used by the Royal Family and the Duke of St. Albans.
A Personal Zoo
While Henry used it as a ground for more deer hunting, King James I was the king who took the first steps at transforming St. James’s Park into a real recreational green space. James made improvements to the drainage and the landscaping, but that’s not all. He also moved many exotic animals into the park, including camels, crocodiles, and multiple species of birds. The camels and crocodiles are gone, but there are still plenty of aviaries and visitors will find blackbirds, wrens, tits, ducks, and even pelicans in the park. The pelicans were donated to King Charles II by the Russian ambassador in 1664, and the current park pelicans are their descendants.
Much of St. James’s Park was swampland and marshes until James had it drained and landscaped.
Sacrifices for the War
St. James’s Park Lake is the defining water feature of the park, but for several years in the 20th Century, it didn’t exist. During World War I, the lake was drained to make way for temporary buildings for the Ministry of Shipping’s use. The buildings remained there until the lake was re-filled in 1922.
St. James’s really started its transformation into a public park during the reign of King Charles II. When Charles was living in France under exile during the Commonwealth period, he really came to enjoy the style of French gardens. He hired André Mollet to redesign St. James’s into its formal style. Charles then opened St. James’s Park to the public and often used it to entertain his guests as well as his mistresses.
After Charles had opened the park to the public, it developed a rather unfortunate reputation of being a place for romantic (see, sexual) rendezvous. John Wilmont, 2nd Duke of Rochester and poet, wrote about these lecherous happenings in his work “A Ramble in St. James’s Park.”
A Gardener of Pedigree
Mollet wasn’t just any landscape architect. His father, Claude Mollet, had been the gardener for three French kings.
A Cottage for Ducks
This lovely little cottage in the park serves as the office for the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust and has a long history with the park. King James I created the post of Governor of Duck Island when he had the park transformed and an aviary established on Duck Island. King William III built the first cottage here, but it was destroyed in 1771. The current cottage was built by the Ornithological Society of London in 1840, designed by John Burges Watson and is an excellent example of the Arts and Crafts style of architecture.
Thank you very much for really interesting articles. I’ve been to London for a few times but every time when I read them I learn something new about London and I’m eager to visit London again.
Liz Conforti says
Thank you for this very interesting article on St. James Park. When in London in 2019, I spent part of my afternoon walking through the park slowly, taking it all in. I marveled at the birds and took photos of the beauty not knowing of the history of the wildlife. Can’t wait to return with a fuller appreciation.