How London's Castles And Palaces Got Their Names

By Nick Young Last edited 13 months ago

Last Updated 02 May 2023

How London's Castles And Palaces Got Their Names
Buckingham Palace. Photo by Andrew Thomas in the Londonist Flickr pool

London has many a castle and palace. But how did they get their names? The answers are varied; as well as English place-names, these grand buildings owe their names to a Danish princess, French and Scottish nobility, an Indian fortress, the Latin language, a rebel leader and even one of the disciples...

Alexandra Palace in the snow. Photo by Tyla in the Londonist Flickr pool

Alexandra Palace

The hilltop entertainment venue in north London was originally intended to be called the Palace of the People, although even before building work began it was renamed in honour of Alexandra of Denmark, who married the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) in 1863. The palace opened 10 years later (it burned down within a month and had to be rebuilt; there would be another major fire in 1980). The nickname ‘Ally Pally’ is said to have been coined by the actress and singer Gracie Fields.

Baynard’s Castle

This medieval fortification, located in the City between St Paul’s and Blackfriars, was named after the man who built it — Bairnardus (or Baynard), a follower of William the Conqueror. It was demolished by King John in 1213, although the name was later given to a mansion (which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666). The name lives on today as the name of an office block (which is built on the site of the castle), a street and one of the City’s 25 wards.

Photo by kats onstage in the Londonist Flickr pool

Bridewell Palace

Built in 1515-20 for Henry VIII, south of St Bride’s Church in the City, this palace is named for a holy well dedicated to St Bride, alias St Brigit of Kildare (d. 525 AD) who was celebrated for her generosity to the poor. It was later given to the City of London Corporation, which turned it into a prison (rebuilt after the Great Fire, it was demolished in the 1860s); for many years, the word ‘Bridewell’ was synonymous with prisons.  

Bruce Castle

A castle in name only, the Elizabethan manor house in Tottenham is named after the Scottish noble family who owned the land on which it stands. Their name derives from a small town called Brix, near Cherbourg in Normandy – where the family came from. They owned one-third of the manor of Tottenham until 1306 when the head of the family, Robert the Bruce, forfeited all of his English lands on becoming the King of Scotland. Originally called Lordship House, it’s now a museum.

Bruce Castle's clocktower. Photo by katrina in the Londonist Flickr pool

Buckingham Palace

The Queen’s London residence, which has been the main London home to monarchs since the early 19th century, is named after its original owner. Buckingham House, as it was originally called, was built by the Duke of Buckingham in 1703 (the royal family bought it in 1761). Buckingham, which oddly enough is not the county town of Buckinghamshire, gets its name from Bucca, a 7th century Saxon settler in the area — the name means ‘Bucca’s homestead’.

Crystal Palace

Sir Joseph Paxton’s structure that came to be known as the Crystal Palace was built for the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. It was actually made of plate-glass and cast-iron but it was dubbed the Crystal Palace by the playwright Douglas Jerrold (1803-1857), who described it as “a palace of very crystal”. In 1854 it was moved to a hilltop in Sydenham, where it was used for various concerts and exhibitions until it burned down in 1936.

The Great Exhibition at The Crystal Palace

Eltham Palace

A royal residence in the middle ages, Eltham Palace is named after the south east London district in which it is located. The name means the homestead of a man called Elta (of whom nothing is known, other than his name). Royal use of Eltham declined in Tudor times and it was a ruin by the time of the Civil War, although it wasn’t rebuilt until the 1930s. Today it’s managed by English Heritage but is still owned by the Crown Estate.

Hampton Court Palace

This was originally built by Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530), the Archbishop of York and chief minister during the early part of Henry VIII’s reign. When he fell from favour after failing to get Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, Henry took the place for himself. It’s been a royal palace ever since, although George II was the last monarch to live there. It gets its name from the nearby village of Hampton, originally an Anglo-Saxon settlement whose name derives from a small farmstead located on a bend in the river.

Tinkling the ivories and Eltham Palace. Photo by psyxjaw in the Londonist Flickr pool

Jack Straw’s Castle

The former pub located at the top of Hampstead is named after a leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 — it’s said that he either mustered his followers on the heath before the revolt or was captured in the vicinity afterwards. However, some historians have suggested that ‘Jack Straw’ was just an alias for rebel leader Wat Tyler (who came from Kent and was killed at Smithfield). The pub, built in the 1960s to replace a coaching inn of the same name that had been destroyed in the Blitz, closed in 2002 and has since been converted into luxury flats.

Kensington Palace

This royal residence, home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and several of the Queen’s cousins, used to be called Nottingham House (after its original owner, the Earl of Nottingham) but acquired its current name when it was bought by joint monarchs William III and Mary II in 1689. The name Kensington derives from an otherwise forgotten Anglo-Saxon called either Cynesige or Kenesigne, who owned or lived on the land in these parts during the dark ages.

Kensington Palace. Photo by Frida Fabbrini in the Londonist Flickr pool

Kew Palace

Located in Kew Gardens, the current palace is the second of three; little is known of the first, while the third stood for less than 30 years in the early 19th century. The second one, originally known as the Dutch House, dates back to 1631 and has been under royal ownership since the 18th century. Kew — recorded as ‘Cayho’ in the Middle Ages — means 'a spur of land near a landing place or quay'.

Lambeth Palace

As well as being the home of a monastic order, this has been the Archbishop of Canterbury’s official residence for over 800 years and is named after the district in which it is located. The name, which was recorded in 1062 as ‘Lambehitha’, means ‘landing place for lambs’ — a harbour where lambs were shipped from or to.

A sketch of Lambeth Palace from across the Thames. Photo by Paul Ryan in the Londonist Flickr pool

Montfichet’s Castle

Another City of London fortification that no longer exists, having been demolished in the late 13th century, Montfichet’s Castle was built during the reign of William the Conqueror on the Thames by Blackfriars. It was named after a Norman family who probably came from Montfiquet, a village near Bayeux (they were also associated with Stansted Mountfitchet in Essex, where the present-day Mountfitchet Castle is a reconstruction of a wooden motte-and-bailey castle).

Nonsuch Palace

Built by Henry VIII as a hunting venue, the name was given as ‘Nonesuch’ in early records, suggesting that he wanted a building without compare. Located in present-day Nonsuch Park (on the boundary between Surrey and the borough of Sutton), it was previously on the site of a village called Cuddington which was demolished to make way for Henry’s palace. Charles II later gave it to his mistress, Barbara Villiers – who sold it in 1682 (apparently to pay off her vast gambling debts) to a lord who had it demolished.

A mural depicting Nonsuch Palace. Photo by Tony Monblat in the Londonist Flickr pool

Palace of Placentia (aka Greenwich Palace)

Originally called Bella Court, this palace was built by Henry V’s brother Duke Humphrey of Gloucester (1390-1447). After his sudden death, Henry VI’s wife Margaret of Anjou took over, renaming it the Palace of Placentia – the pleasant palace (from the Latin verb placere, meaning ‘to please’) – although it’s sometimes referred to as Greenwich Palace. It was demolished in the 1660s; the Royal Naval Hospital was later built on the site.

Richmond Palace

Originally a medieval palace called Shene (or Sheen), it was rebuilt by Henry VII in the early 16th century and renamed ‘Richmond’ after the earldom he’d held before he became King; it refers to the Yorkshire town founded shortly after the Norman Conquest, itself named after Richemont (‘strong hill’) in Normandy. The palace was demolished after the execution of Charles I in 1649.

Richmond Palace as it looked in 1765

St James's Palace

Although it hasn’t been used as the sovereign’s London residence since the early 19th century, this 16th century palace, dubbed “the underside of the monarchy” by the architecture critic Iain Nairn, is Britain’s senior royal palace (which is why the royal court is called the Court of St James). The palace’s saintly name derives from the fact that the site had previously been home to a leper hospital dedicated to St James – specifically, St James the Less, who was one of Jesus’s 12 Disciples (as was his namesake St James the Great).

Savoy Palace

Located between the Strand and the Thames, this once-grand residence was built by Count Peter of Savoy (1203-68), an uncle of Henry III’s wife Eleanor of Provence. It was mostly destroyed over a century later during the Peasants’ Revolt. An influential French noble family, the Savoys got their name from the region in the French Alps; it derives from the Latin sapaudia, meaning ‘fir forest’. In London, the name survives in the hotel and the royal chapel which are built on the site of the old palace.

St James's Palace. Photo by Matt Brown in the Londonist Flickr pool

Severndroog Castle

The 18th century folly in Oxleas Wood was built as a memorial to Commodore Sir William James, a naval officer who in 1755 attacked and destroyed the island fortress of Suvanadurg, located off the Indian coast between Bombay and Goa. The name means ‘golden fort’; ‘Severndroog’ is an Anglicisation.

Tower of London

The only one with word ‘London’ in its name, Her Majesty’s Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London was founded by William the Conqueror in late 1066 — originally as a timber fortification, but by the 1080s the stone keep that we know today as the White Tower was built (with white stone, hence the name). The name ‘London’ is of pre-Roman origin although its meaning has long baffled historians (we’ve looked into this one before).

The Tower of London. Photo by Richard in the Londonist Flickr pool

Palace of Westminster

The current building, home to the Houses of Parliament, is actually the New Palace — the Old Palace was built in medieval times but destroyed by fire in 1834 (although much of that had been rebuilt after an earlier fire in 1512). Originally built by Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066), this palace was the monarch’s primary residence in the middle ages. The name derives from the neighbouring Westminster Abbey, ‘mynster’ being Old English for a church which, in this case, happened to be located to the west of the City of London.

Whitehall Palace

This vast palace, Europe’s largest in its day, was the main London residence of the monarch from 1530 to 1698 when most of it was destroyed by fire (Banqueting House is all that remains). Originally called York Place, it had (like Hampton Court) been Cardinal Wolsey’s but after his downfall, Henry VIII – who had doubtless noticed that it was much bigger than his own Palace of Westminster nearby – moved in. The name White Hall (later just one word) was first recorded in 1532 and refers to the colour of the stone used for the buildings.