A Brief History Of Buckingham Palace

By M@ Last edited 7 months ago

Last Updated 17 October 2023

A Brief History Of Buckingham Palace

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View of Buckingham Palace looking along the facade

It's one of the world's most famous buildings. But how much do you know about Charlie's gaff? Here we present a slightly jokey chronology of Buckingham Palace.

Days of yore: Long ago, all this was fields. Specifically, marshy fields belonging to the Manor of Ebury. The River Tyburn meandered through the area (and still does, in a pipe beneath the Palace). The land was owned/stolen/whatever by William the Conqueror but was later passed to the monks of Westminster Abbey.

1536: Renowned monk-botherer Henry VIII seizes the land during his Dissolution. At least part of the site has remained in royal hands ever since.

1608: Having sold off some of the estate, James VI and I uses the remaining land to plant mulberry trees. Why? Mulberry trees support silkworms, which (he hoped) would support a highly profitable silk industry. Sadly, the experiment failed and the land seems to have deteriorated into some sort of cruising ground.

1624: The first record of any building on the site comes from this year — a property that would come to be known as Goring House after the family who acquired it. The current Palace garden also has its origins at this time.

1674: Goring House burns down. It is replaced by a new mansion called Arlington House. This lasted all of 30 years before replacement with another grand house...

1703: We can thank this man ⬇️, the 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normandy, for giving the world Buckingham Palace. Well, Buckingham House, the stately home that would eventually grow into a palace. It was built for the Duke in this year and became his main London residence.

A man in shiny armour and a frowning bewigged head
John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Poet, statesman and little teapot. Image public domain.

1761: King George "The Madness of" III buys the house from the Buckingham family for £21,000. The pile is used as a house for his wife Charlotte, and is occasionally referred to as the Queen's House. Although the property is considered a palace, it is not yet referred to as Buckingham Palace in any document. The oldest parts of the present Buckingham Palace — a wine cellar — date from this time.

1764: The future William IV is born at Buckingham House. He is the first of three monarchs (so far) to take his first breath within the walls (the others being Edward VII and Charles III).

A black and white drawing of Buckingham House
Buckingham House as it appeared around 1710. Image public domain

1769: The royal property is referred to in the press as Buckingham Palace, the earliest instance I can find. Buckingham House and the Queen's House remain more common terms, however. It was only in the 1820s that Buckingham Palace became the more popular name, cemented by Queen Victoria's residency from 1837.

1788: A hairdresser named Spang breaks into the palace, intending to "pour out the ardency of his passion" unto Princess Elizabeth, daughter of George III. He is detained before he can appall the princess. This is the earliest recorded break-in to the Palace, the first of many.

1826: The biggest physical change to the building since its construction begins this year as John Nash remodels the building for George IV.

1830: The remodelling of Buckingham Palace rumbles on amid cost overruns, which The Times describes as "frightful" and a "monstrous and profligate expense". Nash is eventually kicked out and replaced by Edward Blore.

1833: Marble Arch is completed. Yes, the same one that now has its own tube station at the western end of Oxford Street. It was originally designed by Nash (and finished by Blore) as a ceremonial entrance to the Palace. It would be resited in 1847.

1834: William IV offers the Palace up as an alternative Houses of Parliament, after the one on the Thames burns down. The geopolitical map of London would look very different today if the offer had been accepted. William didn't really like the place and never moved in.

1837: This is the biggy. Newly anointed Queen Victoria moves into the Palace, making it her official abode. From this point on, Buckingham Palace is considered the monarch's primary residence (though St James's Palace remains the official court).

A view of Buckingham Palace before the familiar East Face was built
This is how the Palace would have looked in 1837, when Queen Vic moved in. Note the Marble Arch to the left. It would be kicked out in 1847 when the East Front was constructed to complete the square. Image public domain.

1838: Edward "The Boy" Jones of York Street, Westminster breaks into the Palace, the first of his three unauthorised visits. On this occasion, he steals a sword, a pair of trousers and an ink stand — though not Her Majesty's underwear, as is often repeated on the internet. His trial the next year was treated as one big joke, and Jones was acquitted of all charges.

1840: Now aged 17, Edward Jones pays another sneaky visit to the Palace. He is eventually discovered under Her Majesty's sofa, having reportedly spent two days hiding around the Palace. After serving a short prison sentence he was seen staking out the Palace yet again, and was briefly transported.

1841: The future Edward VII is born in Buckingham Palace.

1847: Blore — the guy who finished off the remodelling of the palace 17 years ago — is back! And he's got a new trick. He builds an entirely new East Front to the palace, enclosing the courtyard inside the now-square palace. It's the first time that the landmark resembles the building we know today (though more construction was to come). The Marble Arch was packed off to the Oxford Street/Edgware Road junction at the same time.

1851: Queen Victoria and the Royal Family make an appearance on the Palace balcony to mark the opening of the Great Exhibition. According to the press, "The enthusiasm of the people was beyond all description". This is the moment when such appearances become a 'thing'.

1861: Following the death of Prince Albert, the grief-stricken Queen shuns Buckingham Palace. It would lie empty for much of the next few years.

1870: Charles Dickens visits Buckingham Palace for the first and only time. He would die three months later. Curiously, the author does not mention the Palace in any of his novels.

1910: Edward VII is the first (and so far only) monarch to die in Buckingham Palace, the same building in which he was born. His final words related to his horse winning a race that day: "Yes, I have heard of it. I am very glad".

Buckingham Palace with a low sun behind and snow on the floor
The Palace as we know it today (with bonus snow), was the creation of Aston Webb

1913: The builders are in again. Architect Aston Webb reworks the public-facing East Front with Portland Stone, in the slightly yawnsome classical style it still wears today. The more impressive monument to Victoria in front of the building is also constructed.

1940: The Palace is bombed on several occasions, including a blast that destroys the chapel. Queen Elizabeth (later known as the Queen Mother) declares: "I'm glad we have been bombed. Now I can look the East End in the face". The same year, RAF pilot Ray Holmes rams a German plane that appears to be lining up a bombing run on the Palace. The two planes crashed into the Victoria area. An engine from Holmes's Hurricane can now be seen at the RAF Museum.

The remains of a Hurricane engine in a cabinet
Ray Holmes's Hurricane engine. Image by the author

1945: VE Day celebrations are led from the Palace, with the royal family appearing on the balcony.

1948: The future Charles III is born in Buckingham Palace.

1953: Prince Philip makes the first ever flight from Buckingham Palace, as a passenger in a helicopter round-trip to Pirbright in Surrey, where he inspected some troops.

1970: The Palace is designated a Grade I listed building. The listing puts restrictions on how the building may be altered. King Charles can't simply knock up a partition wall or whimsically paint the balconies  without gaining planning consent.

1982: The memorably named Michael Fagan breaks into the Palace and enters the Queen's bedroom. It was initially reported that he spent several minutes in conversation with Her Majesty, but this has since been refuted. By coincidence, the Queen discovered a little girl called Sophie on her windowsill this same year, at least if Roald Dahl's BFG is to be believed.

The Royal Standard flies on Buckingham Palace.
This means the King is at home.

1997: Following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, a Union Flag is flown (half-mast) above the Palace for the first time. Ever since, a Royal Standard flies over the Palace when the monarch is at home, and the Union Flag is displayed when they're not.

2012: The Palace is turned into a music venue for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Memorably, if somewhat inaccurately, Madness play a live version of 'Our House' from the Palace roof.

2022: In one of her last "public" appearances, the Queen has tea with Paddington Bear inside Buckingham Palace, as a concert celebrating her Platinum Jubilee takes place outside.

2023: Buckingham Palace remains the first thing I see every morning. In 2015, the royal balcony, gates and part of the courtyard were recreated at Elstree Studios for filming of The Crown. The set still stands (as of February 2023), just metres from the Strictly Come Dancing Studio (and my flat).

All images by the author (Matt Brown) unless otherwise stated.