Buckingham Palace is the official London residence and principal workplace of the British monarch. Located in the City of Westminster, the palace is a setting for state occasions and royal hospitality. It has been a focus for the British people at times of national rejoicing and crisis.
Originally known as Buckingham House, the building which forms the core of today’s palace was a large townhouse built for the Duke of Buckingham in 1705 on a site which had been in private ownership for at least 150 years. It was subsequently acquired by George III in 1761 as a private residence for Queen Charlotte, and known as “The Queen’s House”.
During the 19th century it was enlarged, principally by architects John Nash and Edward Blore, forming three wings around a central courtyard. Buckingham Palace finally became the official royal palace of the British monarch on the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. The last major structural additions were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the East front, which contains the well-known balcony on which the royal family traditionally congregates to greet crowds outside. However, the palace chapel was destroyed by a German bomb in World War II; the Queen’s Gallery was built on the site and opened to the public in 1962 to exhibit works of art from the Royal Collection.
The original early 19th-century interior designs, many of which still survive, included widespread use of brightly coloured scagliola and blue and pink lapis, on the advice of Sir Charles Long. King Edward VII oversaw a partial redecoration in a Belle Époque cream and gold colour scheme. Many smaller reception rooms are furnished in the Chinese regency style with furniture and fittings brought from the Royal Pavilion at Brighton and from Carlton House. The Buckingham Palace Garden is the largest private garden in London.
The state rooms, used for official and state entertaining, are open to the public each year for most of August and September, as part of the Palace’s Summer Opening.
In the Middle Ages, Buckingham Palace’s site formed part of the Manor of Ebury (also called Eia). The marshy ground was watered by the river Tyburn, which still flows below the courtyard and south wing of the palace. Where the river was fordable (at Cow Ford), the village of Eye Cross grew. Ownership of the site changed hands many times; owners included Edward the Confessor and his queen consort Edith of Wessex in late Saxon times, and, after the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror. William gave the site to Geoffrey de Mandeville, who bequeathed it to the monks of Westminster Abbey.
In 1531, Henry VIII acquired the Hospital of St James (later St. James’s Palace) from Eton College, and in 1536 he took the Manor of Ebury from Westminster Abbey. These transfers brought the site of Buckingham Palace back into royal hands for the first time since William the Conqueror had given it away almost 500 years earlier.
Various owners leased it from royal landlords and the freehold was the subject of frenzied speculation during the 17th century. By then, the old village of Eye Cross had long since fallen into decay, and the area was mostly wasteland. Needing money, James I sold off part of the Crown freehold but retained part of the site on which he established a 4-acre (16,000 m2) mulberry garden for the production of silk. (This is at the northwest corner of today’s palace.) Clement Walker in Anarchia Anglicana (1649) refers to “new-erected sodoms and spintries at the Mulberry Garden at S. James’s”; this suggests it may have been a place of debauchery. Eventually, in the late 17th century, the freehold was inherited from the property tycoon Sir Hugh Audley by the great heiress Mary Davies.
First houses on the site
Possibly the first house erected within the site was that of a Sir William Blake, around 1624. The next owner was Lord Goring, who from 1633 extended Blake’s house and developed much of today’s garden, then known as Goring Great Garden. He did not, however, manage to obtain freehold interest in the mulberry garden. Unbeknown to Goring, in 1640 the document “failed to pass the Great Seal before King Charles I fled London, which it needed to do for legal execution“. (It was this critical omission that helped the British royal family regain the freehold under King George III.)
The improvident Goring defaulted on his rents; Henry Bennet, 1st Earl of Arlington obtained the mansion and was occupying it, now known as Goring House, when it burned down in 1674. Arlington House rose on the site—the southern wing of today’s palace—the next year, and its freehold was bought in 1702.
The house which forms the architectural core of the present palace was built for the first Duke of Buckingham and Normanby in 1703 to the design of William Winde. The style chosen was of a large, three-floored central block with two smaller flanking service wings. Buckingham House was eventually sold by Buckingham’s descendant, Sir Charles Sheffield, in 1761 to George III for £21,000 (£3,000,000 as of 2013).
Like his grandfather, George II, George III refused to sell the mulberry garden interest, so that Sheffield had been unable to purchase the full freehold of the site. When Sheffield sold Buckingham House it came into the hands of the royal family.