“One could live well, even in a palace.” — Marcus Aurelius
Before the palace
The marshy countryside on which Buckingham Palace now stands has had a long association with royalty. Before the Conquest it belonged to King Edward the Confessor and supported a small village called Eye Cross.
After the Norman invasion, William the Conqueror bequeathed it to the monks of Westminster Abbey. Five hundred years later, in 1531, Henry VIII reclaimed it for the royals.
By the early 17th century the village had gone, and James I planted a mulberry garden hoping to rear silkworms to make silk. Unfortunately, it was the wrong species of mulberry, and sericulture was abandoned in favour of property speculation.
The core of the modern building, Buckingham House, was built in 1703 as the country home of Tory politician and poet John Sheffield, the 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby.
It returned to royal control in 1751, when the Sheffield family sold it to George III for £21,000 (a reasonable £3m in today’s money). George bought it for Queen Charlotte to use as a family home.
In 1820 it was transformed into a palace by the architect John Nash, but he overspent wildly and was fired.
William IV considered turning the expensive white elephant into the new Houses of Parliament after they burned down in 1834.
It wasn’t until the accession of Victoria, in 1837, that Buckingham Palace replaced St James’s Palace as the official London residence of the British monarch (although foreign visitors are still welcomed to the Court of St James).
Disappointing and cold
In 2009, the Sydney Morning Herald’s travel blog listed Buckingham Palace as the most disappointing British tourist attraction – a rating repeated in many other surveys. It dismissed it as “just a big grey building”. But that’s nothing to what Victoria and Albert found inside.
Lazy, insolent staff, no bathrooms, and fires that smoked so badly they had to be kept very low made the palace cold, malodorous and unwelcoming. They began a decade-long improvement programme which included the building of the east wing – the one with the famous balcony, first used for a royal wave at the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851.
The existing entrance – Marble Arch – was moved to the north east end of Hyde Park, where it still stands.
During Victoria’s early days in the palace she was visited three times by a teenage builder’s apprentice called Edward Jones – known to the popular press of the day as “the Boy Jones”.
After disguising himself as sweep, Jones’s first break-in ended when he was apprehended in St James’s Street with pieces of the Queen’s underwear stuffed down his trousers. His third visit led to a three-month custodial sentence and hard labour (and the offer of a role in a music hall show).
Jones, once released, persisted in loitering outside the palace and was eventually sent away to sea. He settled in Australia, where he ended his days as the city of Perth’s official town crier.
Today, Buckingham Palace has a chapel, post office, swimming pool, cafeteria, doctor’s surgery and cinema.
There are 775 rooms; these include 19 state rooms, 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms. There are 1,514 doors, 760 windows and more than 40,000 light bulbs.
It homes 800, including a clockmaker, flagman and fendersmith. It has the largest private garden in London: at 40 acres it is the size of four Wembley Stadiums.
The Union Flag is flown over Buckingham Palace when the Queen is out (not in, as some people think). A flag sergeant has the role of raising and lowering the right flag as the Queen arrives at, or departs from, the palace.
There are secret tunnels under the streets of London connecting Clarence House to Buckingham Palace, and the Houses of Parliament.
The Queen Mother once explored the lower levels with King George VI. In the basement they found a man whom neither of them had ever met before. He wasn’t employed in the palace, but “a friend of a friend” who had been living there for some time.
The Queen Mother recalled he was “a Geordie” and “very courteous”.