Buckingham Palace has achieved iconic status as the official London residence of the reigning British monarch, but it hasn’t always served in that role.
Indeed, for more than 300 years, from 1531 until 1837, the King of England’s official residence in the capital city was St. James’ Palace. Located about a quarter of a mile from Buckingham Palace, St. James’ still stands, and remains the home of several members of the royal family. (It, like Buckingham Palace, is also open to tourists.)
The land on which Buckingham Palace sits, in the borough of London known as Westminster, has been in the hands of the British monarchy for more than 400 years. Originally marshland along the River Tyburn, the site had a series of owners, including William the Conqueror and the monks of Westminster Abbey.
It is said that King James I liked the site, and acquired it for use as a sort of garden for the royals. It also had a small, 4-acre grove of mulberry trees, which King James hoped to use for silk production (silkworms feed only on mulberry trees).
There was a house on the property at the time, and it passed through a succession of owners until 1698, when it was sold to a man named John Sheffield. He later became the Duke of Buckingham, and it is for him that the house on the property was ultimately named.
Sheffield, finding the original house on the property outdated, decided to build a new residence on the site in the early 1700s.
Designed and built by William Winde and John Fitch, the structure that became known as “Buckingham House” was completed around 1705.
At one point, Buckingham House was briefly considered as the site for the British Museum, but its owners wanted £30,000—considered an exorbitant sum at the time.
The Queen’s House
King George III purchased Buckingham House from Sir Charles Sheffield in 1761. He commissioned a £73,000 renovation of the structure.
The king’s plan was to use it as a home for his wife, Queen Charlotte, and their children. And, after his family moved in, the building became known as the “Queens House.”
With George III’s death in 1820, the king’s son, George IV, ascended to the throne. George IV, however, was relatively old for a new king. He was 60 when he took the throne, and in poor health.
Having grown up in Buckingham House, he favored the building and wanted to make it the official royal residence. He hired architect John Nash to expand and renovate the structure.
John Nash Renovates
As George IV’s health continued to fail, Nash designed and built out Buckingham House into a large, U-shaped structure faced with stone from the quarries near Bath, England. His design expanded the main section of the building, adding west wings, as well as branches to the north and south. The east wings were also rebuilt.
The wings of the new palace enclosed a large court, and the architect built a triumphal arch—with images depicting Britain’s recent military victories—at the center of the palace’s forecourt to create an imposing entrance for visiting dignitaries.
Although Nash’s work on the new palace was well received, and the building is still viewed as an architectural masterpiece today, Nash was dismissed by British government officials soon after George IV’s death in 1830.
The reason? The cost of the project. Nash’s masterpiece cost British taxpayers more than £400,000 to build.
To make matters worse, George IV’s brother, William IV, ascended to the throne in 1830, and he had no interest in relocating to the newly built Buckingham Palace. He preferred his princely home, Clarence Palace, instead.
When the House of Parliament was destroyed by fire in the 1830s, William IV offered Buckingham Palace as the new home of the legislature. However, the offer was politely declined.
In 1833-34, Parliament voted to complete the furnishing and interior refurbishment of Buckingham Palace for use as the official royal home. Following William IV’s death, in 1837, his niece, Victoria, assumed the throne and became the first royal resident of Buckingham Palace.
Buckingham Palace Today
Soon after taking up residence in the new palace, however, Queen Victoria complained about the lack of space for entertaining foreign dignitaries.
So, in 1845, the architect Edward Blore was retained to enclose Nash’s forecourt on the eastern side, for the construction of staterooms and ballrooms. Buckingham Palace’s triumphal arch was moved to nearby Hyde Park.
Construction was completed in 1853, and Queen Victoria reigned until her death in 1901. Her son Edward VII ascended to the throne, and he is credited with an interior redesign of the palace, the remnants of which can still be seen today.
The home of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, and her family since 1952, Buckingham Palace remains the administrative headquarters of the royal family and the site of many official events and receptions. Today, the 830,000 sq. ft. building has 775 rooms, including 19 state rooms, 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms.
The British monarch’s role in governing the United Kingdom today is largely ceremonial—in Britain’s constitutional monarchy, the monarch or sovereign is head of state. However, the power to create laws rests with Parliament, and the executive function is fulfilled by the Prime Minister.
And, Buckingham Palace continues to play an important part in the monarch’s current duties. Today, the Queen welcomes many foreign leaders to the palace for celebratory events as well as important diplomatic meetings.