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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Buckingham Palace in London

What is Buckingham Palace?

Buckingham Palace is a magnificent London residence of the British monarch built in the early 18th century as a town house for the Duke of Buckingham.

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Buckingham Palace History

For nearly 200 years, this magnificent neoclassical palace has been the official London residence of the British Monarch, ever since Queen Victoria moved in on her ascension in 1837. What we recognise today as the front of the palace, commanding the glorious view all the way down The Mall, was built in the 1840s. This East Front was further remodelled in the early 20th century to add the famous balcony from which the royal family have watched RAF flyovers and waved at crowds on auspicious days.

The first major royal residence in London was the Saxon-Danish Palace of Westminster. After a fire in 1512, King Henry VIII moved to the Palace of Whitehall, which remained the sovereign’s primary residence until it too was devasted by flames in 1698. In the 18th century, St James’s Palace, itself built originally by Henry VIII, was where royal business took place. This tradition lives on in the practice of referring to the royal court as the Court of St James, and is why new ambassadors are accredited there and not here at Buckingham Palace.

However, King George III found St James’s Palace too small and lacking in privacy. So in 1762 he bought a gift for his new wife, Queen Charlotte – a little three-floored house with two flanking wings just around the corner, completed for the Duke of Buckingham in 1705. Queen Charlotte had 14 of her 15 children here and the house was used evermore by the royals, relegating St James’s to a more ceremonial role.

When George IV, who had grown up in Buckingham House, became king in 1820, he was keen to transform the building into a palace and so hired the celebrated classical architect John Nash. Nash and the Prince Regent, as he was known before he became king, composed a formidable pair of patron and planner. Together they created, to name just a few, the extraordinary Royal Brighton Pavilion and Regent’s Street, London’s first purpose-built shopping street. Buckingham Palace would be their pièce de resistance.

Buckingham Palace Guard

Honey-coloured limestone quarried from near Bath, vast new wings to create a magnificent U-shaped courtyard and, most importantly of all, a grand triumphal arch as a majestic entrance: these were the dramatic elements of Nash’s proposal. The marble arch, adorned with images of recent British military victories and inspired by the ancient Arch of Constantine in Rome, would be topped with a bronze equestrian statue of George IV.

Buckingham Palace was to be Europe’s most astounding masterpiece; then, in 1830, the king died. His successor, the more austere William IV, disliked the new palace and was left incredulous by its immense cost. Nash was dismissed and his designs were never completed. The grand entrance was ultimately moved, becoming the stand-alone Marble Arch at the end of Oxford Street. The statue of George IV now adorns Trafalgar Square.

When the Palace of Westminster (or the Houses of Parliament) burnt down in 1834, the new king eagerly offered Buckingham Palace as a replacement. It was under Victoria, with her extravagant costume balls and royal ceremonies filled with pomp, that Buckingham Palace came into its own.

Victoria’s new East Front, designed by Edward Blore, closed off Nash’s open courtyard. It became the well-known face of the palace and a backdrop to the daily Changing of the Guard in the forecourt. Having survived bombing in the Blitz, Buckingham Palace was a focal point during Victory Day celebrations in 1945 and continues to function as a rallying place and celebratory point for British people.

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