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St. James's Palace: The British Royal Family Workplace

I love writing about royal history. Find out more about Desiree Clary's life with the Bonapartes and Bernadottes in this article.

St. James's Palace north face, the gatehouse and clock.

St. James's Palace north face, the gatehouse and clock.

St. James's Palace Tudor Origins

King Henry VIII commissioned St. James's Palace in Westminster, London, and it was constructed between 1531 and 1536. The Palace of Whitehall nearby remained his principal residence, but he desired a smaller property that provided him with respite from the busy court at Whitehall.

The palace was constructed on the site of the former Hospital of St. James (dedicated to St. James the Less), which Eton College owned. Henry also purchased a parcel of marshland which became St. James's Park.

The red brick building was created around courtyards, including Friary Court and Ambassadors Court. The north wing's gatehouse still has two octagonal turrets. The palace clock was not added until the 1730s during King George II's reign

Two suites of rooms, including bedrooms, guard chambers, presence chambers, withdrawing and privy chambers, an outer court and a chapel were completed in preparation for its first intended inhabitant Henry VIII's illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset (1519-1536).

Construction work was halted in July 1536 when Henry Fitzroy died from tuberculosis. Henry VIII lost interest in his new palace for a few years.

Royal Footprint

There is a legend that the tyrannical Henry VIII's footprint was preserved forever on one wall of his palace. Why? So that he knew what height to place his foot at when dismounting from his horse.

The Stuart Heirs at St. James's Palace

In 1544, a gallery and another courtyard were added to the original palace. Renowned artist Hans Holbein was commissioned to decorate the ceilings. Henry VIII died in 1547 and was succeeded by Edward VI, his nine-year-old son by Jane Seymour.

Henry's daughter Mary I used St. James's infrequently during her five-year reign, but she died there in 1558. Elizabeth I was a more frequent visitor, and she notably took refuge in the palace during the advance of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

In 1603 the Tudor dynasty was succeeded by the Stuarts. King James I (VI of Scotland) awarded St. James's Palace to his eldest son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1604 when he was ten. Henry's younger brother Charles resided there with him. An impressive library was constructed, and renovations were carried out, but sadly the Prince of Wales passed away in 1612, aged just eighteen.

Charles remained at St. James's as a prince and as king from 1625. He commissioned Inigo Jones to design a magnificent chapel for his Catholic wife Henrietta Maria of France named the Queen's Chapel and another chapel where her staff could worship. The Queen's Chapel is occasionally open to the public, but the Tudor-built Chapel Royal is private.

St. James's Palace and The Mall, London in 1715. (George I's reign).

St. James's Palace and The Mall, London in 1715. (George I's reign).

Fall and Rise of Fortunes at the London Palace

St. James's Palace was commandeered by the parliamentarians and turned into army barracks during the English Civil Wars 1642-1651. Prior to his 1649 execution, Charles I was imprisoned there.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles II restored the palace to its former purpose and grandeur. He added rooms, suites and a friary that adjoined the Queen's Chapel.

Charles II's brother- and sister-in-law, James and Anne, Duke and Duchess of York, used the palace as their summer residence. James' second wife, Mary of Modena, was granted St. James's as her royal residence.

Queen Anne made the palace the official residence of the British monarch in 1702.

The Hanoverian kings George I and II regularly lived and worked at St. James's. They also housed their mistresses within its walls.

Anne Claims St. James's

Widower William III had intended to house his late wife Queen Mary's staff at St. James's Palace from 1694 but his sister-in-law Anne didn't give him the opportunity. A royal case of "squatter's rights" perhaps.

An 1819 Charles Wild painting showing the north face of St. James's Palace.

An 1819 Charles Wild painting showing the north face of St. James's Palace.

The Court of St. James's: The Royal Workplace

George III found the palace uncomfortable and lacking in family-only spaces, so in 1761 he purchased Buckingham House, which was a short walk down the road, and it was renamed Queen's House. From this time, the royal workplace and residence officially operated from separate buildings.

A fire in 1809 destroyed large parts of the south- and east-facing palace rooms, including the private apartments. The staterooms were restored by 1813, but the private rooms were not replaced.

In the 1820s, George IV spent thousands of pounds on renovations and extensions to Queen's House, which became Buckingham Palace, but he was disinterested in St. James's.

His successor, younger brother William IV reigned between 1830-1837. He didn't care for either royal palace and continued to live primarily at his pre-reign home at Bushy Park. William offered Buckingham Palace to the government when the Houses of Parliament burned down in 1834, but they declined it, so it sat empty until 1840.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were married in the chapel at St. James's, but they used Buckingham Palace as their home. The official business of the court was mainly conducted at St. James's, just as it had been in George III's reign.

The Proclamation Gallery in Friary Court at St. James's Palace. Monarchs are proclaimed here by the Garter King of Arms.

The Proclamation Gallery in Friary Court at St. James's Palace. Monarchs are proclaimed here by the Garter King of Arms.

St. James's Role Today

None of the 20th-century British monarchs resided at St. James's, but it has maintained its position as the senior royal palace. Charity events, receptions and meetings are held within the palace walls multiple times a week. Royal infants are often christened in the Chapel Royal. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, was baptised into the Church of England there.

Princess Anne has her London base at the palace, and before their marriages, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie shared an apartment there. Now they each have their own apartments. Princess Alexandra resides there when she's not at her Richmond property. York House, part of the palace complex, was a base for Charles, William and Harry Wales in past decades.

St. James's Palace is the official address for:

  • The Accession Council.
  • The Marshal of the Royal Diplomatic Core.
  • The Royal Collection Trust.
  • The Yeoman of the Guard.
  • The King's Watermen.
  • The Gentlemen at Arms.

On 10th September 2022, King Charles III was proclaimed monarch within its walls by the Accession Council, which met without him the previous day. The public proclamation was made from the large window and adjoining balcony known as the Proclamation Gallery overlooking the Friary Court by the Garter King of Arms.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle