A nearly 500-year-old Tudor palace in the heart of London, built on the site of a leper hospital, and today the senior royal palace in the UK.
St James’s Palace origins
The palace was commissioned by King Henry VIII as a retreat away from his main court at the nearby Whitehall for himself and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Built around 1531-36, although close to Whitehall, it was at the time still part of the farmland and countryside outside London.
The site of St James’s Palace started rather less regally though, as it was occupied by the leper hospital of St James the Less, Bishop of Jerusalem, set up prior to the Norman Conquest by donations raised from the nearby City of London. The hospital was open only to ladies but had eight brethren attached to cover for their spiritual needs.
As with most hospitals and monasteries, the hospital of St James the Less owned large amounts of land to earn an income from, at one time land in Hampstead and houses in the City. They were also allowed to keep the proceeds from the annual May Fair held nearby in Piccadilly.
It seems that the hospital was not run well in its later years, and may have been empty by the 1400s. In 1449, Henry VI, who founded Eton College gave the hospital grounds the college. In 1531 Henry VIII bought it back by an exchange of lands with Eton College in order to build his Manor of St James.
It was built traditionally for a large house of the time, being a series of rows built around central courtyards, and while much has changed over the centuries, the layout remains intact.
The palace interior was redecorated in 1544, barely a decade after it had been completed, with the richly decorated ceilings being completed by Hans Holbein.
Although Whitehall was still at the time the official residence of the monarch, Queen Elizabeth I followed in her father’s footsteps and often stayed at the palace when she was Queen.
The English Civil War
In 1638, King Charles I gave the palace to Marie de Medici, the mother of his wife Henrietta Maria. Unfortunately for him, in a staunchly Protestant country, she was a Catholic, and deeply unpopular, not just in England, but in France where her marriage to King Henry IV of France had been, shall we say, difficult. After three years, she left London for Germany.
Following the English Civil War, King Charles I spent his final night at St James’s before being taken to Banqueting House in Whitehall to be executed.
During his time as Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell used the palace as a military barracks.
When the monarchy was restored, the palace was in quite a state – which is what you would expect when you let a load of soldiers use it — and Charles II spent lavishly to restore the palace, while also laying out St James’s Park next door. The State apartments were later enlarged by Christopher Wren and embellished by William Kent.
In 1698, the palace in Whitehall was destroyed by fire, so William and Mary moved to St James’s as their principal residence, and it has retained the role of being the monarch’s main administrative centre ever since.
The first of Georgian monarchs also lived at St James’s, but when the George III came to the throne, he wanted something more fitting for a monarch of the times and bought the nearby Buckingham House — now Buckingham Palace.
A fire on the eastern side in 1809 destroyed the monarch’s private apartments in the Palace, and it was decided to flatten the area — it’s now Marlborough Road.
A couple of decades later, in 1837, Queen Victoria formalised what was already a de-facto situation, and formally moved the primary residence of the monarch to Buckingham Palace.
After the monarchs left
Although the monarchs no longer use it as their official home, St James’s Palace retains the title of the senior royal palace, and a large number of events take place there, and much of the royal administration is carried out inside.
The architecture of St James’s Palace
The part of the palace that most people who visit will recognise is the central clock tower — and although the clock face says 1832 with the initials of William IV, that’s a later clock face, replacing one added in 1731.
The story goes that the old clock was said to be too heavy for the roof to support, and was removed, but at a time when few people owned clocks of their own, the local people petitioned the King to restore it. When told it wasn’t possible, he’s said to have noted that the roof seemed strong enough for people to stand on and watch processions, so surely it can cope with a clock.
The clock was put back, with King William IV’s monogram.
That main gateway, a part of which now forms the Royal Chapel, and the chimney-piece of the old presence-chamber are however all that remains of the original palace erected by Henry VIII.
The Court of St James’s
One of the peculiarities of the British diplomatic system, is that ambassadors and high commissioners to the UK are received not by the UK government, but by the Crown.
As St James’s Palace is still classed as the senior of the royal palaces, ambassadors to the UK are officially representing their country to the Court of St James’s. The apostrophe and last s are often missed off, and people tend to say out loud “the court of St James”, but it should be James’s.
Each new ambassador to the Court of St James’s is required to present their credentials to the Queen, which now takes place at Buckingham Palace, but in a nice touch of British Pomp, every ambassador is taken to the palace in a horse-drawn coach from the Royal Mews. By tradition, after they have finished, the new ambassador presents carrots to the horses.
A new monarch is announced
The moment a monarch dies, although legally the next in line automatically takes over, this is the UK, so we need some pomp and ceremony. When the death of the monarch is announced, the Accession Council gathers at St James’s Palace to confirm the name of the next in line and proclaim them as the next King or Queen.
A proclamation announcing the new Monarch is read in a number of towns and cities across the UK, but the main pomp and ceremony takes place here at St James’s Palace. If you head to the eastern side of the Palace, there’s a large open space known as The Friary Court.
Turn up here on the right day, and the balcony will be lined with heralds and the formal declaration will be read out to the assembled throng. Although officially a monarch, the new King or Queen is not usually crowned for a while, as it takes time to prepare Westminster Abbey for the grand event.
Visiting St James’s Palace
Although you can get up close to the Palace, you cannot go inside it. The palace is private and only open to people invited inside, usually for formal events.
There are two bits you can see though.
Once part of the palace, but now separated from it by a road is the Queen’s Chapel, which is open for services on Sundays, except during August and September.
Inside the Palace is the Chapel Royal, which is private, but occasionally included in the London Open House Weekend in September. The Queen’s Chapel is also usually open on the same day if you want to go inside without attending a religious service.
The tube roundel
You might have noticed throughout that the palace is referred to as St James’s, but until the 1950s, the nearby St James’s Park tube station was called St James’ station. Go inside, and on the eastbound platform, there is one platform sign left written in the old way.