by Scott Mehl
Although it was built on Crown land, Marlborough House wasn’t originally intended to be a royal residence. It was built in the early 1700s for Sarah Churchill, The Duchess of Marlborough and close confidante of Queen Anne of the United Kingdom. The land was then part of the grounds of St. James’s Palace, facing Pall Mall, and backing up onto The Mall. The noted architect Christopher Wren and his son designed the house to the specifications of the Duchess. Marlborough House would serve as the London residence of the Dukes of Marlborough until 1817 when it was taken over by the Crown.
That year it became the London residence of Princess Charlotte of Wales and her husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg (later King Leopold I of the Belgians). Saldy, Princess Charlotte died later that year, and Leopold only used the home occasionally in the following years. Following the accession of King William IV in 1830, Marlborough House was given to his wife, Queen Adelaide, for the remainder of her life. After her death in 1849, it housed the National Art Training School (now the Royal College of Art) from 1852-1861. Following a two year renovation, which included the addition of rooms on the north side as well as a large porch, Marlborough House became the London residence of the newly married Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and his wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, in 1863. Several of their children were born here, including the future King George V in 1865. Marlborough House also became the center of London society, with Edward and Alexandra’s close circle of friends becoming known as the Marlborough House Set.
Edward and Alexandra moved to Buckingham Palace following his accession in 1901, and Marlborough House became the home of the new Prince and Princess of Wales (later King George V and Queen Mary). Following Edward VII’s death in 1910, George and Mary moved to Buckingham Palace, and the Dowager Queen Alexandra returned to her beloved Marlborough House, where she would remain until her death in 1925. (Click here for a photo of Queen Alexandra’s bedroom, c1912, from the Royal Collection Trust.) Some changes were made the property, including the relocation of the main entrance gate which originally sat on Pall Mall. The entrance was moved to Marlborough Road, which passes between Marlborough House and St. James’s Palace. Following the death of King George V in 1936, Queen Mary returned to Marlborough House where she remained until her death in 1953.
Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother had expressed her desire to move there following her husband’s death in 1952, but it was determined that Marlborough House would need extensive refurbishment and would be too expensive to maintain. Clarence House, which had recently been renovated for then-Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, was instead where The Queen Mother would make her home for the remainder of her life.
In 1959, Queen Elizabeth II gave Marlborough House to the British government to be used for the Commonwealth. It has been the home of the Commonwealth Secretariat since its establishment in 1965, and also houses the Commonwealth Foundation. As well as being the working home of the Commonwealth, Marlborough House often hosts conferences and summit meetings of the Commonwealth Heads of Government. There is also a reception every year on Commonwealth Day, which is attended by Her Majesty The Queen in her role as Head of the Commonwealth.
The Marlborough House Gardens, at the back of the house overlooking The Mall, contain a thatched-roof rotating summer house built for Queen Mary, as well as Queen Alexandra’s pet cemetery.
Learn more about the other British Royal Residences here!