by Scott Mehl
Perhaps the most recognized palace in the world, Buckingham Palace has been the official home of the British monarch for over 170 years. With 775 rooms (including 19 state rooms, 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices, 78 bathrooms… and one indoor pool), Buckingham Palace is much more than just a royal residence. It is the working home of the Monarchy, affectionately referred to by many of the royal family as ‘The Firm’.
Buckingham House, a London townhouse built in 1701 for the Duke of Buckingham, was purchased by King George III in 1761 for his wife Queen Charlotte to use as a family home, still within close proximity of St James’ Palace. It became known as Queen’s House, and Charlotte gave birth to most of her children there. However, the palace as we now know it, didn’t begin to take shape until over 60 years later. It was William IV who, in 1826, decided to transform the house in to a grand palace, bringing in John Nash to oversee the transformation. The main portion of the house was maintained, but enlarged by adding on to the west side, overlooking the gardens. The existing north and south wings were taken down and rebuilt on a much grander scale, and the courtyard enlarged. Here, the Waterloo Arch stood in recognition of the British victories at Waterloo and Trafalgar.
With costs far exceeding budget, and the death of George IV, the new King William IV took over the project, bringing in Edward Blore to oversee the rest of the project. William IV never moved into the new Buckingham Palace, preferring to remain in Clarence House. It wasn’t until 1837, when just weeks after her accession to the throne, Queen Victoria took up residence.
Lacking sufficient space for guests and children, Queen Victoria began another expansion. The Marble Arch was removed (now standing in Hyde Park), and a new East wing was added, creating the quadrangle that exists today. The decision to add this new wing was closely connected with Queen Victoria’s decision to sell The Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Having completed their new home at Osborne, it was agreed by Act of Parliament that the proceeds from the sale (£53,000) would be put toward the cost of expanding Buckingham Palace. It was also decided to ‘recycle’ as much as possible from Brighton – bringing fixtures and fittings to London to be used in the new building. Intended as a cost-saving move, this ended up being more costly, and the costs soared to over £95,000. This new wing provided us with the famed balcony on which the Royal Family has stood and greeted the crowds on many joyous occasions.
After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria spent as little time there as possible, preferring to be at Windsor Castle, Balmoral Castle or Osborne House. Therefore, when Edward VII became King in 1901, he and Queen Alexandra took on the redecoration of their new home.
The last significant change was the re-design of the forecourt – the ‘front yard’ – and the refacing of the East Front. This was completed in 1913, during the reign of King George V and included the addition of the beautiful Victoria Memorial fountain.
The State Apartments are located in the West wing, overlooking the palace gardens, with the majority being on the first floor. These are the rooms used for official functions and entertaining, as well as being open to the public for several months each year.
On the Ground floor is the Grand Entrance and Hall, with the Grand Staircase just to the south. Beyond that, running south to north, is the Marble Hall, with the Minister’s Staircase at the northern end. Directly behind the Marble Hall, in the center of the west wing overlooking the garden, is the Bow Room. This is where the Queen traditionally hosts the arrival lunch for a visiting Head of State, and where guests make their entrance to the gardens at Her Majesty’s garden parties.
On the first floor, at the southern end is the Ballroom. Added by Queen Victoria in 1855, this is most recognized today as the setting for State Banquets and investitures, as well as the annual Diplomatic Reception. Added in conjunction with the Ballroom, the Ball Supper Room (on the east side) is used as a ballroom during the Diplomatic Reception and is the setting for various exhibits when the Palace is open to the public in August and September. The Ballroom and Ball Supper Room are connected to the rest of the State rooms by the East and West Galleries. (The East Gallery also provides access to the Household Corridor, which runs the entire length of the south wing, connecting the West and East wings).
Other State Rooms on the first floor include the State Dining Room, Blue Drawing Room, Music Room and White Drawing Room, all overlooking the gardens, and the Green Drawing Room and Throne Room, both overlooking the quadrangle. These rooms are all connected via the Picture Gallery, which runs along the center of the West wing. The White Drawing Room, at the northern end, is connected via a secret door to the Queen’s private apartments. (In the photo above, this entrance is located behind the larger mirror and chest to the left of the portrait of Queen Alexandra, as seen in the photo below.)
On the back side of the west wing is the Queen’s Gallery. Originally Queen Victoria’s private chapel, it was destroyed by bombs in WWII. Rebuilt in 1962 as a place for exhibits from the Royal Collection, The Queen’s Gallery underwent an extensive renovation and expansion, being reopened in 2002 as part of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations.
The Semi-State Rooms, also located in the West wing, are used for less formal events, such as luncheons and private audiences. These include the Bow Room, the 1844 Room (named in honor of a state visit by Tsar Nicholas I in 1844), the 1855 Room (named in honor of a visit by Napoleon III in 1855), the Regency Room, and the Belgian Suite. The Belgian Suite is traditionally where a Head of State stays when visiting the Palace. Comprised of several rooms, including the Orleans Room and several bathrooms, this is also the suite of rooms that Edward VIII occupied during his brief reign as King.
At the center of the East front, on the first floor, is the Centre Room – home to the famed balcony we see in thousands of photographs. Flanking the Centre Room, overlooking the Mall, are several guest suites for official visitors.
The Private Apartments are the personal rooms of the Queen and members of the Royal Family. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh occupy a large suite of rooms situated on the first floor of the North wing. These include the Queen’s Audience Room, where she hosts her Prime Minister every week as well as other officials and members of her household.
On the second floor of the East wing are the private apartments and offices of the Duke of York (southern end) and the Earl and Countess of Wessex (northern end) – all overlooking the Victoria Memorial.
Keeping in mind that Buckingham Palace is far more an office than a home, the offices of the Monarchy are scattered throughout the palace. The Queen’s Private Secretary’s offices are located on the ground floor of the north wing, just below Her Majesty’s private apartments, while her Ladies-in-Waiting find themselves in offices on the second floor of the East Wing, overlooking the Mall.
The south wing finds the Keeper of the Privy Purse, the travel and personnel departments, the Post Office and switchboard – all on the ground floor, while above them are the Master of the Household’s department and the Queen’s Senior Equerry, who handles Her Majesty’s private social arrangements.
Elsewhere are the offices of The Princess Royal and Princess Alexandra, as well as the offices and bedrooms of the hundreds of people who call Buckingham Palace ‘home’ or ‘office’… or both.