I was going to tack on this weekend’s news about the Prince of Wales and Buckingham Palace to yesterday’s royal roundup, but as I dug into it I decided it deserved a post of its own. Long story short, there’s a rumor circulating that Charles is considering opening up BP for a longer portion of each year to increase the palace’s commercial viability and allow him to spend more time living elsewhere. BP would still be used for state occasions and serve as office space, as well as remain the monarch’s official residence.
Today BP is open less than three months of the year when the Queen is officially residing at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Those are the months when tourists are allowed to pay to enter to see the state rooms, but otherwise it’s still very much a “working palace.” The other point worth considering is that literally everyone hates BP except those who don’t live there. On the inside it is cramped, uncomfortable and ridiculously ugly. Certain passages, frankly, look more like a mid-century hotel at a reasonable price point. The shock and awe of the building is very much relegated to its exterior and the opulence of the state rooms used for formal dinners, receptions and public occasions.
While today we associate BP as “the” home of the monarch, that’s also a fairly modern perception. The building was purchased at the start of George III’s reign in the 1760s and given to his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, for her personal use. It was meant to be a small, comfortable home in which Charlotte could relax and raise her children – indeed, 14 of her 15 children were born there.
The house was passed down to her eldest son, George IV, who began to remodel it to make it. Those renovations continued through the reign of his younger brother, William IV, and the first monarch to actually use it as a proper residence was Queen Victoria who ascended the throne in 1837. The catch was that neither George IV nor William IV were planning to use it as a “family home” and as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert continued to have children over the 1840s and 1850s, the palace simply didn’t have the residential space to accommodate them.
Their investment into the Palace was to build a new wing, which thus created the quadrangle formation with which we are familiar today. But in fact, Windsor Castle was Victoria and Albert’s principle residence and when Albert died in 1861, the Queen preferred Windsor when she had to be near London and BP was mostly neglected for the second half of the 19th century.
When Edward VII ascended the throne in 1901 BP had a resurgence primarily because the King and his wife, Alexandra of Denmark, had long been fixtures of London society. Over the course of Edward’s nine-year reign the Palace was renovated and redecorated, work that continued into the reign of his son, George V, when he succeeded in 1910.
George and his wife, Mary of Teck, very much BP as their London base, pointedly remaining there throughout World War I, a practice then mirrored by their son, George VI, and his wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, during World War II. It is these two reigns that truly cemented the image we have of the monarch being in the “heart” of London via this particular palace.
When Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1952, the tradition was kept up for several reasons, not least of which was the fact that her father’s presence at BP had been a large part of the popular optics associated with the previous decade’s war.
That was of course 65 years ago, and when you consider that the last substantial work was done in the early 20th century, its major renovations a century before that and its layout a century before that and you are left with a Frankenstein of architecture and design that is well-mirrored in the reality of living in it. The Queen has long made clear her preference for Windsor and, frankly, that castle makes a lot more sense as the monarch’s official home, despite the fact it’s not in London. Its history is unparalleled and it has the distinction of being used or touched by nearly every reign since the Normans.
Even so, it’s not a skip and a jump away from Parliament or the capitol’s infrastructure, thus bringing us back to BP. So, what to do with it? I think Charles has the right idea, which is to ensure that it’s opened up and accessible to the public, use it as a “working palace” and ensure it still makes up the home base of the monarch’s work, but otherwise limit the actual time spent there.
Some of the draw for palaces is most certainly the fact that the RF “lives” there and that’s a factor that everyone will need to be cognizant of when making any sort of transition, but the fact of the matter is most people don’t understand what a “working palace” means, nor do they understand the concept of apartments, wings or separate residences because it’s utterly foreign. A palace is not just a family home on steroids, it’s essentially a small village condensed into a building where some people occasionally sleep.
If that doesn’t sound homey, well, then join the club. More than anything, what this illustrates to me is that the next reign, whenever it begins and however long it lasts, is going to be very, very interesting.