According to a report in The Sunday Times, the Queen usually returns to Buckingham Palace in London by October after her summer break in Scotland. This year, however, she would be moving back to Windsor Castle in the English county of Berkshire, where she had been isolating along with her husband, Prince Phillip and a small group of staff.
The Queen’s absence from Buckingham Palace is significant given that it is likely to be the longest that she will be away in her 68-year old reign. Buckingham Palace is the administrative headquarters of the monarch of the United Kingdom, and has been so since 1837 when Queen Victoria acceded to the throne. The only time the monarch has left it has been for short periods, in moments of crisis or grievance, or the annual getaways by the present Queen, when she spends time and performs ceremonial duties from Windsor Castle.
Buckingham Palace before Queen Victoria
The large, ornate building, and expansive gardens of Buckingham Palace has served as an important site for the ceremonial and political affairs of the United Kingdom. Before its occupation as the administrative headquarters of the monarchy, it was St. James’ Palace, located about a quarter of a mile away, that served the purpose.
The site on which Buckingham Palace is located was owned by the British monarchy for more than 400 years. In the 16th century, King James I had acquired the land to use it as a garden for the royals. It also had a four-acre grove of mulberry trees, which he hoped to use for silk production.
In 1698, a red brick mansion in this plot of land was sold off to a man named John Sheffield, who was later titled the ‘Duke of Buckingham’. It is after him that the house came to be so named.
It was King George III, the grandfather of Queen Victoria, who bought the Buckingham House from the heirs of the Duke of Buckingham in 1761. Soon after their first son was born, King George III and his consort, Queen Charlotte, found St. Jame’s Palace to be too small for their use. Thereafter, Buckingham House passed into royal ownership. “It was chosen primarily as a dower house for Queen Charlotte, but the King and Queen grew to like it so much that it became their London residence,” writes historian H. Clifford Smith in his article ‘Buckingham Palace’, published in 1953. “The forerunner of the present palace became known as the ‘Queen’s House, but courts continued to be held at St. James Palace,” he added.
After the death of George III, his son George IV, who ascended to the throne at the age of 60, favoured the comfort of Buckingham house and wished to make it the royal residence. Consequently, he hired architect John Nash to expand and renovate the building.
However, his brother and successor William IV was not interested in residing at Buckingham Palace and preferred instead the Clarence House, which is attached to St. James Palace. Even when the House of Parliament was destroyed by a fire in the 1830s, and William IV was offered Buckingham Palace for his legislature, he had politely refused.
After his death in 1837, his niece Queen Victoria took up the crown, and became the first monarch to make Buckingham Palace her official residence. Since then, the palace has retained its stature.
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Buckingham Palace as seat of royalty
Though Buckingham Palace remained the official residence of Queen Victoria until her death in 1901, there were many aspects of the palace that she wanted remodelled or expanded to suit the needs of her growing family. For instance, soon after she and her husband Prince Albert moved in, they are said to have realised that the palace remained too cold frequently, it lacked proper ventilation, and was also quite dirty. Over the years, Prince Albert busied himself with renovating the palace. As the family grew in size, new wings, balconies and other exteriors were added.
After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, the widowed queen effectively secluded herself, refusing to attend almost all royal ceremonies and social occasions. During the 1860s, she would frequently spend long lengths of time at Windsor Castle, the Balmoral Castle in Scotland and the Osborne House in East Cowes. During this time, Buckingham Palace was almost neglected. In 1864, at a time when the monarchy was under a lot of criticism for the Queen’s absence from public life, a note was found pinned to the railings outside Buckingham Palace that read: “These commanding premises be let or sold, in consequence of the late occupant’s declining business.”
Eventually, though public opinion convinced Queen Victoria to return, she stayed away as much as possible. Ceremonial functions took place at Windsor Castle while Buckingham Palace remained shut for large parts of the year.
Under the successors of Queen Victoria- King Edward VII, King George V, and King George VI- life at Buckingham Palace was revived, and large architectural features added as well. During the Second World War, King George VI and his Queen stayed on at the palace, even though they would spend the evenings with their daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, at Windsor Castle, where they had been shifted for safety.
Before Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1952, she lived with her husband Prince Philip at Clarence House. An episode from the historical drama ‘The Crown’, written by playwright Peter Morgan and based on the reign of the Queen, illustrates very well the significance of Buckingham Palace. After the young Queen Elizabeth II (played by Claire Foy) informs prime minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), of her and her husband’s intention to stay on at Clarence House, she is soon informed of the cabinet’s decision against her wishes. “The home of the sovereign of the United Kingdom is Buckingham Palace,” she explains to her husband (played by Matt Smith), while telling him why they have to move out of Clarence House. She goes on to agree with him on the fact that she hates the place, but decides to go along with it since it is overwhelming advice from the cabinet. Of course, we must remember that the Netflix series has been fictionalised to some extent. Nonetheless, the episode gives indications of what Buckingham Palace means to the British monarchy.
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The Queen’s absence from Buckingham Palace also needs to be read in context of the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has caused massive losses to the income of the Royal Collection Trust, whose main source of income is tourism. The trust recently announced that it would be incurring a loss of around £30 million this year, as the palaces continue to remain closed to the public. Consequently, it has also led to slashing of jobs at the palaces.