Among the most opulent historical buildings in England are its palaces. Here are 9 of the most spectacular ones—most of them royal palaces but a few others too.
Earlier versions of the descriptions of these buildings first appeared in 1001 Amazing Places You Must See Before You Die, edited by Richard Cavendish (2016). Writers’ names appear in parentheses.
The old royal palace of Whitehall, known to generations of monarchs from Henry VIII onward, burned down in a disastrous fire in 1698, apparently caused by a careless washerwoman. All that is left of it is the Banqueting House. It was built for James I, who scornfully described an earlier building on the site as a rotten shed and had an impressive replacement designed, in what was then a controversial Neoclassical style, by Inigo Jones. Completed in 1622, it included a gallery from which subjects could watch their sovereign dine in state. The building was used for various ceremonies, and in 1629 Charles I commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to produce nine massive ceiling panels, which were painted in Antwerp. Installed by 1635, they glorified the Stuart dynasty and the blessings of its beneficent rule.
Ironically enough, it was from here that Charles I stepped out to his execution, through one of the windows onto a scaffold erected outside. The king had been brought under guard from St. James’s Palace, where he had spent his last night on earth, and he met the executioner’s ax with calm dignity in front of a large crowd. It was also in the Banqueting House that Charles II celebrated his restoration to the throne in 1660 and here that William and Mary were formally offered the throne in 1689. The building later spent time as the Chapel Royal and a museum until being restored and opened to the public in 1963. (Richard Cavendish)
One of Britain’s biggest houses, Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, is the only nonroyal and nonecclesiastical residence in England to be styled a palace. Designed in grand Baroque style by Sir John Vanbrugh, it was built between 1705 and 1722 for John Churchill, 1st duke of Marlborough, as a reward from Queen Anne for his victory over the French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Fine paintings and tapestries in the house celebrate the duke’s battles. The estate had belonged to the royal family since the Middle Ages and it was there, according to tradition, that Henry II built a retreat for his mistress, Fair Rosamond, and there that the Black Prince was born.
So colossal was the building and so vast the expense that Parliament began to grumble. So did the duke’s redoubtable duchess, who had begun life as Sarah Jennings and became a close friend of Queen Anne. The duchess of Marlborough was known to be difficult to please, and she complained bitterly about the unseemly costliness and showiness of the palace, which was a monument rather than a home. The building was finished in the year of her much-loved husband’s death, and she erected on the grounds a column with a statue of him on top.
The Marlboroughs left no male heir, and the house and estate passed to a branch of the Spencers, who took the additional name of Churchill in 1817. Lord Randolph Churchill was born at Blenheim and played a lively role in the politics of his time. His son Winston was born there in 1874. Winston proposed to his wife, Clementine, in the park, and they are both buried nearby in Bladon churchyard. The palace and park, by their refusal of the French models of classicism, illustrate the beginnings of the English Romantic movement, which was characterized by the eclecticism of its inspiration, a return to national sources, and a love of nature. (Richard Cavendish)
Buckingham House in London was originally built for one of the dukes of Buckingham in 1703. George III acquired it in 1762 as a family home for himself and Queen Charlotte, away from the formality of his official St. James’s residence. The house filled up with the king’s magnificent book collection and many works of art.
The alterations that made the place a palace began in 1825, when George IV’s favourite architect, John Nash, began rebuilding it and providing it with suitably grand staterooms and a gorgeous main staircase, at what proved to be stupefying expense. The work was completed by Edward Blore, who in 1847 added the east front facing The Mall, which is most people’s view of the palace and the backdrop to the changing of the guard.
From her accession in 1837, Queen Victoria was the first sovereign to make Buckingham Palace her main London residence, for official purposes as well as domestic ones. She and Prince Albert lived there, and most of their children were born there. The staterooms have been used ever since for royal entertaining and the reception of official visitors. They display many of the finest treasures in the royal collection of paintings, sculpture, furniture, and porcelain that was put together by Elizabeth II’s predecessors—especially Charles I and George IV. The royal standard flies from the flagstaff when the queen is in residence and is hauled down the second she leaves. (Richard Cavendish)
In the old days, Hampton Court, lying about 12 miles (19 km) to the west of London, was reached by boat along the River Thames, a far easier journey than by road. The palace was a favourite of generations of English monarchs, who lavished money on the house and grounds, which include the country’s most famous maze. Hampton Court was originally built by Cardinal Wolsey, the butcher’s son who rose to be chief minister of Henry VIII. The splendour of his hospitality dazzled his contemporaries, but, when he fell out of favour with Henry, he handed the palace over to the king in the vain hope of placating him.
Henry made the house bigger and grander still and added the astronomical clock. He and five of his wives spent time at the palace. Jane Seymour died there after giving birth to the future Edward VI, and the ghost of Catherine Howard is said to haunt the palace, still screaming for mercy from the king after being sentenced to death. Elizabeth I, who liked getting her hands dirty gardening in the grounds—provided that no one important could witness her activity—spent her Christmases at Hampton Court, and plays were presented before her in the Great Hall. Shakespeare acted in plays there in James I’s time, and the conference that led to the King James Bible was held at the palace. Charles II spent his honeymoon there, and William III had the buildings substantially enlarged by Sir Christopher Wren.
The early Hanoverians loved Hampton Court too, and George II employed Sir John Vanbrugh and William Kent to make further improvements. He was the last sovereign to live there, because George III had unhappy boyhood memories of the place. From George III’s time, the palace was largely given over to ”grace and favour” residences—apartments awarded to those who had performed some service to the nation. Queen Victoria first opened the palace to the public in 1838. (Richard Cavendish)
Originally called Nottingham House, after its former owner, the earl of Nottingham, Kensington Palace was bought in 1689 by William III, who had been finding the old palace of Whitehall, by the Thames, bad for his asthma. The newly acquired building, also in London, was reconstructed by Sir Christopher Wren. The court moved to the palace during Christmas 1689 following the efforts of Queen Mary, who, impatient to move in, frequently visited to hurry the workmen along. Soon after one of her visits, several people were killed when some newly erected construction work fell down because it had been put up too quickly.
Queen Anne and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, another asthmatic, also liked the palace. So did George I, who had new staterooms constructed, and George II, whose consort, Queen Caroline, had the gardens laid out anew. George III preferred Buckingham Palace, and from then on Kensington Palace was used for junior royals and connections. The duke and duchess of Kent moved in, and their only child, the future Queen Victoria, was born in one of the ground-floor rooms in 1819. It was her London home all through her girlhood, and it was there in 1837 that she was officially informed of her accession to the throne. She soon moved to Buckingham Palace to get away from her mother. A marble Queen Victoria remains, enthroned in front of the palace.
The duke and duchess of Teck lived in Kensington Palace from 1867, and their daughter Mary, future wife of George V, was born there. Queen Victoria’s artist daughter, Princess Louise, lived in the palace from 1880 until 1939, and the London Museum was there from 1950 until it moved to its own building in 1975. The palace was home to Princess Alice, Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana, whose funeral procession started from there in 1997. (Richard Cavendish)
Penshurst Place is linked with the Sidney family, who acquired the estate near Tonbridge, Kent, in 1552 and from 1618 were earls of Leicester. Their most glamorous figure, Sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan poet, courtier, and diplomat, was born there in 1554, and his father, Sir William Sidney, planted a nut tree on the grounds to celebrate his arrival. Sir Philip, who was mortally wounded in battle in the Netherlands in 1586, is said to have based the idyllic home he described in his Arcadia on Penshurst Place. The family portraits include those of Sir Philip and also Algernon Sidney, who was executed for treason in 1683 and buried at Penshurst.
The Sidneys enlarged the original manor house, which had been built in the 1340s by Sir John de Pulteney, a rich wool merchant who was four times Lord Mayor of London. The most striking survival from his time is the imposing Barons’ Hall. After his death, the house passed to a succession of royal dukes and then to the duke of Buckingham, who entertained Henry VIII there in 1519 but was executed soon afterward.
The Sidney male line died out in the 18th century, and John Shelley, a relative of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, succeeded to the estate and took the surname of Sidney in 1793. The family later acquired the title of Lords De L’Isle and Dudley. An arboretum on the grounds commemorates the 1st Viscount De L’Isle, who won the Victoria Cross in World War II and was governor-general of Australia in the 1960s. (Richard Cavendish)
The process that turned the obscure fishing village of Brighthelmstone on the Sussex coast into Brighton, the queen of English seaside resorts, started in the 1750s when a certain Dr. Richard Russell settled there and recommended sea bathing and drinking seawater for good health. Wealthy invalids began rolling up to take the cure, and in 1783 the prince of Wales, future prince regent and king, George IV, paid a visit in the hope of alleviating his gout. He rented a farmhouse near the seafront and in 1787 had the architect Henry Holland build him a substantial Classical-style villa there.
From 1815 to 1822 the house was transformed by John Nash into something resembling the mythical pleasure dome of Kublai Khan, with minarets and domes in the Mughal manner and wildly extravagant Indian- and Chinese-style interiors. Even in the kitchen, the cooks worked among cast-iron palm trees, and it is said that when George first set foot in his new music room, he wept for sheer joy. Brighton quickly acquired a reputation for licentiousness. One of its advantages for George was that he could keep Maria Fitzherbert, whom he had secretly and illegally married in 1785, close by him. She had a house on the Old Steine thoroughfare.
George gave Brighton its royal cachet, but the Pavilion was not really Queen Victoria’s style, and she abandoned it. The furniture and fittings were largely shipped off to London, and in 1849 the pleasure dome was sold to the town council for ￡53,000 (equivalent to $6 million or more today). It was used variously as a hospital, concert venue, and radar station, and gradually its condition deteriorated. In 1982 an ambitious program of restoration of the structure and stonework was begun, followed by refurbishment of the magnificently exotic interiors. To complete the picture, many of the original items have been returned on loan from the royal family. (Richard Cavendish)
When King Edward the Confessor built Westminster Abbey, he also built a palace for himself close by, which became the main London residence of the English kings until 1529. Westminster Hall was added by William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, as a grand banqueting hall. Dissatisfied, he complained that the hall was too small.
From the 13th century the hall was used as the home for the principal law courts, and they ceased to meet there only in the 19th century. Some of the early parliaments assembled there too. In 1397 Richard II gave the building a magnificent hammer-beam roof with the widest unsupported span in England. There were shops in the hall, along with the courts, lawyers, jurymen, and many spectators. Stalls sold law books, clothes, and toys, and the place in full swing must have been a scene of remarkable noise and confusion.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment in Westminster Hall’s history came in 1649, when Charles I was put on trial there and sentenced to death, but there have been many others. William Wallace had been condemned to death in the hall in 1305, as had Anne Boleyn in 1536 and Guy Fawkes in 1606, and Oliver Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector there in 1653. His severed head afterward spent years stuck up on the roof, but there is a statue of him outside today. At coronation banquets it was customary for the royal champion to ride into the hall on horseback and challenge to fight to the death anyone who questioned the new sovereign’s right to succeed. In the great flood of 1812, three or four boats full of men rowed into the building, which has seen the lying in state of sovereigns and other important figures, including William Gladstone, Edward VII and George VI, Sir Winston Churchill, and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. (Richard Cavendish)
The palace near Westminster Abbey was a royal residence from Edward the Confessor’s time before 1066 until the reign of Henry VIII. It was eventually taken over for the House of Lords and the House of Commons, whose 16th-century members faced each other across the choir stalls of St. Stephen’s Chapel, with the speaker in the position of the altar. It was there that figures such as the Elder and Younger Pitts and Charles James Fox debated. In 1834, however, it was decided to burn a lot of unwanted Exchequer tally-sticks in a furnace beneath the Lords. By next morning much of the palace was a smoking ruin. Most of today’s richly towered and pinnacled edifice dates from the rebuilding.
It was decided to rebuild in “the Gothic or Elizabethan style.” The principal architects were Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin, with a committee under Prince Albert overseeing the choice of painting and sculpture. Building work began in 1837, the Lords moved back in 1847, and the new House of Commons—where Gladstone and Disraeli, Lloyd George and Baldwin, Churchill and Attlee, and other famous figures would debate—was opened in 1852. The grand Victoria Tower, through which the sovereign enters the building to open Parliament, was finished in 1860. The most famous single element of the palace is the clock, with its bell, Big Ben. Crowds lined the streets to see the 13.5-ton bell drawn to the site in 1858 and hoisted into the 320-foot- (98-metre-) high clock tower. Its sonorous tones have since symbolized both London and Britain. The House of Commons, damaged by bombs in World War II, was rebuilt. (Richard Cavendish)