The balcony of Buckingham Palace is arguably one of the best known in the world and is certainly one of the most photographed. It has provided the setting for many historic appearances, including of course, that of royal weddings. But the balcony, whilst providing the stage for these, enjoys a quite remarkable history in its own right, because of the occasions it has helped to mark.
The lavish remodelling of Buckingham Palace under George IV’s architect John Nash, remained incomplete, despite the fact that the magnificent State and Semi-State Rooms were finished. Nash rebuilt the north and south wings of the Palace, enlarging the main courtyard to celebrate in architecture, the great victories which Britain accomplished during the Napoleonic Wars. The architect Edward Blore was employed to complete the external changes to the Palace, creating the East Front from “soft French stone”, the façade of which was then refaced under Sir Aston Webb during the reign of George V, to create the famous East Front of Portland stone, which we recognise today.
Fittingly, it was the monarch who made Buckingham Palace the official London residence of the Sovereign – Queen Victoria – who really makes first mention and use of the Royal Balcony. Queen Victoria took up residence at Buckingham Palace in 1837, the year of her accession, and set out from Buckingham Palace for both her Coronation in 1838 and for her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. In 1849, Queen Victoria’s children watched the return of the Parade from the Royal Balcony for the Queen’s Birthday, perhaps setting a pattern for present day celebrations of HM The Queen’s Birthday, with the annual Trooping of the Colour being watched by the Royal Family from the Balcony.
As only one of her children actually married in London – the Princess Royal in 1858 – there was no mention of the Royal Balcony as being used in connection with any of the other weddings of the Queen’s children. The Princess Royal’s wedding, however – on 25 January 1858, gave the Queen an opportunity to step onto the Balcony, one of her earliest appearances on it. Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, The Princess Royal – now Crown Princess of Prussia, Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia all appeared on the Royal Balcony, after which the Wedding Breakfast was celebrated, and the young couple departed for Windsor for their honeymoon. Queen Victoria had “stepped onto” the Royal Balcony for the first (recorded) time in 1851, in connection with the festivities for the Grand Opening of the Great Exhibition. Three years later, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the royal children stood again on the Balcony, “much affected” (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 222, 2000), as they bade farewell to the British troops marching off to fight in the Crimean War, following the declaration of war on Russia on 27 March 1854. The Royal Balcony was decked in “red” two years later, when Queen Victoria stepped out once more, this time to watch the troops returning from the Crimea. The tradition of red cloth on the Royal Balcony for Appearances is one which has endured to the present day. Queen Victoria went onto the Royal Balcony following the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of York – the future George V and Queen Mary – who then joined her on the Balcony, to the joy of cheering crowds below.
It is appropriate perhaps, that the Royal Balcony today overlooks the great monument designed to commemorate the Queen, known officially as the Victoria Memorial, situated at the end of the Mall, by the sculptor, Sir Thomas Brock. It was unveiled in 1911 in the presence of King George V, but not completed until 1924.
Continuing a now royal precedent, The Duke and Duchess of York – the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth – stepped out in turn onto the Royal Balcony after their wedding in 1923; this time accompanied by George V, and by Queen Mary, a pleasant repeat of Queen Victoria’s having accompanied her and the future George V onto the Balcony following the celebration of their marriage. The Royal Family appeared again on the Balcony following George VI’s Coronation in 1937. On VE Day – 8 May 1945 – George VI and Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, appeared on the Royal Balcony, to the euphoric cheers of the celebrating crowds on the Mall. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, also joined the Royal Family.
The Royal Family on the Royal Balcony at Buckingham Palace (l-r HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, HRH The Prince of Wales, HM The Queen, TRH The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, HRH Prince Henry of Wales (By Ben from LONDON, United Kingdom [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip stepped onto the Royal Balcony, together with Princess Margaret, George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, after their wedding in 1947; on the occasion of the Coronation of Her Majesty The Queen in 1953, The Queen stood on the Balcony with her ladies-in-waiting, Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, HRH The Prince of Wales and HRH The Princess Royal. Princess Margaret also appeared on the Balcony with Antony-Armstrong Jones after their wedding ceremony, in 1960. The Princess Royal made an Appearance on the Royal Balcony, with the Royal Family, after her wedding to Captain Mark Philips in 1973. It provided the opportunity for HRH The Prince of Wales and Diana, Princess of Wales to show themselves to a rapturous public following their wedding in 1981; this was repeated in turn by Prince Andrew, Duke of York and Sarah, Duchess of York, on their marriage in 1986. Most recently, the Royal Balcony provided the setting for the Appearance of TRH The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, following their wedding at Westminster Abbey in 2011.
The Royal Balcony continues its tradition as the place from which the Royal Family watch the RAF Flypast at the close of the annual Trooping of the Colour celebrations for Her Majesty The Queen’s official Birthday. It also incidentally, hosted the royal gathering for the national commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 2015, when Hurricanes and Spitfires flew over the Palace. Her Majesty’s 80th Birthday in 2006 was the occasion for a special version of the RAF Flypast, to which a ‘feu de joie’ (fire of joy) was also added.
Roughly a million people are calculated to have stood in the Mall to see Her Majesty The Queen step out onto the Royal Balcony, accompanied by the Royal Family, on the spectacular occasion of the Diamond Jubilee in 2012, a magnificent celebration across the entire Commonwealth, which also featured a special Flypast and again, a ‘feu de joie’. Her Majesty The Queen had also made Appearances on the Balcony for both her Golden Jubilee in 2002 and her Silver Jubilee in 1977. The future Queen Elizabeth II had also been present as a nine year-old on the Royal Balcony, with Princess Margaret and her paternal grandparents, for the Silver Jubilee celebrations of King George V in 1935.
The Mall exploded in colour and celebration when HM The Queen walked out onto the Balcony with the Royal Family, to witness a special Flypast for her official 90th Birthday Celebrations on 11 June 2016, following The Queen’s Birthday Parade on Horse Guards Parade. The next day, a massive street party and Parade was celebrated in the Mall, by over 600 of The Queen’s charities and organisations of which she holds the Royal Patronage – an event which has come to be known as The Patron’s Lunch.
Accession Day is however, a day which Her Majesty The Queen prefers to spend privately at Sandringham, the royal residence of the Monarch in Norfolk. In contrast to her Coronation Day, it is not a day for a Royal Balcony Appearance. The Queen’s Sapphire Anniversary, celebrated in 2017, was like the Accession Anniversaries which have preceded it, correspondingly spent at Sandringham. This choice has an extremely personal significance for The Queen, as Sandringham was where George VI died in 1952; seemingly underlining her own accession as being doubly, also the date of her father’s death.
The Royal Balcony, therefore, whilst playing host to historical – and usually milestone – Royal Appearances, is in itself, a crucial link between the Monarchy and the British public, underlining the importance of the occasion on which these appearances take place. It has been a traditional viewpoint from which the Monarchy has always been visible on significant dates, a legacy which began with Queen Victoria, the great-great-grandmother of Her Majesty The Queen. It is, therefore – something of a royal timeline, crafted in Portland stone.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018