“Dear old Sandringham, the place I love better than anywhere else in the world…” were the words which King George V used to describe the Norfolk retreat, beloved by four generations of the British Royal Family since 1862; it was a sentiment echoed by his son, King George VI who himself wrote it turn: “I have always been happy here, and I love the place.”
Both Kings have a particular association with Sandringham in popular living memory; King George V gave the first ‘Royal Christmas Broadcast’ on the ‘wireless’ to the Empire from Sandringham House’s “business-room” on Christmas Day 1932; the future George VI was born at York Cottage on the Sandringham Estate in 1895, York Cottage being the Sandringham home of George V and Queen Mary, Sandringham House itself being referred to as the ‘Big House’ by comparison.
York Cottage became something of an amazement to Edwardian society, due to its sheer ‘ordinary-ness’ and suburban appearance, but it was precisely because of this that George V loved it, both as Duke of York and King – photographs of York Cottage show the comfortable cosiness of their private interiors, full of pictures and accessories. The future Queen Mary, who showed a keen interest in all forms of art, was intimately involved with The Royal Collection.
George VI gave the first Royal Christmas Broadcast of the Second World War from Sandringham in 1939, dressed in the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet. Sandringham is a preferred choice of residence for Her Majesty The Queen and other Members of The Royal Family to stay from the period of Christmas through until February, traditionally attending Christmas Day Service at the parish Church of St Mary Magdalene on the Estate. Her Royal Highness, Princess Charlotte of Cambridge was christened at the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Sandringham on Sunday 5 July 2015; Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge released four photographs, which were taken after the baptism by royal photographer Mario Testino in the gardens and Drawing Room at Sandringham House. Princess Charlotte was christened by The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby.
Her Majesty The Queen spent her first Christmas at Sandringham in 1926, aged only eight months old when she visited her paternal grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary. As a child during the Second World War, The Queen often stayed at Appleton House on the Sandringham Estate, once so beloved of Edward VII’s daughter, Princess Maud of Wales, who as Queen of Norway, chose to celebrate her Christmases and birthdays at Appleton House, which had been a wedding present to her and the future King Haakon VII from her parents, the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1896.
The Queen inherited Sandringham on the death of George VI, and The Duke of Edinburgh took overall charge of responsibility for running the Estate. The Queen gave her own first ‘Royal Christmas Message’ on BBC radio at 15.07 GMT at Sandringham on Christmas Day 1952, from the same chair and desk that had been used by George V and George VI; Her Majesty The Queen’s first televised ‘Royal Christmas Message’ was broadcast at Christmas 1957, from Sandringham’s Long Library. This also marked the 25th anniversary of the first ‘Royal Christmas Broadcast’, something to which The Queen referred to directly: “Twenty-five years ago my grandfather broadcast the first of these Christmas messages. Today is another landmark because television has made it possible for many of you to see me in your homes on Christmas Day.”The Sandringham House and Estate of 2,800 hectares were purchased as a country home for the future Edward VII at the sum of £220,00, as a result of his visit to Sandringham in February 1862, less than two months after the death of his father, Prince Albert. The plan had been for the Prince to acquire his own country estate, which was interrupted by the sudden death of the Prince Consort on 14 December 1861 at Windsor Castle.
Following his marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863, the Prince and Princess of Wales travelled to Sandringham, which would become their Norfolk home in addition to their primary London residence of Marlborough House on the Mall. While the Prince of Wales introduced initial improvements to the original Georgian stucco property, it became clear that the original house was not large enough for their by now growing family, so the old house was demolished and a new building put up in its place.
The present Sandringham House was designed in Jacobean style to the specifications of the architect A. J Humbert – a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who had been involved with several building projects that claimed a close – and somewhat solemn – association with Queen Victoria’s family, including the alterations to St. Mildred’s Church at Whippingham, the Mausoleum of The Duchess of Kent at Frogmore and most notably, The Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, which housed the tomb of Prince Albert on its consecration in 1862 and also eventually, became the joint burial place of Queen Victoria on her death in 1901.
The main house at Sandringham was completed in 1870; a ballroom was added in 1881 and a conservatory in 1887. An accommodation wing was completed in the 1890s, as befitted the country home of the Prince of Wales, for visiting royalty – something to which the gifts on display today bear witness, such as the Dresden porcelain chandelier from Kaiser Wilhelm II, who visited on three occasions, or the future Tsar Nicholas II, who visited in June 1894. The extended guest accommodation was also necessary, however, for the famed house parties and balls that Sandringham hosted, in a Norfolk recreation of the glittering London social life of the Prince and Princess of Wales, the hub of which was known as the ‘Marlborough House set’, a rival court and centre for fashionable late Victorian high society.
Sandringham was not always the setting for happy associations. However, a year after the building of the new house was completed, the Prince of Wales became seriously ill at Sandringham with typhoid fever. Queen Victoria rushed to Sandringham and the possible deathbed of her eldest son on 29 November 1871; also present was Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice, who was joined by her younger sisters, Princess Louise and Princess Beatrice. Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh also travelled to Sandringham, as did his younger brother Prince Leopold, together with the Duke of Cambridge. It particularly struck Queen Victoria – who had an enduring obsession with dates, especially anniversaries – that the year 1871 marked exactly a decade since the death of the Prince Consort, from the same disease – typhoid.
Queen Victoria anticipated the death of the Prince of Wales on the “ever terrible 14th“, which was how she sometimes referred to the anniversary of the death of Prince Albert, on 14 December 1861. (In an uncanny coincidence, Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, would die at Darmstadt on 14 December 1878; even as she slipped into unconsciousness, murmuring the words ‘dear Papa’ – a direct reference to that “terrible 14th” and the loss of her beloved father, Prince Albert). In fact, exactly ten years to the anniversary of the death of the Prince Consort, the Prince of Wales began to recover, the crisis of anxiety easing with the Prince returning – in Queen Victoria’s words – from the “very verge of the grave” (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 344).
A severe fire broke out at Sandringham House in 1891; following repairs, a new suite of rooms was added by Colonel Edis. The Prince of Wales’s own eldest son, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, died of pneumonia as the result of a bout of influenza aged 28 at Sandringham in 1892. The Prince and Princess of Wales were devastated at their son’s death and the Princess of Wales, in particular, never fully recovered from his death.
The room at Sandringham became something of a shrine – parallels may be seen with the ‘Blue Room’ at Windsor Castle where Prince Albert had died – and the window of Prince Albert Victor’s room is marked by a memorial, visible from the outside of the House. Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence was buried at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, in the Albert Memorial Chapel, in a massive Art Nouveau-style sarcophagus sculpted by Sir Alfred Gilbert, which depicts the Duke of Clarence asleep in military uniform, dominated by a kneeling, winged angel.
Prince Albert Victor’s erstwhile fiancée, Princess Mary of Teck, duly became engaged to his younger brother, George, Duke of York the following year – the couple showed a genuine liking for one another and shared a common loss in his death. Sandringham also witnessed two later royal deaths – George V died there in 1936, George VI in 1952. The coffin of George VI lay in state at Sandringham’s parish Church of St Mary Magdalene, watched over by gamekeepers from the Estate until it was removed to London and thence to Windsor for burial. The future Edward VII – for whom Sandringham had been acquired back in 1862 – had been born at Buckingham Palace in 1841 and died there in 1910.
It was while Queen Victoria was visiting the Prince of Wales during his serious illness that she had the clocks at Sandringham put back. Lady Macclesfield noted that Queen Victoria had “[the clocks] all put back. She thought it a ridiculous habit and a “lie” – so characteristic of her!” (Brett, M. V (ed.) Journals and Letters of Reginald, Viscount Esher, Pg 300, quoted in Ibid, Pg 343). This may not in itself sound significant, but it does, in fact, refer to a significant tradition implemented by the future King Edward VII, known as ‘Sandringham Time’, which ended with the death of George V in 1936.
The fact that ‘Sandringham Time’ was in place in 1871 during the Prince’s illness, proves that it was something well in place before his accession in 1901. ‘Sandringham Time’ was introduced not – as has been popularly supposed – because of the Princess of Wales’s fondness for often being late – but in order to maximise the winter daylight hours for the shooting so beloved of the Prince of Wales, who for this reason ordered that all the clocks on the Sandringham estate be set to half an hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. ‘Sandringham Time’ remained the official time across the Estate, which later led to some confusion as to the correct time of the death of George V in 1936. The tradition was abolished during the brief reign of Edward VIII and was not revived by George VI on his accession.
Sandringham will be where Her Majesty The Queen will spend Christmas this year, together with Members of The Royal Family, including His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales and his fiancée, Ms Meghan Markle.