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FeaturesPalaces & Buildings

A look at the top five royal residences

The British Monarchy has acquired residences across Great Britain through the centuries and moulded them to their own preferences. We look at the top five royal residences, how they were acquired, how they have changed over the centuries and the use that Queen Elizabeth II and her family use them now.

Buckingham Palace


You might be mistaken in thinking that Buckingham Palace, with its imposing position at the end of The Mall, was built as a Royal Palace, but in fact, as the name suggests it was originally Buckingham House and the residence of the Duke of Buckingham. The land had been in royal hands in the time of William I and had passed in and out of royal hands through the centuries. The land was acquired by the Duke of Buckingham in the late seventeenth century, and he had a townhouse built on the site by 1703.

Part of the site, which was leased by the Duke was a former mulberry garden owned by the Crown dating back to a time when King Henry VIII purchased St James’s Palace. Buckingham House was purchased by King George III in 1761 as a private retreat for Queen Charlotte, and the majority of her children were born there. From the late eighteenth century, it was referred to as Buckingham Palace although the administrative centre of the monarchy remained at St James’s Palace.

In 1820, King George IV came to the throne, and it was he, with architect John Nash, who began enlarging the palace to the size it is now. Sadly, King George died before its completion, and Nash was sacked for overspending. King William IV employed Charles Blore to finish the work but died before the tasks were completed. Queen Victoria was the first monarch to call the Palace a royal residence, though she used it little in later years. It was at the beginning of the twentieth century when the real use of the Palace began.

Certain parts of the Palace are open to the public, and of course, the Changing of the Guard is a ceremony which is a must for many tourists visiting London.

Windsor Castle

Jean-Marc Astesana/Flickr

Windsor Castle has been the home of the English monarchy for over one thousand years, and it is the favourite retreat of Queen Elizabeth II when she has a private weekend. It is the largest and oldest inhabited Castle in the world and still the home of many state occasion – including next years wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in the splendid St George’s Chapel.

The original castle was built in the time of William I and was not intended as a Royal Palace, but as part of a defensive ring of castles about one day’s march (20 miles) from London, so that reinforcements could always be drafted in for places such as The Tower of London. It was not until the time of Henry I that the monarch began living at the Castle and slowly through the reigns of Henry II, John and Henry III substantial improvements were made, with high-status accommodation as well as defensive works, as the Castle was successfully defended from a siege during the second Barons War.

Perhaps the most famous period in the Castle’s history is during the reign of Edward III. He instigated the Order of the Garter, which was based at Windsor and spent a lot of money upgrading and improving the Castle. It was said to be the largest and most expensive building project of the Middle Ages, but not all the money came from England – some came as a result of successful battles during the Hundred Years War against France.

Throughout the centuries, Windsor has been not only attractive to the monarchy, but also many visitors of the Crown, especially with its close vicinity to Windsor Great Forest and many a monarch went hunting there. Windsor still provides a welcome for visitors, and occasionally some of the State Visits of leaders are conducted to Windsor rather than Buckingham Palace. The Castle also provides a base for Queen Elizabeth during June for Royal Ascot, which is preceded on the Monday by the annual garter ceremony. The Castle is also the only royal residence apart from Buckingham Palace which has an official Changing of the Guard ceremony.

Palace of Holyrood House

Jay Hogan/Flickr

Holyrood House is The Queen’s Official residence in Scotland and is situated in Edinburgh at the lower end of the Royal Mile which links it to Edinburgh Castle. The current palace was built in the 1670s, but on a site, that had been connected with the Scottish Royal Family for centuries. Holyrood Abbey was founded on the site on the orders of King David I in 1128. Some two centuries later, the Abbey had become an important administrative centre thanks to its closeness to Edinburgh Castle, and it is thought by this time the Abbey guesthouse was being used as a royal residence.

Throughout the fifteenth century, the abbey was the location of many of the marriages and burials of the Scottish Kings, however, between 1501 and 1505 James IV of Scotland erected a new baroque style palace adjacent to the Abbey. Perhaps driven by his impending marriage to Margaret Tudor, they were married in the Abbey, and the Palace was finished shortly after. Sadly, the first century was challenging for the Palace, and it was attacked twice, and in 1603 it ceased to be the home of the King when James VI went down to London to become King James I of England. The Palace was further damaged during the Commonwealth period.

It was not until the nineteenth century that the Palace of Holyrood came back into royal favour, and nowadays The Queen is in residence at the beginning of the summer each year and carries out a number of investitures and engagements. Prince Charles also spends some time in residence at Holyrood as Duke of Rothesay.


Neil Roger/Flickr

The Balmoral estate is in Royal Deeside near Aberdeen, and whereas the first three are official residences of the monarch, Balmoral is a private residence owned by The Queen and has been passed down since the estate was bought by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the late 1840’s. The Queens doctor had recommended Deeside as having a healthier climate than other areas in Scotland that she had stayed previously. Prince Albert bought out the lease, and then later bought the estate.

Queen Victoria liked the area as being one where she could relax away from the travails of what was happening in the world at that time. For Prince Albert, the scenery in the area was very similar to Thuringia in Germany where he was born and grew up. However, the existing house proved too small for the couple, and Prince Albert arranged to have a new building built in the Scottish Baronial style.

The building was designed by William Smith, whose father John had designed improvements to the original building. The construction was finished in 1856, and by the autumn of the next year a new bridge across the Dee had been designed and built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. One of the places the new Castle enabled The Queen to visit was the Highland Games at Braemar, a tradition that has continued to the current day.

Many of the monarchs and their consorts through the twentieth century have made subtle changes to the Castle and its layout, the latest being the Duke of Edinburgh who added herbaceous borders and a water garden. As the property is inherited, rather than following the crown, ownership of Balmoral and Sandringham passed to Edward VIII, following the abdication an arrangement was made and both properties were purchased by King George VI.

Sandringham House

Sandringham House By Mickyflick – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sandringham House in Norfolk is, as indicated above, a private residence of the monarch – although that was not the original reason the house was purchased by the Royal Family. The house was bought by Queen Victoria at the behest of her son the Prince of Wales following his marriage to Princess Alexandra who found the Norfolk countryside similar to her native Denmark. It is possible the Prince also enjoyed the shoots which are still some of the finest in the country.

The house was extended twice first by the Prince of Wales when in fact he had a house knocked down and another built by A J Hubert. This was further extended towards the end of the nineteenth century.

When Queen Victoria died, King Edward VII retained Sandringham for himself, when he died in 1910 Queen Alexandra continued to live in the “Big House” until her death in 1925, King George V used the smaller York Cottage, which had been built in the grounds by his father. Both King George V and King George VI passed away at Sandringham. It is now customary for The Queen to spend Christmas at Sandringham and stay on until February so that she is there for the anniversary of his death and her accession to the throne.