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The Queen's House: A Social History of Buckingham Palace

The Queen's House: A Social History of Buckingham Palace

by Edna Healey

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A biography of the world’s most famous house and the story of its vital role in the history of a nation 
In this social history of Buckingham Palace, Edna Healey mines the royal archives to take the reader into its moonlit gardens, up the grand staircase, and inside its tapestried walls. Dr. Johnson again holds forth in the library, Queen


A biography of the world’s most famous house and the story of its vital role in the history of a nation 
In this social history of Buckingham Palace, Edna Healey mines the royal archives to take the reader into its moonlit gardens, up the grand staircase, and inside its tapestried walls. Dr. Johnson again holds forth in the library, Queen Victoria encores Mendelssohn in the music room, and in the royal chambers Fanny Burney wrestles once more with protocol.  Written with the assistance of the royal family, this lively and colorful biography of a house reveals not only the changing façade of the palace but also the changing face of a nation’s culture, morals, fashions, and tastes.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The mansion the Duke of Buckingham built overlooking St. James's Park was so elegant that King George II tried to buy it--he couldn't afford the asking price. But the Buckinghams fell on hard times, so, in 1761, George II's grandson, George III, bought it for 28,000. That is the real beginning of this entertainingly gossipy look at Buckingham Palace and its royal inhabitants that Healey (Lady Unknown) has researched in the Royal Archives and in interviews with many members of the present queen's household. The house was transformed by John Nash under George IV into an extravagant palace for his rich furnishings and art, but his successor, William IV, so hated the huge pile that he tried to give it away to Parliament. Healey gives a lively description of succeeding changes in monarchs, entertainments, ceremony, architecture and amenities from Victoria (who introduced water closets) to Elizabeth II (who has lived in the palace since she was 10). Healey reserves her greatest admiration for George VI and Queen Mum and their decision to remain in the palace throughout WWII, despite the heavy damage caused by Nazi air raids. In her final chapter, Healy abandons a witty pungent style for a more defensive, sycophantic tone praising Elizabeth II's thrifty ways, devotion to duty and warm, open manner. Perhaps Princess Di's partisans will resent the cozy portrayal, but others will delight in this well-written chronicle of the house of the House of Windsor. 8 pages b&w and 16 pages color photos not seen by PW. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Healey, wife of former cabinet minister Lord Healey, has written an informative and entertaining history of Buckingham Palace. The palace has been home to British monarchs since George III bought Buckingham House in 1761 for 28,000. He gave it to his young bride, Charlotte, and throughout his lifetime it was known as the Queen's House. Healey does a fine job of detailing the building's transformation into a palace, but those looking for scandal won't find it--Healey is interested in art, architecture, and history, and her stories of the royal family, while fascinating, relate strictly to her subject. Andrew Morton's Inside Buckingham Palace (Summit Bks., 1991), in contrast, deals with the people inside the palace and not the palace itself. Libraries that own Compton Mackenzie's The Queen's House (1953) will want to purchase Healey's more thorough work. Recommended for academic and public libraries.--Elizabeth Mary Mellett, Brookline P.L., MA
Kirkus Reviews
A tireless biography of the house first dubbed a gift to Queen Charlotte in 1763 and its transformations during nine generations of British monarchy. The politics of choosing an architect and designer are proportionate to appointing a successor to the British crown, according to Healey's enormously detailed account of Buckingham Palace and the goings-on within, which will satisfry the most voracious Anglophile. Two hundred years of palatial minutiae are revealed through the lens of royal choices in aesthetics. Healey writes affectionately of the sovrreigns' inspirations and idiosyncrasies, and although more is said of the royals and how they ruled than of the palace and how it stood, Healey valiantly chronicles each architectural reconstruction and takes every opportunity to link the dwellers to their home. "When King George came to the throne he inherited two immediate problems: the front of the Palace, which needed urgent attention, and the stormy passage of the Liberal government's Parliament Bill, aimed at curbing the power of the Lords." Indeed, it would seem every coronation led to an equal number of architectural and political concerns. Healey's moderate doses of imagination lend poignancy to profiles, like his depiction of King George III's patience with sculptor Joseph Nolleken's pinching "his nose while measuring with his calipers" and Queen Victoria's wish to be in spirit with her deceased, beloved Prince Albert "at breakfast under the trees at Frogmore" the morning of her Golden Jubilee. By the time the palace is bombed in WWII, Healey has made it sufficiently heroic, as proven by King George VI's and Queen Elizabeth I's determination to remain in their home, despite theinvasion it suffers. Nine air attacks on the edifice takes on heartbreaking grandeur, thanks to Healey's dramatic account of its well-being. A clever inclusion of architecture in the essence of English royal history.

“Welcome to Chez Windsor! The book, prepared with the cooperation of the queen, Princess Margaret, and various members of the royal household, will definitely hold the interest of European history buffs.”— Brad Hooper
Times Literary Supplement
“Meticulously chronicled and sumptuously illustrated. Edna Healey is conspicuously skillful.”— Jonathan Keates
Brad Hooper - Booklist
“Welcome to Chez Windsor! The book, prepared with the cooperation of the queen, Princess Margaret, and various members of the royal household, will definitely hold the interest of European history buffs.”
Jonathan Keates - Times Literary Supplement
“Meticulously chronicled and sumptuously illustrated. Edna Healey is conspicuously skillful.”

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The Queen's House

By Edna Healey


Copyright © 1998 Edna Healy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-6527-7


The Duke of Buckingham

'Sic situ laetantur lares' [The Household Gods delight in such a situation]

Inscription around the roof of the Duke of Buckingham's house

Palaces and Predecessors

George III was the first monarch to take up residence in Buckingham House, but the site had had royal connections since the Tudors and each of his predecessors had added something to the history of Buckingham Palace.

Every king or queen, past and present, has had a different concept of the purpose of a palace: an outward sign of power and dominance, a symbol of mystical status, or an expression of the monarch's own whims and fantasies. George III, essentially a simple man, wanted, in addition to his official residence, St James's Palace, a family home where he could live with his adored young wife, bring up a family and lead the life of a cultured country gentleman with his books, his pictures and his music.

Henry VIII was the first monarch to acquire the land adjoining the site of the Palace. His father, Henry VII, had made the medieval Palace of Westminster* both home and royal headquarters. His law courts and Parliament were here and here he held Court in the Painted Chamber, his great bedroom.

Henry VIII had been king for only three years, when in 1512 fire destroyed much of the old palace. In 1529, when Cardinal Wolsey fell from grace, the King took the opportunity to seize York Place, the Cardinal's magnificent palace on the bank of the River Thames. The Palace of Westminster still housed Parliament and the law courts but was no longer the royal residence. It has retained, however, the old name and is still the Palace of Westminster. York Place became the Palace of Whitehall and for a century and a half was the headquarters of the Court until it, in turn, was destroyed by fire.

Henry VIII, with his superabundant energy, expected his palace to be more than a seat of state and a symbol of dominance: it was also to be a place of frolic and entertainment. He looked across Whitehall to a stretch of wasteland and saw it as a perfect hunting ground conveniently close to his palace. So in December 1531 he acquired from Roger Lupton of Eton College the 185 acres stretching from Whitehall to the site of the present Buckingham Palace. The land was, at this time, reedy marshland watered by two streams, the Westbourne and the Tyburn. Henry VIII drained the marshes, channelled the streams into a lake and laid out gardens. The area was to become St James's Park, named after a twelfth-century hospice there, dedicated to St James the Less, which had originally been endowed by the citizens of London for the care of 'fourteen leper maydens'. Since then monks and 'maydens' had brought scandal to the Hospital of St James, and plague and neglecthad emptied the decaying buildings, which in 1449 Henry VI gave to Eton College. The Master of Eton kept the Hospital of St James as his town house but provided for the upkeep of four poor women there. In 1536 Henry VIII took it over, dismissed the four women with a pension of £6 13s. 4d. a year, demolished it and built a hunting lodge in its place. Later, enlarged and rebuilt, it became St James's Palace. So, where once bell and clapper had sounded, the woods rang with hunting horns when Henry VIII and Queen Anne rode out on a May morning with 'a goodly company to the fields of Kensington'.

Henry VIII acquired the land adjoining the site on which Buckingham Palace is built, but it was James I who first cultivated it. In 1608 he paid £935 for the 'walling, levelling and planting thereof of mulberry trees' on four acres of adjoining wasteland near the site of the north wing of the present Buckingham Palace. Impressed by the wealth created by the French silk industry, James I had decided to outshine the French King. In 1607 he appointed William Stallinge, an employee at the Customs House with experience of breeding silkworms, 'to research and publish a book' on Instructions for the planting and increase of mulberry trees, breeding of silkworms and the making of silk'. He also instructed deputy lieutenants to require landowners in their counties to 'purchase and plant ten thousand mulberry trees at the rate of 6 shillings per thousand'.

Alas, Stallinge and, later, his son Jasper were to spend many years and thousands of pounds of the King's money in the vain attempt to persuade silkworms to thrive on the leaves of the black mulberry trees they had planted. They had failed to realize that though the black mulberry produces delicious fruit, its leaves are rough and silkworms prefer those of the white mulberry.

So in 1625 James I and Stallinge both died without embellishing the kingdom with the silk that the King so much desired: his scheme of a great English silk industry had never materialized. Stallinge's son Jasper being equally unsuccessful, on 4 July 1628 Charles I granted his friend Lord Aston the right to 'keep his mulberry gardens at St James with a yearly fee of £60 during his life and that of his son'. But when in 1635 Lord Aston was made ambassador to Spain all pretence of supervising the breeding of silkworms was abandoned and the weaving sheds and outhouses were neglected.

There were, however, sharp men who realized that there were fortunes to be made not in silk but in property. As London expanded, a site in a rural setting with easy access to the Palaces of Westminster, Whitehall, St James and Kensington was of great potential value, and there were three men in particular who were eager to seize it: Lionel Cranfield, James I's Treasurer, Hugh Audley, the most formidable property lawyer in London, and William Blake, his man of business. The story of the involvement of these men and others in the establishment of the site of Buckingham Palace was to continue for years, through civil war, the Commonwealth and successive reigns, and through a maze of complicated litigation.

The Mulberry Garden was outside the walls of St James's Park and was part of the freehold of Ebury Manor, an area which stretched from the present Oxford Street through to Chelsea. Henry VIII had acquired the freehold for the Crown, but Queen Elizabeth I had granted a long lease to Sir Thomas Knyvett which ran until 1675. He in turn had assigned his lease to two London merchants. When James I came to sell Ebury Manor, the Mulberry Garden was specifically excluded. These four acres were to remain Crown property throughout all the vicissitudes of the century, except for a short period when Cromwell sold it together with the rest of King Charles's property.

When in 1618 and 1622 the two leases for Ebury Manor owned by the merchants came on the market, Cranfield moved swiftly and secretly to buy them, using the names of two of his servants, although as the King's Treasurer he ought to have bought them for the Crown. It was easy, he thought, to cheat James I in the last years of his dissolute life. A clever but unscrupulous minister who had risen from grocer's apprentice to be the King's financial adviser, Cranfield finally overreached himself and in May 1624 was impeached by Parliament for 'bribery, extortion, wrong & deceit'. He was heavily fined, imprisoned and disgraced.

Hugh Audley, who had picked up much property from such disasters, saw vultures gathering and pounced. Before Cranfield was imprisoned, he used his knowledge of his secret to blackmail him into selling Ebury Manor. On I March 1626 Audley paid him £9,400 for the whole Ebury leasehold, using William Blake as one of his trustees. Although there would be many tenants on and around the future site of the Palace in the coming years, Hugh Audley held the leasehold of Ebury Manor until his death in 1662.

While William Blake was negotiating the purchase of Ebury Manor for his employer Audley, he was engaged in property speculation on his own account. Outside the south-west wall of the Mulberry Garden was half an acre of wasteland, the site of the old hamlet of Eyecross and the future site of part of the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. Blake illegally acquired it and built a simple house there for his son and daughter-in-law, to be named Blake House. Thanks to Audley's patronage, Blake flourished: in 1626 he bought himself a knighthood and somewhat dubious title deeds to the new property, having avoided the law forbidding new building on the grounds that there had been dwellings there before.

James I was succeeded by his son, Charles I. Sir William Blake entered the new reign an apparently prosperous citizen, with a house in Kensington and another on a site that the new King's friend, Lord Goring, coveted. In fact Blake was deep in debt and after his death in 1630 his heir negotiated the sale of Blake House to Lord Goring, completing the sale in 1633.

George Goring and Goring House

George Goring was a survivor. He had served four monarchs: he was a favourite at the Court of Queen Elizabeth I. James I knighted him in 1608, and two years later made him a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber to his second son Charles, who entrusted him with the negotiations in France for his marriage to Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henry IV of France. When she became Queen, Lord Goring became her Vice-Chamberlain and Master of the Horse. This close association with the Queen proved useful during the Civil War: it was Goring who was chosen to conduct the Queen to her old home in France. He served and fought for Charles I and lived to see Charles II restored to the throne. In his time he played successfully many parts: buffoon and statesman, lady's man and tough soldier.

His sturdy loyalty was rewarded, and he became exceedingly wealthy, well able to afford to build himself a handsome house on the site he had bought, though he ran himself into debt in the process. Instead of demolishing the existing building he appears to have enlarged and embellished Blake's original house. From a contemporary print it would seem to have been a solid brick house – plain and unpretentious like its owner. Unlike the present Buckingham Palace, it faced south. He also appropriated more 'waste' land in order to extend his courtyard entrance and enlarge his garden. He had built, according to a contemporary survey, 'a fair house and other convenient buildings and outhouses and upon the other part of it made the Fountain Garden, a Tarris [terrace] walk, a courtyard and a laundry yard'.

While Goring was establishing himself in his comfortable villa at one end of the royal estate at St James's, Charles I, in the Palace of Whitehall on the bank of the Thames, was treading his disastrous political road to the scaffold. His Palace was then, in the words of historian Thomas Macaulay, 'an ugly old labyrinth of dirty brick and plastered timber'. It was a huddle of disparate buildings: richly decorated apartments for the royal family, houses with low, dark rooms for courtiers and servants, and the great high-ceilinged Banqueting House, designed in 1619 by architect Inigo Jones in the Palladian style. There were galleries displaying statues and paintings, privy gardens where men and women of rank could walk unchallenged.

Politically incompetent and uncomprehending though Charles I was, he had excellent artistic taste and during the first decade of his reign assembled a most spectacular collection of paintings.

He owed some of his talent to the example of his mother, the shadowy Anne of Denmark, who was said to have cared more for paintings than for men, and who took great pleasure in the acquisitions of her royal predecessors, including the tapestries and Hans Holbeins of Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I's exquisite miniatures. Charles I's elder brother, Prince Henry, who had died of typhoid in 1612 aged eighteen, had also inherited a scholarly interest in art and had started his own collection.

Charles I, according to the painter Peter Paul Rubens, even before his accession was 'the greatest amateur of paintings among the princes of the world'. His passion had been fired by his visit to Madrid in 1623, when he travelled in disguise on a mission to Spain to woo Philip IV's sister. He returned without a bride but inspired by Philip IV's great art collection in Madrid.

When he became King he sent his agents to bargain, and his ambassadors to look for great paintings. He bought through them the cartoons of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci's John the Baptist and many other treasures. His greatest triumph was the purchase in 1626 of the collection of the Gonzaga family in Mantua – 'so wonderful and glorious a collection that the like will never again be met with' – which included works by Andrea Mantegna, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto and Rubens.

A generous patron, Charles I commissioned Rubens to paint the great ceiling in the Banqueting House in honour of his father, James I. It was finished in 1634. He commissioned Rubens's pupil, Sir Anthony van Dyck, to paint some of the greatest paintings in the Royal Collection today: 'The Greate Peece': Charles I and Henrietta Maria with Their Two Eldest Children, Charles and Mary, dominates the Picture Gallery. He brilliantly portrays the unmartial character of the King, his diffidence and melancholy, and his spirited French wife, the Catholic Henrietta Maria, who was to fight tenaciously on the King's behalf throughout the Civil War. She shared his love of art; and it was to her that paintings came as gifts from the Papacy, knowing that they would be passed to her husband. In 1636 the Pope's nephew, Cardinal Barberini, sent her a batch of paintings including ones by Leonardo and Andrea del Sarto.

While the King and Queen were filling their Palace of Whitehall with superb paintings, George Goring was enlarging the grounds of Goring House. He bought two large fields, known as Upper and Lower Crow, of twenty acres, from Audley, though he never completed payment for them. By 1634 Goring owned most of the land on which the present Buckingham Palace was built except the four acres of Mulberry Garden and the area now occupied by the eastern forecourt. In spite of the great fortune he made through the patronage of the King, he was constantly in debt and mortgaged Goring House to his wife's relatives. Nevertheless he hankered after the Mulberry Garden, finally bought the lease after Lord Aston's death in 1639 and at last, in July 1640, he persuaded the King to grant him the freehold, but the agreement never received the confirmation of the Great Seal. In 1642 the Civil War had begun and Charles I had more pressing worries. During the Civil War, Goring lost everything. He could not keep up payments to Audley, and left Goring House, which was requisitioned by Parliament. Charles I took his own Court to Oxford, and by 1643 Goring House was fortified by Oliver Cromwell's troops. There was a large fort at Hyde Park Corner and 'a redoubt and battery ... at the lower end of Lord Goring's wall'. For a while troops were stationed in Goring House; afterwards it was repaired and Parliament decided that the Speaker, William Lenthall, should be allowed to live there.

Meanwhile in 1642 Goring joined the King's army. He had made a fortune in his royal service and was now prepared to spend it and his life for the King. He sent for his son to join the King's army, writing to his wife, 'had I millions of crowns or scores of sons, the King and his cause should have them all'. Charles I repaid him by creating him Earl of Norwich on 28 November 1644. He was captured during the Civil War and imprisoned at Windsor Castle. On 10 November 1648 the House of Commons voted for his banishment, but on 6 March 1649 he was sentenced to death. However, he was reprieved by the influence of Speaker Lenthall, who interceded on his behalf.

In January 1649, while the new Earl of Norwich was imprisoned, facing trial and possibly death, his master Charles I had been condemned. On 30 January 1649 he took his last cold walk from St James's Palace to the Banqueting House in the Palace of Whitehall. He wore extra warm clothing in case the people should think he shivered from fear not cold. As he climbed to the scaffold outside the first-floor window, did he glance up to the great Rubens ceiling he had commissioned? It would have brought him some consolation if he could have seen into the future. When the great fire of 1698 destroyed the Palace of Whitehall, the Banqueting House and its Rubens was all that was saved.

After the execution of the King, Parliament ordered a commission to be appointed to arrange the sale of the King's property to pay his debts. The sale of his pictures, a total of 1,570, lasted from October 1649 to the middle of the 1650s. So one of the world's greatest art collections was scattered. The paintings were eventually dispersed among private buyers, and are now in museums in France, Spain, Austria and the USA, and elsewhere. Cromwell, however, kept some for the empty walls of Hampton Court Palace – among them, significantly, the pride of the collection, Mantegna's Triumphs of Caesar.


Excerpted from The Queen's House by Edna Healey. Copyright © 1998 Edna Healy. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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British author Lady Edna Healey (1918–2010) was the beloved biographer of Wives of Fame and Lady Unknown: The Life of Angela Burdett-Coutts.

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