Fit for the Queen: Elizabeth II's royal residences
Whether holding court at royal residences or on a private retreat on her own estate, Queen Elizabeth has several impressive homes at her disposal – these five are all open to the public
Founded around 1070 by William the Conqueror, and extensively enlarged and improved by succeeding sovereigns, Windsor is arguably the world’s oldest and largest inhabited castle.
It has been home to 39 monarchs including Elizabeth II, who spent most of her childhood and the majority of the war years there, as well as much of the Covid-19 pandemic. She stays at the castle most weekends and visits for a week each June, when she attends the Royal Ascot horse-racing event nearby (some of her horses have won there). The Queen uses Windsor for official business too: she hosts overseas heads of state and holds court there for a month every Easter.
A number of British royals are buried in the 15th-century St George’s Chapel, including the Queen’s father, George VI, her mother and her sister’s ashes. In April 2021, the funeral of Prince Philip took place here, and he is buried in the chapel’s Royal Vault.
Windsor, one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in England, is open to visitors. The Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place frequently throughout the year.
Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire
Balmoral, in the Scottish Highlands, is owned by the royal family – unlike the royal palaces, which belong to the crown.
The family’s interest began in 1852 when Victoria and Albert bought the estate and built a new castle on it in the Scottish baronial style. As Victoria got older, she spent increasing lengths of time in retreat at Balmoral.
In 1937 the Queen’s parents, George VI and Elizabeth, renewed interest in the castle and its working estate, complete with grouse moors, deer stalking, forestry, arable farming and pastures. The Queen visited regularly during her childhood. She spends summers there, often with her family. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall have a mansion on the estate. Salmon fishing, horse riding, picnics and dog walking are favourite activities on the estate for the royal family.
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From April to July, parts of Balmoral are open to the public. These include formal gardens created in the 1920s and kitchen gardens developed by the Duke of Edinburgh, as well as the largest room in the castle, the ballroom.
The 18th-century Hillsborough Castle is the official home of the secretary of state for Northern Ireland as well as a royal residence. Elizabeth first stayed there in 1946 while on a solo trip to the island.
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In 2005, she met Irish president Mary McAleese there – the first time a reigning monarch had met with a head of an independent Ireland on the island of Ireland. Hillsborough played an important role in the peace process in Northern Ireland since the 1980s, with meetings there helping bring an end to the period of conflict known as the Troubles.
Today Hillsborough is open to the public. An ambitious project to restore the house and its 40-hectare gardens to their former glory, alongside improving visitor facilities, was completed in spring 2019.
The country retreat of the Queen, and her own private estate, Sandringham came under royal ownership in 1862 as a country residence for the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. The original house was rebuilt in the Jacobean style, a project completed in 1870. Its 24-hectare gardens, open to visitors since 1908, have been developed by each of its subsequent royal owners.
The Queen usually celebrates Christmas at Sandringham, joined by family members who traditionally visit the church of St Mary Magdalene on the estate.
Elizabeth made her first televised Christmas Queen’s Speech from Sandringham in 1957. The house was first opened to the public at the Queen’s wish in her silver jubilee year of 1977, and the house, museum and gardens are open to visitors each summer (although the transport museum is closed until 2023).
The Queen’s official residence in Scotland was originally founded as a monastery in 1128. The palace has been home to royalty for more than five centuries, with Scottish monarchs choosing to live in its parkland setting rather than in Edinburgh Castle. The street running between the two royal buildings is called the Royal Mile.
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Much of the current building dates from 17th-century redevelopments by Charles II, including magnificent royal apartments. In the 20th century, King George V and Queen Mary continued restoration work on the palace, which they enjoyed as a family home.
The palace has been associated with some of Scotland’s most well-known historic figures. These include Mary, Queen of Scots, whose 16th-century apartments can be visited, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, who set up court there for six weeks in 1745 when he arrived in Scotland to claim the throne of Great Britain for his father.
Queen Elizabeth lives at Holyroodhouse each summer during Holyrood Week, starting with a ceremony in which she is given the keys to the city. Her visits celebrate Scottish culture, achievement and community, and she entertains around 8,000 guests, including at a garden party.
The palace is open to the public five days a week. Perhaps its most striking space is the Great Gallery, lined with portraits of Scottish kings commissioned by Charles II.
This article appeared in BBC History Magazine's 'The Queen' Special Edition, republished in 2022