Britain's 10 best palaces
Steeped in history, Britain’s palaces have been the backdrop to royal births, marriages and even murders. Here we round up 10 of the most remarkable...
Eltham Palace, Greenwich
A cross between moated medieval manor and glamorous 1930s mansion, Eltham Palace is one of Britain’s most unique stately homes.
First recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086 [a manuscript record of the ‘great survey’ of much of England and parts of Wales completed by order of William the Conqueror], Eltham was one of the largest and most popular residences of the medieval royals, and later Henry VIII later spent much of his childhood at the palace.
Eltham later fell into a period of decline and was poorly maintained. Diarist John Evelyn visited in 1656 and found that “both the palace and chapel are in miserable ruins, the noble wood and park destroyed”.
The palace enjoyed a glamorous new lease of life in the 1930s when it was purchased by millionaire socialites Stephen and Virginia Courtauld. They brought sophisticated, modern opulence to Eltham, with gold mosaic bathrooms, walk-in wardrobes and ‘Cunard style’ bedrooms inspired by the smooth curves and veneered surfaces of fashionable cruise liners.
The Courtaulds decorated the house with their extensive art collection and built a stunning art deco domed entrance hall, perfect for hosting parties with visitors as diverse as Russian composer Stravinsky, actress and singer Gracie Fields and Conservative politician Rab Butler. Another highlight was the map room, in which Stephen and Virginia planned their frequent travels. The walls were covered with large maps of the couple’s destinations and paintings depicting scenes from across the globe.
Elsewhere in the house, door reliefs were decorated with exotic images of animals and birds such as kangaroos and armadillos, drawn from life at London Zoo. Virginia Courtauld’s love of exotic animals was so great she even had a specially designed suite of rooms installed at Eltham for her ring-tailed lemur named Mah-Jongg. Jungle murals covered the walls and a central heating system was specially installed to remind Mah-Jongg of his tropical home. Today’s visitors to Eltham can spot an image of Virginia’s beloved lemur carved into the timber bosses of the restored Great Hall.
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To find out more about Eltham Palace, click here.
Kew Palace, Richmond upon Thames
Built in 1631 as a country retreat for Flemish silk merchant Samuel Fortrey and his wife, Catherine, Kew Palace passed through the hands of several wealthy and well-known tenants in its early years, including the Lord Mayor of London in 1699. The red brick villa became a royal residence in 1729, when it was purchased by King George II and Queen Caroline.
Kew is now world-renowned for its Royal Botanic Gardens, the foundations of which were laid by Prince Frederick, son of King George II, in the mid 18th century. After Frederick’s unexpected death aged 44 [from a burst abscess in the lung, commonly believed to have been triggered by a blow from a cricket or tennis ball], his widow, Augusta, continued his work on the gardens. With architect William Chambers and gardener William Aiton, Augusta built an exotic miniature world in Kew’s grounds, including a brick pagoda and replica mosque.
Later in the 18th century life at Kew took a dark turn, as the palace became a place of seclusion for the so-called ‘mad king’, George III. Thought by some historians to have been suffering from bipolar disorder or the hereditary blood disease porphyria, George suffered from outbreaks of mania. These were reportedly characterised by “incessant loquacity”, sometimes accompanied by convulsions and even foaming at the mouth.
During these spells of mental illness George was kept away from the public eye at Kew. He underwent brutal treatment including straight-jackets, leeching and emetics [medicines that induce vomiting] at the palace. Kew’s sombre associations with George III’s illness and internment affected the palace’s popularity with later royals, and it slowly fell out of regular use.
Kew Palace. (Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)
The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh
Queen Elizabeth II’s official Scottish residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse has been a home of Scottish monarchs since the 16th century.
Located at the bottom of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the palace stands on the foundation of a 12th-century abbey. In 1501 James IV decided to convert the site into a home suitable for his new bride, Magaret Tudor. His son and successor, James V, oversaw further construction at Holyrood, which today covers 10 acres of land. It boasts 289 rooms, the largest of which is the 44.5 metre-long great gallery.
Holyrood is renowned as the home of the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots. Between 1561 and 1567 Mary lived in the oldest surviving part of the palace, the James V tower, which was equipped with a drawbridge and moat. Some of the most significant events in Mary’s life took place at Holyrood: she married twice in the palace, firstly in 1565 to Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, and again in 1567 to James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell.
The most traumatic episode of Mary’s Holyrood residency came in 1566 when her private secretary, David Rizzio, was murdered in her apartments there. Mary’s first husband, Lord Darnley, who was reputedly jealous of Rizzio’s influence over his wife, orchestrated the crime. Mary, who was six months pregnant at the time, witnessed the brutal attack and was allegedly held down by Lord Darnley as his associates stabbed Rizzio more than 50 times. A plaque in the room adjacent to Mary’s bedchamber still marks the spot where Rizzio died.
To find out more about the Palace of Holyroodhouse, click here.
Palace of Holyroodhouse. (ED Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
Apethorpe Palace, Northamptonshire
A grand hall in Northamptonshire built between 1470 and 1480, Apethorpe was an informal retreat for Tudor and Stuart monarchs including Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, James I and Charles I. A cross between a palace and hunting lodge, it was well equipped for leisure time and located conveniently close to quality hunting in nearby Rockingham Forest.
According to historian Marcus Binney, Apethorpe covers “a complete history of English architecture”. “What is extraordinary is that it has so many layers” he told the Telegraph in 2015, “You begin around 1500, and then you have this amazing Jacobean period and great 18th-century rooms and then revivalist wings from the 19th century.”
The monarch most associated with the hall is James I – a life-size statue of him once stood in the main court. The king first visited Apethorpe in 1603 and is said to have met his favourite George Villiers [later the Duke of Buckingham] on a hunt there in 1614. The pair reportedly used the hall for “more commodious entertainment... and princely recreation”, and the bedchamber nearest the king’s is unusually called the duke’s chamber.
After an £8m renovation by English Heritage to prevent decay and disrepair, the house was in January 2015 sold to French millionaire Baron von Pfetten for £2.5m. Von Pfetten renamed it from Apethorpe Hall to Apethorpe Palace, in recognition of its connections to royal history.
To find out more about Apethorpe Palace, click here.
Apethorpe Palace. (REX/Shuttershock)
Kensington Palace, London
In 1689 William III and Mary II were seeking an escape from the intense Whitehall smog that aggravated William’s asthma. After finding clearer air at Nottingham House in Kensington Village, they employed architects to transform it into an elegant palace.
After William and Mary, Kensington was occupied by Queen Anne, George I and George II. George II welcomed a number of visitors to the palace, from Cherokee tribesmen to the composer GF Handel. The monarch died of a heart attack in a palace ‘water closet’ [toilet] in 1760.
Kensington was later the site of several central events in Queen Victoria’s early life. Born there in 1819, she grew up in the palace under the intensely watchful eye of her mother and Sir John Conroy [former equerry to Victoria’s father and her mother’s close advisor].
It was from the top of Kensington’s stone stairs that in 1836 Victoria saw the love of her life, Prince Albert, for the very first time. She later confided in her diary how Albert was “extremely handsome… his eyes are large and blue, and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth.”
It was also at Kensington that Princess Victoria received news of her uncle King William IV’s death, making her queen aged just 18. She left the palace within a month.
After leaving the Kensington, Victoria was nostalgic for her childhood home, writing to her daughter after a visit in 1857: “I can’t tell you the feeling it gave me to see my old bedroom…. I loved the old house though it often was not a very gay or even happy one!” Victoria’s affection for the house she grew up in saw her instigate a significant restoration of the palace later in her life, after which time it was opened to the public on her 80th birthday in 1899.
In 1940 Kensington fell victim to the Blitz, with bomb damage to the queen’s apartments. A brave caretaker reportedly prevented any further damage by removing unexploded bombs.
To find out more about Kensington Palace, click here.
Statue Of Queen Victoria in front of Kensington Palace. (Tim Graham/Getty Images)
St Davids Bishop's Palace, Pembrokeshire
A dramatic medieval ruin on the stunning Pembrokeshire coast, St Davids Bishop’s Palace is one of Wales’ most important ecclesiastical sites. Writing for BBC History Magazine in 2012, Professor Ralph Griffiths called it “one of the most significant sites in the history of Christianity in the British Isles, and one of the earliest”.
A holy site dating from the 6th century, the religious community at St Davids was ransacked by Norse raiders at least 10 times over the next 400 years. Bishop Thomas Bek (1280–93) and Bishop Henry De Gower (1328–47) undertook the majority of the palace’s construction, with additions and alterations being made by successors. It initially consisted of two grand sets of rooms around a courtyard; the simpler one intended for bishops’ private use, the other for entertaining.
Following the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the Bishop’s Palace fell into disrepair, eventually becoming the roofless ruins left standing today. However, a sense of the wealth and power of the medieval church can still be seen in ornate details that remain, such as chequered stonework and decorative carvings shaped like human heads. Perhaps most striking of all is the wheel window in the great hall’s east gable, once intended as a spectacular feature to impress the bishops’ guests.
Read Ralph Griffiths' article 'St Davids Cathedral and Bishops' Palace, Pembrokeshire' here.
Ruins of the Bishop's Palace. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)
St James’s Palace, Westminster
Built by Henry VIII between 1531 and 1536, St James’s Palace stands on the site of a former hospital that treated leprosy patients in Westminster.
One particularly fascinating feature of St James’s is a fireplace in the state apartments, built during Henry VIII’s reign. While one side of the fireplace bears the initials ‘HA’, for Henry and Anne Boleyn, on the other an ‘H’ stands alone. This unfortunate design quirk is the result of Anne’s execution halfway through the fireplace’s construction. Unfortunately much of the palace was destroyed by fire in 1809, including private royal apartments that were never rebuilt.
St James’s has over the centuries witnessed a variety of royal events: Anne Boleyn stayed there the night before her coronation in 1533, while in 1649 Charles I stayed there the night before a much more sombre event – his execution.
Elizabeth I planned attacks on the Spanish Armada in the palace apartments in 1588 and under Cromwell the palace was used as an army barracks. In 1840 Queen Victoria married her German cousin Prince Albert in St James’s chapel, in the first wedding of a reigning queen since Mary Tudor in 1554. Crowds clamoured to get a look at the royal bride, who became the first to wear white so she could be seen from afar.
Today St James’s is closed to the public, as it remains a working palace.
To find out more about St James's Palace, click here.
St James's Palace. (JTB Photo/UIG via Getty Images)
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
The only non-royal, non-episcopal house in England to be called a palace, Blenheim was built in the early 18th century by the Duke of Marlborough. After leading a military victory over the French at the battle of Blenheim in 1704, the Duke was given the ruined royal manor and park along with £240,000 for building costs, as a token of gratitude from Queen Anne.
The palace was built in a Baroque style between 1705 and 1733 by Sir John Vanbrugh, while the surrounding parkland was redesigned by renowned landscape gardener Capability Brown between 1764 and 1774. The garden’s highlights include a 134-feet high Column of Victory depicting the Duke of Marlborough as a Roman general, and a temple of health to celebrate George III’s recovery from illness.
Following the death of the 1st Duke’s two sons, an act of parliament was passed in 1706 to allow his daughter Henrietta Godolphin to inherit Blenheim. Another interesting woman in the palace’s history was Consuelo Vanderbilt, an American heiress whose marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895 saved Blenheim from financial ruin.
Consuelo’s dowry was used by her husband to redecorate the state rooms, re-equip the long library and create the formal gardens. However, the couple had an unhappy marriage and the duchess struggled with the strict, archaic social observances of life at Blenheim. She eventually divorced her husband, leaving behind her life at Blenheim to become a campaigner for women’s work rights and the first female member of the London County Council.
Blenheim is perhaps most famous as the family home of Winston Churchill. The future prime minister was born there on 30 November 1874 and later proposed to his future wife, Clementine Hozier, in the gardens. The palace was always significant to Churchill, who wittily quipped: “At Blenheim I took two very important decisions; to be born and to marry. I am content with the decision I took on both occasions...”
To find out more about Blenheim, click here.
Blenheim Palace. (Olaf Protze/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey
Henry VIII was a keen builder and of all his 60 houses, Hampton Court was arguably the most significant. From 1528 he undertook major building works to redesign and expand the palace [which had originally been built by Cardinal Wolsey], modernising it for royal entertaining. He introduced tennis courts, pleasure gardens, a bowling alley and a hunting park of more than 1,100 acres.
Henry also made the palace more suitable for feasts, banquets and masques, with 36,000 square feet of kitchens, a vast great hall [later performed in by Shakespeare in the reign of James I], pipes with flowing water and a ‘garderobe’ [bathroom], which could accommodate 28 people at a time.
Henry is famous for having had six wives, all of whom visited Hampton Court. As the king’s favourite residence, the palace witnessed the ups and downs of his tempestuous marital life. When attempting to get an annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn, he sent the first letter threatening a break with Rome from Hampton Court. In 1537 his third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to his only son, the future Edward VI, there, dying of childbirth complications while Edward was baptized in the chapel.
In the 1840s Henry both divorced Anne of Cleves and married Catherine Parr at the palace. One of Hampton Court’s many ghost stories is that of the ‘screaming lady’ believed to dwell in its haunted gallery. The ghostly figure is supposed to be Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, who was supposedly dragged screaming from the gallery while under house arrest at the palace before her execution for adultery.
To find out more about Hampton Court Palace, click here.
Hampton Court Palace. (Promnitz/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Buckingham Palace, Westminster
The official London residence of Britain’s reigning monarch, Westminster’s iconic Buckingham Palace has a surprisingly short history when compared with other royal palaces. Originally built in 1703, Buckingham House was purchased as a royal residence by George III in 1761 as a comfortable family home for his wife, Queen Charlotte. It was renovated into a sumptuous palace in the 1820s and 14 of George and Charlotte’s 15 children were born there.
Queen Victoria adopted Buckingham palace as the official royal residence in 1837. She also started the tradition of appearing on the palace balcony during public events, firstly at the opening of 1851’s royal exhibition. This was famously continued by Prince William and Kate Middleton at their wedding in 2011.
Buckingham Palace covers 77,000 square metres, with 775 rooms, including 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms and 1,514 doors. It has welcomed world-famous guests including Mozart, Dickens, John F Kennedy, Gandhi, Neil Armstrong and Nelson Mandela.
In 1914 suffragettes attempted to breach the Buckingham Palace gates and chained themselves to the railings, and the palace was bombed seven times during the Second World War. However, the response of the royal family was somewhat surprising: Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI, reportedly said of the damage to the palace: “I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”
To find out more about Buckingham Palace, click here.
Buckingham Palace. (Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)