If asked what the most senior Royal Palace in the UK is we may feel the answer is either Buckingham or Windsor but we would be wrong. In fact, the answer would be in London. Although to look at it today it does not really shout out “I am a palace,” it has played a part in the history of our royal family for over 400 years. It is why the area surrounded it is called St James’ and although today only minor royalty live there it was the royal residence for 300 years. It still is the venue for royal weddings and births and has been a prison and for our royalty to lie in state on their way to being buried.
Today not much of the old Palace survives due to building developments and that enemy of historic buildings – fire. However, the basic footprint of the original Palace, built by Henry VIII remains set around its original four courts – Ambassadors Court, Court, Friary Court, and the North Range. Today we can still see glimpses of Tudor St James’ in the Chapel Royal and the gatehouses along with some surviving turrets and fireplaces in the state apartments. When completed it had diapering and stone dressing, parapets, the gatehouse has polygonal corner turrets with archways. It is even said that Henrys footprint is embedded in a wall in the courtyard so that when he dismounted from his horse he would know where to place his foot.
St James’ started life as a medieval hospital and a convent of St James the Less. Then in 1529, Henry VIII, took control of the hospital and the fields around it and ‘there made a fair mansion and a park’. He certainly did not need another royal Palace for himself as he already had Westminster and was developing York Place into Whitehall Palace. No, what he wanted St James for was for others; it was to be a lesser residence. But for whom?
Some claim that it was to be a home for which he hoped would be his one and only mistress, his maîtresse-en-, Anne Boleyn. There are even initials of ‘H’ and ‘A’ in the surviving Tudor gatehouse and the fireplace in the state apartments to back this up. We know that Anne would refuse to be his mistress and became his wife in 1533 and would assist Henry in his planning of Whitehall for them both to live. So what became the purpose of St James Palace?
St James would go on to be the home the sons of the King, his heirs. The first to reside in St James would be Henry Fitzroy, Henrys bastard son by Elizabeth would tragically die there at the age of 17. Prince Edward, born in 1537, would also reside on the court, near his father at Whitehall but in a separate official residence. This would set a precedence, which future monarchs would also adopt.
I could not talk about the history of St James without mention Prince Henry Frederick Stuart – the eldest son of James I, and the king who never was. He has gone down in history to some historians as the lost prince. It was a result of his untimely death at 18 years old that would lead to his younger brother Charles to inherit his father’s throne in 1625, and the ill prepared and stuttering shy prince, once king would go on to be ill equipped and ill advised to be a good monarch and this would bring about the English Civil War and his. St James Palace would be where Charles would spend his last few days of his life (see my blog post more information on Charles)
But back to Henry. St James Palace was granted to him in 1604 when he was aged 10 and he would often stay at the Palace when in London. He was loved by many across not only the four countries of by royalty and nobility in Europe also. He was charismatic, vigorous, brave, and cultured and was raised to embody all the virtues that a prince should have.
Henry was not his father’s son in so much as the two have differing personalities and ways to run their separate courts. He decreed that all banquets should be conducted with decency and decorum, and without all rudeness, noise, or disorder. He boxes installed in all of his houses and the processed from these he gave to the poor. It was said that ‘the atmosphere of the Palaces at St James and Richmond was more like that of a puritan monastery than what we reconsider as a Jacobean court.”
More mature than his years, he would surround himself with those older than him who also shared his passions for the arts and military exploits. Henry was also loyal to his also tough and uncompromising. He also enjoyed sports and gambling.
Henry was a great lover and a patron of literacy, art, and dramatics. He would collect various items of art and place them at St James. This collecting on such a scale makes him the first member of the royal family to buy art seriously in England following those in similar positions in Europe of which Henry was also in correspondence with. Especially with the French King Henri IV, whom it could be said Henry hero-worshipped. After his brother, Charles would continue his collection and start the beginning of what we know as the royal collection today. His close friend the Earl of Arundel would also continue this passion for art collection.
In the development of St James Palace during Henry’s residency, the changes made were mostly focused on his education and enjoyment. A riding house was added, the first of its kind in the country. In addition, a little artillery house and a library which was elaborately framed in sundry arches. This library Henry made available to the schools who visited his court. The books were of those which he had brought off John, Lord Lumley in 1609, in addition to over a thousand other volumes.
Henry would die 6 November 1612 most likely of typhoid fever. His whole family was distraught. Even though he and his father were at opposite ends in how they ran their separate courts, his father mourned his son and felt his loss extremely. It is reported that months after his would have of “Henry is dead, Henry is dead.”
His funeral was held at Westminster abbey with his body being laid in state at St James for four weeks. Moreover, although he was only his funeral was more magnificent than that of Elizabeth I. His coffin was carried to Westminster with 2,000 official mourners and the streets lined with grieving members of the public. It was the first time that a state was held for someone other than a ruling monarch or their spouse.
St James Palace would go on to become the private family home of Henrys younger brother, who would become King Gradually over time, the monarchs of England would move away from St James and Whitehall to Hampton Court Palace and then to Buckingham Palace.
Today it is a grade I listed building and is the ceremonial meeting place of the Accession Council and the London residence of minor member of the royal family. It houses a number of official offices, societies, and collections. Its biggest role is that of the announcement of a new monarch of Great Britain when the previous monarch has died.
It is to Queens chapel opposite the Palace is open for those who wish to attend held there. It is also a good place to see the changing of the guard in Friary Court before they march to Buckingham Palace.
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