Updated: Jun 24, 2020
When I bring people to this gateway and ask them what they think this building is, the most popular answers are 'asylum' & 'prison'. Curious...
The grounds for this construction used to belong to the hospital of St James the less. Some sources say it was a leper hospital, and its dead patients were buried in Green Park, causing some of the supernatural activity on its grounds.
Tudors at St. James's
Lepers or no, in the early 1530's this neighbourhood caught the eye of Henry VIII and he decided to claim it as his own. He had a habit of doing that, apparently. He demolished the hospital and built a hunting lodge whereto he and Anne Boleyn could escape in order to avoid the court gossip. Understandable move, since he was already married to Catherine of Aragon and had a child - Princess Mary.
When you're looking at the front gate of St. James's Palace, it eerily reminds you of another royal residence - Hampton Court Palace. You wouldn't be wrong, as St James's is 'younger' by only twenty years. They were both built with red brick - the trendy new material for the mid-16th century.
The surrounding swampy marshland was also claimed by Henry and he transformed it into a deer park for hunting. It laid foundations for St. James's Park, which is the oldest Royal Park in London today. Henry's hunting lodge was later further built upon, rendering the construction into a full-blown palace, which originally was meant as a wedding present for Anne Boleyn, with the hope that she would bear Henry a son he was desperate for. She stayed here the night after her coronation in 1533, whilst being pregnant with her daughter Elizabeth. Three years later the palace was complete, yet Anne was finished. Anne miscarried a boy foetus, fell out with Henry's advisor Thomas Cromwell, lost Henry's interest and got executed. 'Til death did them part, indeed. The new majestic accommodation became allocated to the young royal children: The Lady Elizabeth (she was demoted from the title Princess after her mother's death), and Prince Edward - the child of Henry's next wife. After their father's death, all three of Henry's children had a go at the Crown of England. It was here that Mary, when she was Mary I, signed the agreement which surrendered Calais to the French in 1558, it was also here that she died later that year. When she was dying, she famously said that the word 'Calais' would be engraved upon her heart if they were to cut her open. Her sister became Elizabeth I and kept using the palace throughout her reign. The nearby park became a setting for many pageants in the Elizabethan Golden Age, as it became known to posterity. It was also through these gates that Elizabeth rode out towards Tilbury to address her troops when Armada was on its way to destroy Elizabeth, England and everything English. The director of 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age' Shekhar Kapur said in the commentary of the DVD in the Armada scene: "If they had won, I would be making this commentary in Spanish". The English weather made a stand and Elizabeth & England won, living to continue all things English. The palace with its grounds would go on to play a big part in that 'Englishness' and later, 'Britishness'.
Stuarts & Georgians at St. James's After Elizabeth I died, it was the end of Tudors and the beginning of Stuarts, a Scottish Royal House. They too continued to use St. James's Palace. So much so that most if not all of the royal births occurred here. The future Charles II and his brother James II were born here to Charles I and his Queen Henrietta Maria. James's own children were born here as well: future Queens Mary and Anne, as well as James Francis Edward Stuart, a.k.a. 'The Old Pretender' who would be one of the leading figures in the Jacobite movement against the crown, when the dynasty changed hands once more. In short, St. James's Palace served as one of the main backgrounds for royal life since it was built.
Other curious incidents in this palace included Charles II and James II keeping their mistresses and making it into a kind of bordel (a.k.a. house of ill repute). An urban myth tells the story of Ernest Augustus Duke of Cumberland - the fifth son of George III - who, along with his valet got themselves involved in a bloody tale of whodunnit, featuring a sabre, a razor, and a married lady. The gruesome end to the tale had the valet committing suicide with potential help from the sabre-wielding Duke. When the valet's lifeless body was found, there was a fountain of blood and his throat was akin to a Pez dispenser. Evidently, that was how thoroughly one committed suicide in Georgian England.
Witnessing History Now let's rewind a bit. On the morning of 30th January 1649 King Charles would bid farewell to his younger children at this Palace, and would embark on a short walk through St. James's Park towards Whitehall Palace. He was about to face his executioner. The palace where Charles lost his head, at the time was the only real 'contender' for the title of the official Royal Residence. Whitehall was to remain so until 1698, when most of it burnt down in a house fire. St James's was thus 'promoted' and remained so for years to come. It changed when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, and shortly after she made the newly refurbished Buckingham House as her official bachelorette pad (it would later be renamed as the Palace). So St. James's became a 'back office' and a spare accommodation for minor royals ever since. However, she still got married in the Chapel Royal of St James's Palace. Just saying. Her grandson George V also married here to Princess Mary of Teck some years later.
There is another tradition, associated with this palace. When a monarch dies, the Accession Committee is meets here, following this meeting the new monarch is proclaimed from the Proclamation Gallery, which is above the Friary Court (the latter is one of the few sections of the palace that one can see from the outside as a mere mortal pedestrian). When George V died in the early 1936, the proclamation of the new king Edward VIII was being read out. The new monarch himself was watching the events from the windows above. Next to him was a woman unknown to the general public at the time, one Wallis Simpson. Within twelve months she would become the reason for Edward's abdication and his own raison d'être.
The Chapel would also be where the coffin of Princess Diana was brought in when flown back from Paris in September 1997 after her tragic death.
St. James's - Heart of Britishness So here we are. A palace which stood as silent witness to some of the most important events in our national history. The area nearby gradually became known as St. James's which basically meant the Royal Court. To this day the foreign ambassadors are addressed to the Court of St. James's. There is also St. James's Square and St. James's Street etc. The latter is a host for numerous shops - most of which hold Royal Warrants (which means they supply goods to the Royal Household). The shops include 'Lock and Co' - hatters, which has provided the headgear for the Duke of Wellington that he wore to the battle of Waterloo and one for Horatio Nelson - what he wore at Trafalgar. There's also 'Lobb' - Britain's oldest boot maker, currently holding two Royal Warrants - one from Prince Charles, one from Prince Philip. The closest shop to the Palace is 'Berry Bros and Rudd' - Britain's oldest wine merchant.
The street is also famous for its clubs, where the most highborn in the land would gather to discuss the future of the nation. Or just to drink (think 'The Riot Club', but...without murders and mayhem, just lots of posh blokes). Most of these clubs started out as coffee and chocolate houses, when the trade of these precious beans reached Britain and both drinks were at the height of luxury. Around the corner from the Palace one can also find Fortnum & Mason's - a luxurious department store dating back to 1707, and the offices of the world's two leading auction houses - Christie's and Sotheby's. A bit further away there is St. James's Square, which boasts a house, where one of Charles II's would-be-mistresses lived, one Duchess of Richmond. She's the only one not to succumb to his charms. She ran away instead. According to legend, her figure was the inspiration behind the image of Britannia, which you can find on any 50 pence coin.