Category Archives: Royal Palaces

Magna Carta and the Development of Parliament

Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester

Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester

My latest article on the Magna Carta 2015 Canada website discusses the impact of Magna Carta on the development of parliament. A generation after King John affixed his seal to Magna Carta in 1215, his son, Henry III and son-in-law, Simon de Montfort fought over the Great Charter’s legacy. Like his father, Henry III was inclined to disregard Magna Carta when it conflicted his personal interests but Montfort sought to impose checks and balances on the King that would ensure the rights codified by the Charter. By drafting the Provisions of Oxford in 1258 and expanding parliamentary representation to include townspeople, Montfort became a father of representative government with a legacy that continues to the present day.

Click here to read “Magna Carta and the Development of Parliament” at Magna Carta Canada

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Friday Royal Read: Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts by James Anderson Winn

Queen Anne (r. 1702-1714) has gone down in history as one of England’s most mediocre reigning queens. She is neither remembered as one of the great monarchs like Elizabeth I, Victoria or Elizabeth II nor as a villain like “Bloody” Mary I. Between these extremes, Anne appears to have been an ordinary woman in an extraordinary position. She enjoyed eating, drinking and playing cards. She had a close relationship with her husband Prince George of Denmark, and spent hours each day with her various female friends including Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Masham. Like numerous other eighteenth century women, Anne mourned the deaths of many children in infancy and a beloved eleven year old son.

In Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts, Professor James Anderson Winn, author of The Poetry of War and John Dryden and His World, argues that history has underestimated Queen Anne. She may not have received a classical education in the manner of Elizabeth I or Mary, Queen of Scots but she played the harpsichord and guitar, danced and performed in court theatricals, promoted the opera, spoke fluent French, quoted poetry from memory, appreciated architecture and painting and mastered political oratory. Since Anne’s brother-in-law, King William III, had little interest in artists or musicians, Anne’s court became a cultural centre while she was still heir to the throne and she remained an influential patron as Queen.

As England’s third constitutional monarch since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Anne ushered in key elements of the modern monarchy. George III and Queen Charlotte are often credited with beginning the “welfare monarchy” focused on philanthropy (see Royal Bounty by Frank Prochaska) but Winn provides evidence that Anne was also cast in this role. When the Queen visited Oxford University in 1702, eighteen year old Simon Harcourt, son of the Solicitor General, recited a welcome poem that declared, “These happy Walls by Royal Bounty plac’d/Often with Royal Presence have been Grac’d.” His words emphasized Anne’s role as a patron and benefactor of England’s cultural and intellectual institutions.

Throughout her reign, Anne demonstrated a keen awareness of popular opinion similar to that of Elizabeth II today. When parliament voted to award her the same annual income enjoyed by William III, £700,000, she returned £100,000 to the treasury, stating that “while her subjects remain’d under the Burden of such great Taxes, she would straighten her self in own Expences, rather than not contribute all she could to their Ease and Relief.” The current Queen’s decision to pay income taxes and reduce her own expenses over the course of her reign follows a long tradition.

Despite her personal frugality, Anne had strong feelings about proper upkeep of royal residences. Today, there is popular debate over the cost of renovations to the Kensington Palace apartment of William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. During Queen Anne’s reign, the monarch sought to restore the Kensington Palace gardens, which had been neglected by William III. Anne’s presentation of herself to the public as “entirely English” with an understanding of how English gardens should be maintained, in contrast to her Dutch predecessor, contributed to public support for this expensive landscaping project.

While Anne appears modern in her philanthropy, cultural patronage, economies and interest in popular opinion, her active involvement in party politics demonstrate how much the constitutional monarchy has changed since the early eighteenth century. The Queen was a staunch Tory, which contributed to the breakdown of her decades long friendship with the Duchess of Marlborough, who tactlessly encouraged her to support the Whigs. Anne was also the last monarch to refuse royal assent to a piece of legislation. The Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 required the Queen’s active participation as she sent letters to the Scottish parliament advocating a united Great Britain.

Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts is much more than a fascinating study of the Queen’s cultural patronage and inspiration to early eighteenth century artists. Winn restores Anne to her rightful place in British political history, revealing her contributions to the creation of the modern constitutional monarchy and the unification of Great Britain.  As Anne herself once said, “Whoever of the whigs thinks I am to be Heckter’d or frighted into a complyance tho I am a woman, are mightily mistaken in me.” Readers of Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts will never underestimate Queen Anne again.

Next Friday Royal Read: The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America by F. H. Buckley

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Interview on Royal Finances: “Two-kitchen Kate’ stirs royal spending ruckus”

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince George and family dog Lupo in the window of their apartment at Kensington Palace.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince George and family dog Lupo at Kensington Palace.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s finances have become the focus of public scrutiny in recent months. The extensive renovations to their apartment in Kensington Palace and erroneous reports that Prince William received a helicopter for his 32nd birthday prompted criticism of the usually popular royal couple. I discussed William, Kate and Royal Finances with Janet Davison at

Click here to read “‘Two-kitchen Kate’ stirs royal spending ruckus” at

For more of my thoughts on royal finances see the recent article I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen, “The Truth About Royal Spending” and the 2013 article I wrote for Bloomberg View, “How Big an Inheritance Awaits Kate and William’s Baby”


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The Truth About Royal Spending


Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace

My column in today’s Ottawa Citizen corrects some longstanding misconceptions about Royal Finances, discussing the Sovereign Grant and the history of other sources of royal income. I explain why reports that Prince William received a helicopter from the Queen for his 32nd birthday and that renovations to Kensington Palace will be billed to “the taxpayer” are inaccurate.

Click here to read “The Truth About Royal Spending” in the Ottawa Citizen

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The Queen’s Crumbling Palaces


The site of Greenwich Palace, favourite residence of King Henry VIII

The site of Greenwich Palace, favourite residence of King Henry VIII

My column in this weekend’s edition of the Kingston Whig Standard looks at the recent scrutiny of the Queen’s finances. While press coverage focuses on the Queen being “down to her last million” in her reserve fund, the most important issues raised by the UK Treasury report are the urgent repairs necessary for the royal palaces. The disappearance of the Palace of Plancentia at Greenwich, the setting of key events from King Henry VIII’s reign demonstrates that is is possible for neglect to render a palace uninhabitable.  In contrast, the survival of Windsor Castle for nearly a thousand years reflects a succession of visionary plans for the historic royal residence.

Click here to read the full column, “The Queen’s Crumbling Palaces” in the Kingston Whig Standard

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In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger (Review)

If your plans for 2014 include travel in the United Kingdom and France, pack a copy of In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Tudor history enthusiasts, Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger. As the subtitle states, the book is “The visitors companion to the palaces, castles & houses associated with Henry VIII’s infamous wife” but the book is much more than a travel guide. Morris and Grueninger have written an unconventional biography of Anne Boleyn through the lens of the places she visited and provided a unique snapshot of Tudor court life by retracing Henry VIII’s and Anne Boleyn’s 1535 progress. In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn is also a unique architectural history of Great Britain and France and an enjoyable travelogue about the authors searching for long lost Tudor palaces and abbeys.

Admirers of Anne Boleyn usually imagine the controversial Queen in three settings: Hever Castle, where she spent part of her childhood, Hampton Court Palace, where she presided over the Tudor Court with Henry VIII, and the Tower of London where she spent her last days before her execution. All three of these places are tourist attractions that attract thousands of visitors every year, who often forget that the sites no longer look the same as they did in Anne’s lifetime. Morris’s and Grueninger’s research reveals that Anne may have visited more than seventy places scattered throughout England, France and Belgium over the course of her short life.

By examining Anne’s life through its settings, the authors bring often overlooked aspects of the Queen’s character to the fore. Her time as a member of the household of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy and Queen Claude of France meant that she was far more well traveled than Henry VIII, who never saw the Chateaux of the Loire Valley. Anne’s travels also revealed that she had a wide network of social and political connections and was clearly comfortable engaging with everyone from Kings, Queens and Duchesses to humbler clergymen or gentlefolk who hosted the royal party on their progresses. Most biographies of Anne Boleyn focus on her relationship with Henry VIII or her Boleyn and Howard relatives. Morris and Grueninger bring the full extent of Anne’s experiences and social circles to the fore, including key primary sources along with descriptions of palace and abbeys.

The travelogue aspects of In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn are just as interesting as the source material about Anne Boleyn’s life and Tudor times. In the modern age, any house where Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn stayed during their courtship and marriage is worthy of preservation in its original state but that was not the view in past centuries. The dissolution of the monasteries during the English reformation that permitted the marriage of Henry and Anne, resulted in the destruction of abbeys that the couple once visited together. Casualties of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s included key Tudor historic sites and Napoleon III’s transformation of Paris in the 19th century destroyed much of the medieval city. The settings of Anne’s life that survived into the 18th and 19th centuries often experienced “improvements” by Romantics or Victorians designed to evoke the feeling of a bygone age rather than the precise architecture. As a result, a book like In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn is necessary for tourists to distinguish original Tudor buildings from modern innovations.

Morris and Grueninger include their own impressions of each site in the narrative including frank comments about whether each the various obscure settings of Anne’s life are worth visiting. I have visited many of the palaces in the book, following the footsteps of Queen Henrietta Maria rather than Anne Boleyn and it’s great to read the impressions of other travelers who have walked around the ruins of Wolvesey Castle in Winchester and journeyed to Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris to find traces of royal life in the rooms that now house the National Museum of Archaeology. I have noted some places in the book for my next visit to the United Kingdom and France this August.  In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn will appeal to a wide audience of readers interested in Anne herself, the times she lived in, how the architecture of England and France has changed over the centuries and planning a trip to historic sites off the beaten path.

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Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin by Catherine Merridale (Review)

The Moscow Kremlin is one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks. The imposing red brick walls and towers surrounding five cathedrals and four palaces appear to represent stability, enduring through Russia’s turbulent history. In Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin, Catherine Merridale, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary University in London and critically acclaimed author of Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, reveals that it is a miracle that the Kremlin is still standing in the twenty-first century.

The fortress endured a medieval Mongol invasion, a foreign occupation during the seventeenth century Time of Troubles, neglect after Peter the Great moved his court to St. Petersburg, a city wide fire following Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and bombardment during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Merridale’s exhaustive research, including visits to sections of the Kremlin rarely seen by the public, reveals that the how the Fortress and its significance has changed over the centuries. Whole buildings behind the walls have disappeared and other have been absorbed into new structures. With each new Russian ruler, the structure and symbolism of the Kremlin changed to reflect new ideas about the Kremlin’s place in Russian history and government.

Red Fortress is filled with fascinating details about the Russian leaders who left their mark on the Kremlin. In many English language works about the history of Russia, the personalities of the Grand Dukes of Muscovy and Czars of all the Russias who ruled prior to Peter the Great blend together, with the exception of the famous Ivan the Terrible, Merridale depicts each ruler as a unique individual with his own vision for the Kremlin. Ivan the Terrible’s grandfather, Ivan the Great (r. 1462-1505), who commissioned the modern red brick walls was “reputed to be so terrifying that his glance alone made women faint.”

Ivan the Great met his match in his second wife, Sophia, the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. Members of Sophia’s household spread the rumour that “she nagged him twice a week” while an Italian poet described her as “a mountain of fat.” Sophia’s extensive knowledge of Renaissance European art and architecture transformed the Kremlin as she persuaded her husband to appoint Italian engineers, architects, cannon-founders and silversmiths to contribute to new buildings and defenses.

The founding of the Romanov dynasty in 1613 brought new Czars with new interests to the Kremlin. Peter the Great’s grandfather, Mikhail Romanov, the founder of the new dynasty may have been illiterate and dependent on his father in matters of state but he was fascinated by western technology such as mechanical clocks. Mikhail also commissioned the Terem Palace, which is now part of the official residence of the President of Russia. Peter the Great’s father, Aleksei I imported European science books for his library and installed a palace laboratory for science and alchemy experiments. Peter the Great himself had little use for the Kremlin as a seat of government but he recognized that it was the site of immense public interest, becoming the first Russian ruler to charge sightseers admission to tour the grounds.

Merridale’s narrative slows in the middle as the Imperial Russian court moved to St. Petersburg from 1713 to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in 1917. During this period, Russia’s Czars were visitors to the Kremlin for major events such as coronations instead of permanent residents. When the capital returned to Moscow in 1918, the Kremlin was once again at the centre of events. Although Merridale does not draw direct comparisons between fifteenth and sixteenth century Muscovy and the twentieth century Soviet Union, readers will notice a number of parallels between the court of Ivan the Terrible and Stalin’s inner circle.

Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin ends with the Kremlin bells ringing to greet Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh during their unprecedented state visit to Moscow in 1994. The fall of the Soviet Union ushered in a new era for Russia’s most famous landmark. The Kremlin continues to change with the times, serving as the seat of President Vladimir Putin’s government and the most popular tourist attraction in Russia.

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Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang (Review)

There was no place in mid nineteenth century China’s political hierarchy for the sixteen year old concubine chosen by Emperor Xianfeng in 1852. The young woman, renamed Lan or “Orchid” by the Emperor belonged to the low ranking sixth level of the eight tier hierarchy of the Imperial harem. Although she had the poise and bearing expected of a member of the Imperial household, Lan soon irritated the Emperor with her suggestions about how he should address the peasant revolts and financial crises that followed the First Opium War. Xianfeng pronounced Lan “crafty and cunning” and ordered Empress Consort Zhen to discipline her. It seemed that Lan was condemned to a monotonous life in the Forbidden City with little influence beyond her household of maids and eunuchs.

Instead, Lan formed a political alliance with Empress Zhen. When Xianfeng died, leaving the throne to his young son with Lan, Tongzhi, the two women staged a coup, overthrowing the regency council and ruling China in the name of the boy Emperor.  Lan, concubine of the sixth rank, became Dowager Empress Cixi, the most powerful person in her son’s kingdom. Over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Cixi would rule on behalf of three Emperors, introducing a sweeping series of reforms that bridged the divide between medieval and modern China. In Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and Mao: The Unknown Story restores the controversial Dowager Empress to her rightful place in Chinese history.

Since her death in 1908, Cixi has suffered from bad press. Her ill judged support for the violent, anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 and conflicts with prominent figures such as “Wild Fox” Kang Youwei resulted in the circulation of anecdotes that depicted Cixi as a ruthless despot. The Dowager Empress became known as a figure who did not hesitate to poison her nephew, Emperor Guangxu or order his favourite concubine, Pearl, to be thrown down a well by her eunuchs. Since she ruled from the seclusion of the Imperial harem in the Forbidden City, Sea Palace and Summer Palace, it was easy for her opponents to give her ministers credit for her engagement with the west and reforms to Chinese society.

Portrayals of Cixi in popular culture outside China have been mixed. At the beginning of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film The Last Emperor, the elderly Cixi personifies the crumbling Chinese monarchy as she chooses the toddler Pu Yi to be last Emperor. In contrast, Anchee Min presented a sympathetic account of Cixi’s rise in power and rule in her two novels Empress Orchid and The Last Empress, showing the Empress an intelligent woman constrained by the archaic conventions of the Imperial court.

Chang draws upon sources previously unknown to both Cixi’s admirers and detractors to paint a complex portrait of the Empress and her reforms. While Xianfeng deplored any contact with the west, Cixi was interested in adopting Western practices and technologies that would contribute to a stronger China. She sent the first Chinese envoys abroad and was willing to work with Europeans and Americans who respected China’s sovereignty. In the last decade of her life, Cixi introduced reforms that improved the lives of women such as the abolition of foot binding, allowed the development of a free press and laid the groundwork for a constitutional monarchy that might have succeeded if she had lived further into Pu Yi’s reign.

In Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, Cixi emerges as a figure with boundless curiosity, interested in learning from other cultures while preserving her own. Chang also reveals the Empress’s considerable political acumen and flexibility, especially compared to Tongzhi and Guangxu who were both ineffective Emperors for different reasons. At the same time, Chang does not absolve Cixi of political murders including the deaths of Guangxu and his concubine, Pearl but instead places these events within the larger political context of the time.

While Cixi was interested in modernizing the rest of China, her court remained as it had been for centuries with eunuchs addressing the Dowager Empress on their knees. The conflict and contrast between the insular world of the court and rapidly changing China beyond the Forbidden City during Cixi’s time in power is fascinating reading. Chang’s groundbreaking biography reveals the life and times of one of the most influential figures in Chinese history who attempted to strike a balance between tradition and modernity.


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The 7 Most Controversial Royal Christenings

The Duchess of Cambridge with the newborn Prince George of Cambridge in July, 2013

The Duchess of Cambridge with the newborn Prince George of Cambridge in July, 2013

The christening of Prince George of Cambridge on October 23 in the Chapel of Royal of St. James’s Palace will be private occasion attended by family, close friends and the royal baby’s godparents. From Saxon times until well into the reign of Queen Victoria, however, royal christenings were often public occasions. When the christening of a royal baby went according to plan, the ceremony effectively symbolized the close relationship between the Crown and the Church and presented the next generation of royal heirs to the world. Unfortunately, royal christenings also had the potential to showcase unfortunate omens, religious discord and conflicts within the royal family regarding names, godparents and child rearing. Here are the 7 most controversial British royal christenings:

1) King Aethelred the Unready (c. 968-1016) According to the medieval chronicler William of Malmesbury, the life of the future King Aethelred the Unready began inauspiciously when the infant defecated in the font at his christening. Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury exclaimed angrily to the assembled guests, “By God and his mother, this will be a sorry fellow!” Aethelred grew up to become one of the most ineffective Kings of Saxon England, losing his throne to King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark from 1013 to 1014.

The twenty five year old Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, embroidered with Tudor roses

The twenty five year old Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, embroidered with Tudor roses

2) Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) The future Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was the first royal baby received into the newly created Church of England. Since the ceremony in the Church of Observant Friars in Greenwich proclaimed both the legitimacy of the King’s second marriage and the new religious settlement, there was critical commentary from supporters of the repudiated Queen Catherine of Aragon and the old papal supremacy. Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, one of Catherine’s most prominent supporters wrote, “the christening has been like her mother’s coronation, very cold and disagreeable, both to the Court and to the city, and there has been no thought of having the bonfires and rejoicings usual in such cases.”

3) Prince Henry Frederick (1594-1612) The eldest son of King James VI of Scotland (the future James I of England) and Anna of Denmark received a lavish christening at Stirling Castle. The King intended to make his son’s ceremony stand out from all previous royal celebrations by surprising the guests with a lion pulling a chariot into the christening banquet. At the last moment, this plan was cancelled as there were concerns that the lion might “forget himself.” Guests had to settle for viewing the King’s lions from a distance as the animals remained in their courtyard enclosure. Prince Henry died at the age of eighteen and his younger brother Charles succeeded James as King Charles I.

4) Princess Catherine Laura (1675) When the future James II’s second wife, Mary of Modena gave birth to her first child, the Roman Catholic royal couple arranged for a secret christening by Mary’s Catholic chaplain. James’s children from his first marriage, the future Queens Mary II and Anne, were Protestants and he wanted the children of his second marriage to share his Roman Catholic faith. When Charles II found out about Catherine Laura’s secret baptism, he ordered a second, Church of England, christening for his niece against the wishes of the baby’s parents. The infant princess died of convulsions at the age of nine months.

Prince George William, second son of the future King George II

Prince George William, second son of the future King George II

5) Prince George William (1717-1718) Arrangements for the christening of the future King George II’s second son led to a lasting rift between the Prince of Wales and his father, King George I. The Prince and Princess of Wales – the future King George II and Queen Caroline – wanted to name their son Louis and suggested the Queen of Prussia and Duke of York as godparents. George I promptly took charge of the christening planning, choosing “George William” as the name for his grandson and asking the Lord Chamberlain, the Duke of Newcastle to be one of the godparents. The Prince of Wales detested Newcastle and confronted him at the ceremony, declaring, “You are a rascal, but I shall find you out!” Due to the Prince’s thick German accent, Newcastle heard “I’ll fight you!” and assumed he had been challenged to a duel. George I banished his son and daughter-in-law from court because this incident, retaining custody of their children. When baby George William died at the age of three months, the Prince of Wales blamed his father for the tragedy because he had separated the child from his parents. The relationship between George I and the future George II never recovered from the circumstances surrounding George William’s christening and death.

6) Queen Victoria (1819-1901) The christening of the future Queen Victoria was the setting of an argument between the baby’s father, the Duke of Kent and her Uncle, the future King George IV, regarding suitable names. The Duke and Duchess intended to name their daughter Victoria Georgiana Alexandrina Charlotte Augusta after her mother and godparents. The King rejected these choices and told his brother and sister-in-law that he would inform them of the baby’s name at the christening. At the ceremony, The Archbishop of Canterbury held the baby over the font until the King decided, after some deliberations, that she would be named Alexandrina for her godfather, Czar Alexander I. The Duke of Kent requested a second name for the baby and suggested Elizabeth. George refused this idea, declaring, “Give her the mother’s name also then but it cannot precede that of the Emperor.” With the name settled, the future Queen was finally christened Alexandrina Victoria.

A group photograph from Prince William's christening in 1982

A group photograph from Prince William’s christening in 1982

7) Prince William (1982) After the breakdown of her marriage to Prince Charles, Princess Diana stated that she had been excluded from the planning of her elder son’s christening. Diana stated in a taped interview with James Colthurst published in Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words, “I was treated like nobody else’s business. Nobody asked me when it was suitable for William – 11 o’clock could not have been worse. Endless pictures of the Queen Mother, Charles and William. I was excluded totally that day.” Diana’s biographer, Tina Brown dismissed Diana’s account in The Diana Chronicles, writing, “The christening was a dynastic ceremony involving all the Royal Family, not a “Mommy and Me” class.”

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The Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace from King Henry VIII to Prince George of Cambridge

St. James's Palace in London

St. James’s Palace in London

Prince George of Cambridge will be christened by The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at St. James’s Palace on October 23. The choice of venue took the public by surprise because both Prince Charles and Prince William were christened in the Music Room at Buckingham Palace, which became a favourite venue for royal christenings after the palace chapel suffered bomb damage during the Second World War. The Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace, however, has been the setting for key royal occasions since the reign of King Henry VIII. The upcoming christening will follow in a long tradition of royal events unfolding within the Chapel Royal.

Today, St. James’s Palace is the administrative centre of the monarchy and the senior royal palace in the United Kingdom. The Accession Council meets at the palace to proclaim each new sovereign and British Ambassadors represent “The Court of St. James.” The palace did not enjoy this prominence when Henry VIII ordered its construction in the 1530s. Henry’s principal residence in London was Whitehall Palace and he intended for St. James’s Palace to be a secondary residence. Much of the palace was constructed on the site of a leper hospital dedicated to St. James the Lesser. The palace chapel was originally part of a nearby convent acquired by the King during the dissolution of the monasteries.

Portrait of Henry VIII's 4th wife, Anna of Cleves by Hans Holbein

Portrait of Henry VIII’s 4th wife, Anna of Cleves by Hans Holbein

St. James’s Palace was completed in 1536. In 1540, Henry commissioned the artist Hans Holbein to decorate the chapel in honour of his fourth marriage to the German Princess, Anna of Cleves. Holbein had been a key figure in the marriage negotiations, painting the famous portrait of Anna that prompted the King’s proposal of marriage. Although the marriage ceremony itself took place at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, the adornments to St. James’s Palace were intended to celebrate the new Queen.

Unfortunately for Holbein’s career, Henry was not attracted to the actual Anna as he was to her portrait and the marriage was annulled that same year. Holbein continued to work as an artist at court but he received fewer royal commissions after the failure of the King’s 4th marriage.

St. James’s Palace continued to be a significant royal residence during the Tudor period. Two of Henry VIII’s children, Henry Fitzroy and Queen Mary I, died in the palace and the heart of the Queen is buried under the choir stalls. Elizabeth I reputedly prayed for the success of her fleet against the Spanish Armada in the Chapel Royal in 1588.

The Queen's Chapel, designed by Inigo Jones for Charles I's consort, Queen Henrietta Maria.

The Queen’s Chapel, designed by Inigo Jones for Charles I’s consort, Queen Henrietta Maria.

In 1623, construction began on a new chapel at St. James’s Palace. Negotiations were underway for King James I’s heir, the future Charles I, to marry Princess Henriette-Marie of France and marriage contract ultimately stated, “. . . in all the said King’s Palaces in which the said Madam shall remain or be she shall have a Roman church or chapel capable and large with sufficient commodious entrances not only for the use of Madam and the better sort but also for the meanest of families. And this church or chapel shall be decently adorned according to the rites and customs of the Roman church.”

Inigo Jones, a favourite architect of James I’s late wife, Anna of Denmark designed the new Roman Catholic place of worship and Charles I’s bride brought her own chapel furnishings from France. Although there was widespread public concern that Henrietta Maria would encourage her husband to convert to Roman Catholicism, Charles I remained a devout member of the Church of England and received in his last Communion in the original Chapel Royal in St. James’s Palace before his execution at Whitehall in 1649.

During the interregnum, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell made clear what he thought of Henrietta Maria and her religion by using the Queen’s Chapel as a stable. Henrietta Maria’s chapel became a royal chapel once more in 1938 and the remains of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother remained there during the preparations for her lying-in-state in Westminster Hall after her death in 2002.

George Frederic Handel

After Whitehall Palace was destroyed by fire in the reign of King William III, in 1698, St. James’s Palace assumed its current role as the administrative centre of the monarchy. Although William preferred to live at Kensington Palace because of his asthma, George I, George II and George III all used St. James’s Palace as their principal residence in London during the eighteenth century. At this time, the Chapel Royal became a significant cultural centre. George Frederic Handel was appointed ‘Composer of Musick of His Majesty’s Chappel Royal’ in 1723 and he composed the music for the coronation of King George II in 1727.

Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace in 1840. The chapel has been renovated in 1836 to include oak paneling and a high ceiling. The overjoyed bride wrote in her journal, “His beauty, his sweetness & gentleness – really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband! … to be called by names of tenderness, I have never yet heard used to me before – was bliss beyond belief! Oh! This was the happiest day of my life!” In addition to ensuring the Queen’s happiness, the wedding also had worldwide social significance as Victoria’s choice of a white wedding gown with fresh flowers has influenced bridal fashions to the present day.

George Hayter's painting of the wedding of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert

George Hayter’s painting of the wedding of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert

In contrast to the Georgian monarchs, Victoria did not use St. James’s Palace as her residence, preferring Windsor Castle and the newly enlarged Buckingham Palace as official homes for her growing family.  Nevertheless, the Palace continues to be the setting for royal events to the present day. The children of Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin, Prince Michael of Kent, Lord Frederick and Lady Gabriella Windsor, were christened in the Chapel Royal in 1979 and 1981 respectively. The Queen’s granddaughter, Princess Beatrice was also christened there in a ceremony conducted by John Habgood, Archbishop of York, in 1988.

The Duchess of Cambridge leaving the hospital with Prince George of Cambridge that day after his birth

The Duchess of Cambridge leaving the hospital with Prince George of Cambridge the day after his birth

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have chosen a setting for the christening of their son Prince George that has a long and colourful royal history. For Prince William, the choice of the Chapel Royal also has profound personal significance. In September 1997, the coffin of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales was placed before the altar of the Chapel Royal so that family and friends could pay their respects before the funeral at Westminster Abbey. By choosing the Chapel Royal as the setting for Prince George’s christening, William and Catherine are honouring the late Princess of Wales in addition to their son’s destiny as heir to a thousand year old monarchy.

Click here to read my interview with Ruth Dunley of about the christening arrangements for Prince George of Cambridge.

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