Buckingham Palace has been the official residence of the reigning British monarch since 1837 when Queen Victoria (Born 24 May 1819 – Died 22 January 1901) ascended to the throne. There are a few ghost stories attached to Buckingham Palace but I am unsure of how genuine they are and I have not heard any witness accounts.
The land upon which Buckingham Palace is situated was part of the Manor of Ebury which passed from King William I (Born 1028 – Died 9 September 1087) to Geoffrey de Mandeville (Died 1100). He in turn gave the land to the monks of Westminster Abbey. In 1536 Ebury was taken from Westminster Abbey by King Henry VIII and was leased out. Ebury was then sold by King James I (19 June 1566 – 27 March 1625), apart from a portion on which he established a mulberry garden.
Writing in 1878, Edward Walford gives the following description of Buckingham Palace, its location and early history in his ‘Westminster: Buckingham Palace’, Old and New London: Volume 4 ‘ ‘The present palace occupies the site of what, in the reigns of Charles I. and Charles II., was known as the Mulberry Garden, then a place of fashionable resort. It was so called from the fact that the ground had been planted with mulberry-trees by order of James I., one of whose whims was the encouragement of the growth of silk in England as a source of revenue. With this object in view, he imported many ship-loads of young mulberry-trees, most of which were planted round the metropolis. Indeed, he gave by patent to Walter, Lord Aston, the superintendence of “the Mulberry Garden, near St. James’s;” but all Lord Aston’s efforts were unable to secure success; the speculation entered into by King James proved a failure, and the Mulberry Garden was afterwards devoted to a public recreation-ground.
Every reader of John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys will remember how they describe these gardens in their day—the former as “the best place about the towne for persons of the best quality to be exceedingly cheated at;” and the latter as “a silly place, with a wilderness somewhat pretty.”
The Mulberry Garden is said by Mr. J. H. Jesse to have been a favourite resort of John Dryden, where he used to eat mulberry tarts. To this the author of “Pursuits of Literature” refers when he speaks of “the mulberry tarts which Dryden loved.” It was in the years prior to his marriage, in 1665, as we learn from a note in his Life by Sir Walter Scott, that Dryden would repair hither, along with his favourite actress, Mrs. Reeve. “I remember,” writes a correspondent of the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1745, “plain John Dryden, before he paid his court with success to the great, in one uniform clothing of Norwich drugget. I have ate tarts with him and Madame Reeve at the Mulberry Garden, when our author advanced to a sword and a Chadreux wig.” It would appear from the Epilogue of Otway’s “Don Carlos,” in 1676, that in all probability the connection of this fair lady with Dryden was brought to an end by her retreat into a cloister.
The public recreation-ground does not appear, however, to have lasted long, for in the course of a few years we find standing upon the southern portion of it a mansion known as Arlington House, the residence of Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington, one of the “Cabal” Ministry, under Charles II. Dr. King thus alludes to these changes in his “Art of Cookery:”—
“The fate of things lies always in the dark:
What cavalier would know St. James’s Park?
For ‘Locket’s’ stands where gardens once did spring,
And wild ducks quack where grasshoppers did sing:
A princely palace on that space does rise,
Where Sedley’s noble muse found mulberries.”
The house was originally called Goring House; but its name was subsequently changed to that of Arlington House on its being occupied by the Earl of Arlington, whose name is, or ought to be, indissolubly linked with it, on one account at all events; for in the year of the great plague his lordship brought hither from Holland the first pound of tea which was imported into England, and which cost him sixty shillings; so that, as John Timbs remarks, “in all probability the first cup of tea made in England was drank where Buckingham House now stands.”
On the demolition of Arlington House, in 1703, its site was purchased by John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, who built on it a mansion of red brick.
In the “New View of London,” published in 1708, the original building is described as “a graceful palace, very commodiously situated at the westerly end of St. James’s Park, having at one view a prospect of the Mall and other walks, and of the delightful and spacious canal; a seat not to be contemned by the greatest monarch. It was formerly,” adds the writer, “called Arlington House, and being purchased by his Grace the present Duke of Bucks and Normanby, he rebuilt it, in the year 1703, upon the ground near the place where the old foundation stood. It consists of the mansion house, and at some distance from each end of that, conjoined by two arching galleries, are the lodging-rooms for servants on the south side of the court; and opposite, on the north side, are the kitchen and laundry, the fronts of which are elevated on pillars of the Tuscan, Dorick, and Ionick orders, thereby constituting piazzas. The walls are brick; those of the mansion very fine rubb’d and gagg’d (sic), adorned with two ranges of pilasters of the Corinthian and Tuscan orders. On the latter (which are uppermost) is an acroteria of figures, standing erect and fronting the court; they appear as big as life and look noble.” They are thus described:—”1. Mercury with his winged chapeau. 2. Secret, reposing its right arm on a pillar, and in the left hand a key. 3. Equity, holding a balance and a plummet. 4. Liberty, having in his right hand a sceptre, and a cap in the left. 5. Truth, holding the sun in his right hand, and treading on a globe. 6. Apollo, holding a lyre. Also, backward, are four figures beholding the west—Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Moreover, on the front of this mansion are these words, depensiled in capital gold characters:—’Sic siti lætantur Lares;’ ‘Spectator fastidiosus sibi molestus;’ ‘Rus in urbe;’ and ‘Lente suscipe, cito perfice.’ The hall, partly paved with marble, is adorned with pilasters, the intercolumns are noble painture in great variety, and on a pedestal near the foot of the great staircase (whose steps are entire slabs) are the marble figures of Cain killing his brother Abel. In short, the whole structure is spacious, commodious, rich, and beautiful, but especially in the finishing and furniture. This house is now in the occupation of his Grace the Duke of Buckingham. It has a spacious court on its easterly side, fenced with a handsome wall, iron-work, and a beautiful iron gate, where the duke’s coronet, arms, garter, and George are exquisitely represented in iron.”
Sheffield’s history furnishes another example of the instability of human greatness, and especially of titles. His only son, who held the title but a few short years, died, unmarried, in 1735, when the family honours became extinct. His father’s great wealth was carried by his mother into her family by a previous marriage—the Phippses, now Marquises of Normanby. The duchess was grandmother of Mr. Phipps, afterwards Lord Mulgrave, who married the eldest daughter of Lepel, Lady Hervey, the friend of Pope and Horace Walpole. Lady Hervey was often a visitor at Buckingham House, the mansion being at the time an abode of mirth and cheerfulness, if we may judge from her letters.
In a letter to the Duke of Shrewsbury, printed in “London and its Environs,” the Duke of Buckingham describes the house, and his style of living there, in the most minute detail. It is said that, at an annual dinner which he gave to his spendthrift friends, he used to propose as a toast, “May as many of us as remain unhanged till next spring meet here again!” He died in this house, and here his remains lay in state previous to their removal to Westminster Abbey, where they were consigned to their tomb in the stately chapel of Henry VII.
The duke’s proud widow, Catherine Darnley, the natural daughter of James II. by Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester, lived here after his death. “Here,” writes Mr. J. H. Jesse, “on each successive anniversary of the execution of her grandfather, Charles I., she was accustomed to receive her company in the grand drawing-room, herself seated in a chair of state, clad in the deepest mourning, and surrounded by her women, all as black and as dismal looking as herself. Here, too, that eccentric lady breathed her last.” “Princess Buckingham,” writes Horace Walpole, “is either dead or dying. She sent for Mr. Anstes, and settled the ceremonial of her burial. On Saturday she was so ill that she feared dying before the pomp was come home. She said, ‘Why don’t they send the canopy for me to see? Let them send it, even though all the tassels are not finished.’ But yesterday was the greatest stroke of all. She made her ladies vow to her that, if she should lie senseless, they would not sit down in the room before she was dead.” By her own express directions, she was buried with great pomp beside her lord in the Abbey, where there was formerly a waxen figure of her, after the usual royal fashion, adorned with jewels, prepared in her life by her own hands. She was succeeded in her ownership of the house by the duke’s natural son, Charles Herbert Sheffield, on whom his Grace had entailed it after the death of his son, the young duke.
George III., in his second year, bought the house for the sum of £21,000, and shortly afterwards removed hither from St. James’s Palace. Here all his numerous family was born, with the exception of the Prince of Wales (afterwards George IV.), whose birth took place at St. James’s. The King and Queen grew so fond of their new purchase that they took up their abode entirely here; and during their reign, St. James’s Palace was kept up for use only on Court days and other occasions of ceremony.
In 1775 the property was legally settled, by Act of Parliament, on Queen Charlotte; and henceforth Buckingham House was known in West-end society as the “Queen’s House.”
Northouck describes Buckingham House, in 1773, in terms which do not imply that the King and Queen had shown much taste in its approaches. “In the front it is enclosed with a semi-circular sweep of iron rails, which are altered very unhappily from the rails which enclosed it before it became a royal residence. Formerly an elegant pair of gates opened in the middle; but now, though a foot-opening leads up to where an opening naturally is expected in front, all entrance is forbidden, by the rails being oddly continued across without affording an avenue through. Whoever seeks to enter must walk round either to the right or left, and in the corners perhaps he may gain admittance. The edifice,” he adds, “is a mixture of brick and stone, with a broad flight of steps leading up to the door, which is between four tall Corinthian pilasters, which are fluted and reach up to the top of the second storey.” The illustration of the front which he gives shows a great resemblance to Kensington Palace. “Behind the house,” he adds, “is a garden and terrace, from which there is a fine prospect of the adjacent country.” The house is described, at the beginning of the present century, as having a mean appearance, being low and built of brick, though “it contains within,” adds the writer, “apartments as spacious and commodious as any palace in Europe for state parade.” On the marriage of the Prince of Wales (George IV.), “a suite of the principal rooms was fitted up in the most splendid manner; the walls of two of the levee rooms being hung with beautiful tapestry, then recently discovered with its colours unfaded in an old chest at St. James’s. In the grand levee room,” adds the writer, “is a bed of crimson velvet, manufactured in Spitalfields. The canopy of the throne likewise is of crimson velvet, trimmed with broad gold lace, and embroidered with crowns set with fine pearls of great value. This was first used on Queen Charlotte’s birthday, after the union of the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, and the shamrock, the badge of the Irish nation, is interwoven with the other decorations of the crown with peculiar taste and propriety.”
During the first two nights of the Gordon Riots, the King sat up with some of the general officers in the Queen’s Riding House, whence messengers were constantly dispatched to observe the motions of the mob. “Between three and four thousand troops were in the Queen’s Gardens, and surrounded Buckingham House. During the first night the alarm was so sudden, that no straw could be got for the troops to rest themselves on; which being told his Majesty, he, accompanied with one or two officers, went throughout the ranks, telling them, ‘My lads, my crown cannot purchase you straw to-night; but depend on it, I have given orders that a sufficiency shall be here to-morrow forenoon; as a substitute for the straw, my servants will instantly serve you with a good allowance of wine and spirits, to make your situation as comfortable as possible; and I shall keep you company myself till morning.’ The King did so, walking mostly in the garden, sometimes visiting the Queen and the children in the palace, and receiving all messages in the Riding House, it being in a manner head-quarters. When he was told that part of the mob was attempting to get into St. James’s Palace, he forbade the soldiers to fire, but ordered them to keep off the rioters with their bayonets. The mob, in consequence of that, were so daring as to take hold of the bayonets and shake them, defying the soldiers to fire or hurt them; however, nothing further was attempted on the part of the rioters in that quarter.”
In 1825 the present edifice was commenced, from the design of John Nash, by command of George IV.; but as William IV. did not like the situation or the building, Buckingham House was not occupied until the accession of Queen Victoria. It was at first intended only to repair and enlarge the old house; and therefore the old site, height, and dimensions were retained. This led to the erection of a clumsy building, as it was considered that Parliament would never have granted the funds for an entirely new palace. On the accession of her present Majesty (Note: This being Queen Victoria), several alterations and improvements were effected, and new buildings added on the south side. The principal of these is the private chapel, which occupies the place of the old conservatory. It was consecrated in 1843. The pillars of this building formed a portion of the screen of Carlton House. Four years later other and more extensive alterations were effected by the erection, at a cost of about £150,000, of the east front, under the superintendence of Mr. Blore. The palace, as constructed by Nash, consisted of three sides of a square, Roman-Corinthian, raised upon a Doric basement, with pediments at the ends; the fourth side being enclosed by iron palisades. In front of the central entrance stood, formerly, the Marble Arch, now at the north-east corner of Hyde Park. It was removed to its present situation in 1851. On it was displayed the royal banner of England, denoting the presence of the sovereign. This flag is now displayed on the roof in the centre of the eastern front. The new east front of the palace is the same length as the garden front; the height to top of the balustrade is nearly eighty feet, and it has a central and two arched side entrances, leading direct into the quadrangle. The wings are surmounted by statues representing “Morning,” “Noon,” and “Night;” the “Hours and the Seasons;” and upon turrets, flanking the central shield (bearing “V. R. 1847”), are colossal figures of “Britannia” and “St. George;” besides groups of trophies, festoons of flowers, &c. Around the entire building is a scroll frieze of the rose, shamrock, and thistle.
The first reputed ghost is thought to be an anniversary haunting. A chained monk shuffling along the palace terrace is thought to appear on Christmas Day. As the land was owned by the monks of Westminster for the better part of 500 years maybe he something to do with that.
The second ghost is usually reported as being that of Major John Gwynne, private secretary of King Edward VII (Born 9 November 1841 – Died 6 May 1910). According to tradition he shot himself in the head following his divorce. This took place in his office on the first floor and the haunting is said to materialize as the sound of a gunshot. I am unsure exactly how people would react to this if a gun shot was heard in Buckingham Palace. I imagine there would be security reports somewhere if this has been experienced.
King Edward VII ascended to the throne in 1901 and his private secretary was Francis Knollys, 1st Viscount Knollys (Born 16 July 1837 – Died 15 August 1924).