The engagement photos of Prince William of Britain and Kate Middleton provided the public with some rare views of the inside of St James’s Palace, the only of the British royal palaces which is not open to the public (except for the chapels and for Clarence House, which is attached to it).
Those wishing to get better acquainted with this palace may therefore welcome the recent publication of the book St James’s Palace: A History by Kenneth Scott, a former diplomat and courtier who has himself lived in an apartment at St James’s.
Built on the site of what was originally a lepers’ hospital, St James’s Palace has been home to seventeen generations of British royals. Scott charts the Palace and its inhabitants from the sixteenth century to the present day, arguing that the reason why Henry VIII, who already had enough palaces, acquired it most likely was that it should serve as the residence of the heir to the throne.
Indeed, this is what is has often been – and in a way still is, given that the current Prince of Wales is residing in Clarence House – but it was also the monarch’s main official residence in London from Whitehall Palace burned down in 1698 till Buckingham Palace was completed in 1837.
Through the centuries it has also provided living quarters for a great number of serving and retired courtiers – the 1841 Census shows 174 people living at St James’s Palace – but today only five members of the Royal Household are allowed to rent apartments there. The State Apartments are frequently used for receptions and official entertaining, while the rest of it has mostly become offices, except for apartments utilised by the princesses Anne, Beatrice and Alexandra.
Kenneth Scott’s book is lavishly illustrated with historical paintings and drawings as well as with contemporary photographs of the current state of the Palace. He charts the history of the palace complex and also the alterations made to it through the centuries. However, I do wish he had been a little more specific about the architecture.
Occasionally the author gets lost in the royal genealogy, particularly concerning the Hanoverians, where there are several misidentifications, but the text is well-written and, while primarily aiming at the general public, Scott succeeds in providing hiss readers with an informative and engaging survey of the history of the palace which still lends it name to the British court.