With the nearby Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace, St. James's Palace often gets lost in the midst of other famous royal landmarks in London. But believe it or not, St. James's Palace has been a key location for many important events in London's history, not to mention it's the most senior royal palace in the UK.

The palace was built by Henry VIII between 1531 and 1536, and its name was derived from the leper hospital that once stood in its spot in the 11th century. Its original Tudor-style red-brick building and interior can still be seen today, however, much of the palace was destroyed by a fire in 1809, and as a result a majority of the original palace was remodelled during the 19th century.

The palace was meant to be used by Henry VIII as a residence to “escape formal court life,” and you can still see the initials “H.A.” (for Henry and his second wife Anne) decorated on a couple of the Tudor fireplaces in the state apartments. However, many sad events took place inside the palace as well, such as the death of two of Henry VIII’s children, one of which being his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, who lived in the Palace until 1536.

Both Charles II and James II were born and baptised in the palace, as well as Mary II, Queen Anne and James Francis Edward Stuart. Mary I and Elizabeth I often spent the night in St. James's Palace, and Charles I spent his last night inside the palace before he was executed.

Charles II restored the palace around the same time that he was designing the nearby St. James’s Park, and during this time it became a principal residence for the monarch; (especially after Whitehall Palace was destroyed by a fire). St. James’s Palace was also an important location for many monarch-related events, such as Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert in 1840, and their oldest child (Princess Victoria) married her husband Prince Frederick of Prussia inside the palace as well.

Charles I took his communion the morning of his execution inside the Chapel Royal, and William and Mary as well as George III and Queen Charlotte, Victoria and Albert and George V and Queen Mary all got married here. Not only that, Prince George (the son of Prince William and Kate Middleton) was recently christened here in a family ceremony as well.

Today the Royal Court is based inside the palace, and the Princess Beatrice of York, Princess Eugene of York and Princess Alexandra call St. James’s Palace home. The palace is also used for official receptions (such as for visiting heads of state or royal-related charities).

St. James's Palace, friary court St. James's Palace, Queens guards
St. James's Palace, clock St. James's Palace, far shot St. James's Palace, gates

St James's Palace Highlights

Although St. James's Palace is the official residence of the sovereign, no monarch lives in St. James’s Palace today. However, it is still used as a ceremonial meeting place for the Accession Council, and is the residence of minor members of the royal family, like Princesses Beatrice and Eugene of York and Princess Alexandra. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall live in Clarence House, which is attached to St. James’s Palace as well.

Inside St. James’s Palace you will see four courts (now known as Ambassador’s Court, Engine Court, Friary Court and Colour Court). There is also a north gatehouse which consists of four storeys as well as two crenelated flanking octagonal towers and a central clock. The clock was added later in 1731, and was decorated with the initials “H.A.” for Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn. You can also still see Henry VIII’s royal cipher “H.R.” at the Tudor gatehouse at the south side of St. James’s Street, which is located near the original foot passages leading to Colour Court.

The palace is also part of a “sprawling complex” of different buildings which house court offices as well as official apartments. One of which includes York House, (the former residence of Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry), and next door lies Lancaster House, which is used for official receptions. Also nearby is Clarence House, which was the home of the late Queen Mother, although now it is the official residence of the Prince of Wales (Prince Charles) and the Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla Parker-Bowles).

Special Tips

  • To get a good viewing spot for The Changing of the Guard, avoid Buckingham Palace altogether and try to get as close to Friary Court as possible. This way you can avoid the crowds and stand as close as ten feet away from the guards as soon as the band starts marching.
  • Make sure you get a photo of the guards standing outside the main entrance
  • Check the official website to see if the Chapel Royal or Queen's Chapel are open to the public during your visit to London