The UK is famous for its royal castles and palaces, used by reigning monarchs and members of their family. Some date back centuries while others are more modern residences. They all attract thousands of tourists, keen to get a glimpse of what royal life is really like. This year, one of the most famous royal castles stepped into the limelight when Prince Harry married American actress Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle on 19 May 2018.
But Windsor is just one of the royal castles and palaces in the UK. In this post, we take a look at the four most famous. All used by the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, as homes. They form an essential part of British history and enclose a world of fascinating facts within their four walls.
This year’s highlight – Windsor Castle
The world’s largest occupied castle gets not one but two royal weddings this year. St George’s Chapel is considered to be the jewel in the architectural crown at Windsor Castle. It hosted the wedding of Harry and Meghan in May and then opens its doors to Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank in October. The Chapel also witnessed the vows between Harry’s father (and Eugenie’s uncle) Prince Charles when he married Camilla Parker-Bowles.
As well as providing a stunning backdrop for the “I do”, Windsor Castle provided the inspiration for the Royal Family’s name, the House of Windsor. Built by William the Conqueror in 1080, 40 British monarchs have lived here and set up residence in the staggering 1,000 rooms. 10 of them are buried in St George’s Chapel.
Spectacular inside, Windsor Castle is almost as good outside. Set on a hill with panoramic views, the castle is surrounded by miles of parkland. The Long Walk, for example, is a 3-mile avenue built by Charles II in the late 17th century. It rolls into the park from the castle, flanked on both sides by a double line of elm trees.
Did you know? Of the four royal castles and palaces featured here, only Balmoral Castle actually belongs to the Queen. All the others belong to the Crown.
The most royal of them all – Buckingham Palace
The most famous of all the royal castles and palaces is undoubtedly Buckingham Palace. It is one of the key London landmarks and a must-visit on any tourist’s list. The giant palace, built by the Duke of Buckingham in 1705, passed into royal hands in 1761 when King George III bought it for his Queen. Charlotte went on to have 14 of her 15 children here.
However, Buckingham Palace didn’t become an official royal residence until 1837 when Queen Victoria moved in with her court when she came to the throne. Since then, it has been the principal home of British monarchs and has hosted hundreds of state occasions.
Valued at over £2.2 billion, Buckingham Palace does big with a capital B. Take the gardens for instance – in the very built-up capital, the palace’s private gardens cover 40 acres, the equivalent of four Wembley Stadiums. The rooms total 775 including no less than 78 bathrooms. The ballroom gets the prize for the largest – at nearly 37 metres long and 18 metres wide there’s more than enough room for even the most enthusiastic dancers.
Did you know? When the Queen is in residence at one of her royal castles and palaces she flies the Royal Standard. Otherwise it’s the Union Jack flag on the staff.
Packed with history – the Palace of Holyroodhouse
Another of the Queen’s official residences lies in Scotland’s capital. The Palace of Holyroodhouse, at the lower end of Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, is far smaller than Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. The Queen also uses it less, but this royal palace certainly packs in the history.
Built as an Augustinian abbey in 1128, it’s one of the oldest castles in Scotland and has seen a lot of royal activity. Mary Queen of Scots lived here for a while – both her marriages took place inside the palace and it was here she watched her private secretary David Rizzio murdered in 1566. No less dramatically, Bonnie Prince Charlie set up court in Holyroodhouse in 1745 after he seized Edinburgh in the Jacobite revolution.
Nowadays, life at Holyroodhouse Palace is much more sedate. The Queen hosts an annual garden party for 8,000 Scottish residences every summer and the palace holds regular art exhibitions. Like all royal residences, Holyroodhouse takes a lot of looking after. There are no less than 3,000 pieces of silver service – each guest at a palace dinner has their own silver salt and pepper set.
Did you know? All four royal castles and palaces are open to the general public, although not all year round and access to private areas is always restricted.
The most loved of all – Balmoral
This Scottish castle in Aberdeenshire provides a holiday retreat for Queen Elizabeth and her family during the summer months. The vast estate – its runs to 50,000 acres – has relatively recent royal connections. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought it in 1852 and demolished the original estate house built in 1390 to build a modern castle fit for a queen. Victoria described it as “my dear paradise in the Highlands”.
Like her great-great grandmother before her, Queen Elizabeth II reputedly favours Balmoral over her other royal residences. Her husband, Prince Philip, proposed to her here and the estate offers some of the Queen’s favourite pastimes, horse riding and hunting, and all away from public view.
The vast estate takes some looking after. Around 50 staff are employed full-time to take care of the woodlands and rolling countryside. Balmoral, the only royal residence that belongs to the Queen, is also the most private – open only from April to late July, just the grounds and a small part of the castle are accessible to the general public. Balmoral features on the reverse side of the Royal Bank of Scotland 100-pound note.
Did you know? There are a total of seven royal castles and residences in the UK. As well as the four mentioned here, they also include Kensington Palace and St James’ Palace in London, and Hillsborough Castle in County Down in Northern Ireland.
Your own royal castles and palaces
While we can’t offer you a stay at a real royal residence, we have holiday lets fit for kings and queens as well as all their courtiers. Take a look at our list of magnificent castles, all steeped in history and offering you the chance to be the king or queen of your own.
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