It took her almost 70 years to escape the big house, and, as the events of this weekend appear to confirm, Queen Elizabeth has no intention of ever returning to her “official home” of Buckingham Palace.
Despite the clear advantages that living in London would bestow on an elderly head of state—including minute-long drives to state events, hospitals and medics—it has been an unacknowledged fact that the queen has effectively moved full-time to Windsor Castle since Easter 2019. That was when, owing to the outbreak of COVID-19, she departed London and repaired, with her late husband Prince Philip, to the splendor of Windsor’s thousand rooms, spread out over 484,000 square feet.
Their stay lengthened and lengthened as the pandemic failed to end, and it now seems deeply unlikely that the royal standard will ever again fly over Buckingham Palace, proclaiming to the people of London that the queen is in residence.
A spokesperson for the ailing queen did not respond to two messages from The Daily Beast asking whether or not the queen had de facto moved to Windsor, however the curious mystery of the queen’s true domicile was unavoidable over the weekend when Her Majesty was unable to attend the National Service of Remembrance in London due to a sprained back.
Although the palace has only given the bare minimum of detail as to why exactly the queen was unable to make it to the event, it has been widely reported that the car ride from Windsor to London, about 40 minutes each way, was a contributory factor.
If the queen was living at her official residence, which is Buckingham Palace, the car ride would’ve been about four minutes. It’s entirely possible, therefore, that the fact of her now living in Windsor as opposed to being based in London was a camel’s back-breaking straw that resulted in her not attending the service.
And yet the prospects of her moving back now look slim. The queen, as every good student of royal history knows, has never particularly liked Buckingham Palace, and few could blame her.
Queen Victoria, the first monarch to move in, found the place unfinished and there were no rooms fit to be children’s nurseries—she and Prince Albert were proved to be prolific as parents, having nine children. Albert, on inspecting the premises, declared them “a disgrace to the Sovereign and the Nation.”
Victoria and Albert called in an architect, Edward Blore, to make changes and he set the basic form of the palace as it is today, by adding a new front to the east, complete with the balcony on which the royal family appear for major events, and removing an arch from the inner courtyard that became Marble Arch, a mile away to the north of Park Lane.
Nobody has ever claimed the result to be an architectural masterpiece. There are 775 rooms. Including 52 royal and guest bedrooms. Despite the fact that around $700m has been allocated for a program of repairs, the buildings remain somewhat rundown, the roofs leak into strategically placed buckets in heavy rainstorms and the endless infestations of vermin are such an issue that no fewer than three pest control companies hold royal warrants.
“BP” is also the subject of a massive, ongoing, renovation program funded by the government and costing millions of pounds which results in more or less endless noise, dust and disturbance.
Rat catchers and builders aside, BP has a very different tone to Windsor as huge sections of it are given over to a veritable warren of offices and pokey shared flats in which dozens of royal staffers live and work.
As the writer and royal biographer Penny Junor told The Daily Beast: “Buckingham Palace is a head office. It’s huge, impersonal, not cozy at all and she has never felt at home there.”
The grand rooms, such as the White Drawing Room (familiar from many Christmas addresses) and the picture gallery, can indeed be beautiful but can also sometimes feel a bit like a cross between a corporate function room in a chain hotel and a museum.
The vast, windowless ballroom where investitures are often carried out was described to The Daily Beast by one royal acquaintance as “one of the grimmest private rooms in England.”
It has been widely reported in the past few days that the queen will be conducting no further large-scale investitures, which may well mean she will never have to enter this depressing space ever again.
Things haven’t been improved much by the opening of the palace to the public over the last decade, with many of the sumptuous woolen carpets being replaced with hardier synthetics.
Another curious fact about Buckingham Palace is that few of the windows on the ground floor even open.
The queen’s private apartment on the first floor at BP, accessed via a private lift adjacent to her private secretary’s office, is perfectly pleasant, with squashy sofas and a view overlooking the enormous palace gardens and Constitution Hill, but the difference to Windsor Castle could not be more pronounced.
Windsor is much more like a traditional posh country home of the English aristocracy. Unlike many aristocratic stately homes, however, it is not draughty, cold and ramshackle. It is extremely comfortable, if not exactly luxurious, and, thanks to Prince Philip’s eye for engineering detail, everything works perfectly.
It’s not hard to understand why the queen might prefer living in Windsor to residing in Buckingham Palace, especially as the restoration of the chapel after a huge fire in 1992 was led by Prince Phillip and is regarded by the queen as one of his enduring legacies.
Windsor Castle is emotionally important to the queen as well because it is the repository of many of her formative childhood memories, having moved there with Princess Margaret when she was 13 during World War II, Junor says, adding: “She and her sister were evacuated to Windsor Castle and that is where she feels most at ease.”
When the queen married, she was delighted to move out of Buckingham Palace and into Clarence House and she and Philip were aghast when, on the death of her father, the prime minister of the day, Winston Churchill, more or less ordered her to move back, saying that the monarch had to live at Buckingham Palace.
This process was memorably dramatized in the Netflix series The Crown. (Prince Charles appears to have reluctantly accepted he will have to make BP his official home, but has made no secret of his intention to scale down his home there to the status of a “flat above the shop”.)
The future of the palace is likely to be in line with the queen’s abandonment of it, serving not as a house but as one of London’s top tourist destinations as well as a kind of Museum of the Monarchy. It contains one of the world’s finest art collections, reckoned to be worth as much as $30 billion, including 600 Leonardo da Vinci drawings that alone are probably worth around $7 billion.
There is also the real estate value, prime of the prime, including magnificent gardens, which produce mulberry leaves used to flavor one of the queen’s favorite tipples, Buckingham Palace Gin. Last year a batch was put up for sale on the royal gift shop website at $55 a bottle and sold out in eight hours.
The couple did make the most of living in London, but nearly all of their close friends have now either died or moved to the country. The days of the queen being able to nip down to her beloved Rules restaurant for dinner, or to quietly attend the theatre or slip into the royal box at the opera are long gone. Philip enjoyed the anonymity of living in London and often drove himself around town in an armored London taxi, which he sensibly realized would make him all but invisible.
It has been observed that COVID has been a great accelerator of events already in train, and this is as true of the queen’s living arrangements as it is of online shopping.
There had long been a school of thought that Her Majesty had always intended to see out her widowhood at Windsor, but COVID brought things forward.
The queen and Prince Philip moved to Windsor in Easter 2019, at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Initially it was intended to be an arrangement that would last for just a few weeks, but as the pandemic stretched on, the couple’s stay did too. They set up home at Windsor Castle with a small staff of 22 dedicated servants working on rotation, nicknamed, “HMS Bubble.”
With Philip now gone and the queen’s health failing, there might indeed be a logical case for the queen to be nearer London’s medical professionals, but it appears to be one the queen is unconvinced by—and the official silence on the matter speaks volumes.