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Palaces on the Periphery:
Marlborough House and Clarence House

by Tori V. Martínez

Flanking historic St. James's Palace are two of London's most underrated royal palaces. Arguably so, since, to some, the more appropriate adjective used to describe both palaces would probably be "underwhelming." Nevertheless, as in many things, a little disagreement frequently creates an added element of interest, and this is certainly the case for Marlborough House and Clarence House.

Although both palaces were designed by the premier architects of their day -- Sir Christopher Wren and John Nash, respectively -- neither one has received high accolades in more contemporary times. Marlborough House is described in the 1986 book, The Great Houses of London, as "a sorry sight" that has been ruined by the many additions and alterations it has received over time. As for Clarence House, in 1901, one American newspaper unflatteringly referred to it as "the amorphous yellow structure at the western end of St. James'." The following year, a compatriot publication was only slightly less unkind when it described the royal edifice as a "square saffron-colored mansion."

Yet, despite these low descriptions, both Marlborough House and Clarence House are important historically, hold great royal significance, are good examples of their respective architect's work, and today each serve a very important function -- Marlborough House as the seat of the Commonwealth Secretariat, and Clarence House as the official residence of the Prince of Wales and his family.

In with a Queen, Out with a Queen

Marlborough HouseOn the east side of St. James's Palace, separated by Marlborough Road, is Marlborough House, the first of the two palaces to be built and, as fate dictated, one of the last private palaces to be erected during the reign of Queen Anne (r. 1702-1714). Not originally a royal home, it nonetheless owes its creation to the special grants and privileges bestowed by Queen Anne upon the great British hero, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, and his wife, Sarah Churchill, Queen Anne's favorite courtier. Along with the dukedom, the royal manor of Woodstock, and a generous financial grant to build the fabulous Blenheim Palace, Queen Anne also granted the Duke and his wife the lease of several acres of land near the Queen's London residence, St. James's Palace, on which to build a city palace of their own.

The land grants were made in 1708 and 1709, by which point the Duchess had already selected Sir Christopher Wren -- most famously recalled for designing St. Paul's Cathedral -- as her architect. On May 24, 1709, the Duchess laid the foundation stone to the new palace, which she directed should be "plain and cheap." Of course, by most standards, no palace is truly plain and cheap, and Marlborough House was certainly no exception, but the relatively simple and unornamented design was a direct departure from the newly popular Palladian style, and a complete departure from the ostentation that defined Blenheim Palace. Perhaps the most outstanding and interesting feature of the palace was the material used to construct it -- red bricks that were said to have been brought from Holland to England as ballast for the ships that had carried the Duke of Marlborough's troops to Holland.

The house took three years to build, but the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough did not have much time to enjoy the palace immediately after it was completed, thanks to a falling out between the Marlborough's and the Queen. After Queen Anne's death, the Marlborough's made a triumphant return to their London palace, which they both enjoyed until the Duke's death in 1722. The Duchess occupied Marlborough House for another 22 years after her husband's death, and the palace was eventually passed on to the fourth Duke of Marlborough. With his death in 1817, the Crown purchased the remainder of the original lease and Marlborough House was earmarked as the home of Princess Charlotte, the sole heir of the future George IV, and her new husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. But Charlotte died following childbirth before the house was ready, and it was her widowed husband who lived there until 1831 when he became King of the Belgians.

As the succession of the rulers of the British monarchy progressed, so did the fate of Marlborough House. After Leopold vacated the premises, the palace was reserved for Queen Adelaide, wife of King William IV (r. 1830 -- 1837) as a dower house. Accordingly, she did not occupy the house until the death of the King, but then lived there until her own death in 1849. After Adelaide, Marlborough House was slated for the young Prince of Wales -- eldest son of Queen Victoria -- when he came of age. He officially took possession of the palace in 1863, along with his new Danish bride.

No one since the first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough made such a deep impression on Marlborough House as did Bertie and Alix, the Victorian Era's longstanding Prince and Princess of Wales. During the long, staid and formal years of Queen Victoria's reign following the death of her husband, the Prince Consort, in 1861, the circle surrounding the young and vibrant household of the Prince and Princess of Wales was a beacon of light to the "faster" set of London society. It didn't take long for that set to become known as "The Marlborough House Set." Led by the forward-thinking Prince, individuals were permitted within this glittering sphere who would have been unthinkable at any other time before, including the new rich, Americans and Jews. In short, the Marlborough House Set was a defining factor in helping to break down class barriers in British society -- or, at least, it was a start.

Marlborough HouseWhen they weren't enjoying themselves and their society, Bertie and Alix were fulfilling their duties as perpetuators of the royal family. In 1865, their second son, Prince George -- the future George V -- was born at Marlborough House. The Prince and Princess of Wales and their young family used Marlborough House as their London home for nearly 40 years until shortly after Bertie succeeded to the throne in 1901 as King Edward VII.

After the new King and Queen made the move to Buckingham Palace, Marlborough House was occupied by yet another Prince and Princess of Wales, George and May, until they became King George V and Queen Mary in 1910. On May 9, 1910, three days after the death of Edward VII, two of the new King's sons -- themselves the future Kings Edward VIII and George VI -- watched from the windows of Marlborough House as their father was officially proclaimed King George V in the Friary Court of St. James's Palace next door.

With the new reign, Marlborough House became a dower house once again, this time to the Dowager Queen Alexandra, who occupied her old home until her death in 1925. The cycle looked as if it would repeat itself once more when the palace was offered to yet another Prince of Wales, Prince Edward -- better known to his family as David -- the future Edward VIII and, later, Duke of Windsor. But David had little liking for the old palace, preferring instead to live in the more intimate surrounds of York House at St. James's Palace and his country home, Fort Belvedere.

As a result, Marlborough House was not to have another royal inhabitant until Queen Mary moved there following the death of George V in 1936, completing the cycle once again. The never ending round of royal comings and goings was sadly echoed for the old queen on February 15, 1952, when -- not unlike what her own sons had done when their father was proclaimed king in 1910 -- Queen Mary watched from a window at Marlborough House as the funeral cortege of her son, George V, passed along the Mall.

Following Queen Mary's death in 1953, Marlborough House went into a state of limbo until the young Queen Elizabeth II decided that the palace that was granted into existence by a historic queen would be granted a new existence by a modern queen.

A "Stable" of Assorted Royals

Clarence HouseWithout a doubt, Clarence House's beginnings were at least a few degrees less auspicious than those of Marlborough House. For one thing, whereas Marlborough House was built on several acres and had some distance between it and St. James's Palace, Clarence House was constructed in a somewhat more cramped nook adjoining the west side of St. James's in Stable Yard. For another, although the palace was designed by the noted Regency architect John Nash, he was apparently reluctant to take on the job. But he did, and Clarence House was duly built between 1825 and 1827 for the Duke of Clarence -- younger brother of King George IV (r. 1820 -- 1830), and himself the future William IV.

Originally, Clarence House was "a three-storey mansion of classical proportions," with the façade featuring the stucco that was a trademark of most of Nash's designs. Around the same time, just around the corner, Nash was making far more imposing changes to what we know today as Buckingham Palace for George IV, but Clarence House was still a respectable royal palace. And though not a particularly grand one, it suited the relatively simple tastes of the Duke and Duchess of Clarence. When the Duke succeeded his brother as William IV in 1830, he and the new Queen stayed on at Clarence House, making it a center of Court activity until his death in 1837.

Since Marlborough House had been set aside for Queen Adelaide as a dower house, Clarence House next became the London residence of the late King's sister, Princess Augusta, until her death in 1840. Almost without skipping a beat, Clarence House then passed to Queen Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent. Considering the Duchess and Clarence House's founder and namesake hated each other, poor William IV was probably rolling in his grave over this development.

Five years after the Duchess of Kent's death in 1861, Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, took up residence at Clarence House. When he married the Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna of Russia -- the only daughter of Tsar Alexander II -- in 1874, Clarence House was renovated, modified and expanded to four-stories. The Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh lived in the house until the Duke died in 1900, although they had used it less frequently after 1893 when the Duke became the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and moved to Germany to take up his responsibilities. During their time in the palace, it gained a reputation of being one of the most elegantly furnished homes in London and was supposedly famous for its "good beds."

In 1901, another of Queen Victoria's sons, the Duke of Connaught, and his wife moved into Clarence House, and it remained the Duke's London residence until his death in 1942. With the Second World War raging, the palace was then lent to the cause for the duration.

Clarence House

The next occupants of Clarence House reflected the previous two royal occupants in a very unique way. As Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten and Princess Elizabeth, heir to the throne and today Queen Elizabeth II, were the second couple holding that title to live there. In addition, the Duke of Connaught was the great uncle of both Philip and Princess Elizabeth.

The plan to have the Princess and her husband live in Clarence House was devised in 1947, although since the usual need for renovations between royal occupants was exacerbated by damage done to the palace during the war, they didn't actually move in to Clarence House until 1949. According to a newspaper report of the day, the renovations involved, among other things, "ripping out or refurbishing yards and yards of crimson carpeting," and painting the palace a shade of "creamy yellow." Once settled into their new home, the couple lived a relatively domestic life, and it was in Clarence House that the Princess gave birth to her second child, Princess Anne, on August 15, 1950.

Following Elizabeth's accession to the throne in 1952, she switched places with her mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, when the new Queen moved into Buckingham Palace and the old Queen moved into Clarence House along with Princess Margaret. The room in which the young Princess Elizabeth had given birth to Princess Anne became the bedroom of Princess Margaret. Years later, in November 1961, Princess Margaret, who had married the previous year, returned to that same room to give birth to her first child, David Armstrong-Jones, Viscount Linley.

The Queen Mother lived at Clarence House for nearly 50 years, making her name seem almost exclusively synonymous with the historic royal palace. It's impossible to give attention to every one of the multitude of important events and personages that passed through Clarence House during the Queen Mother's residence, but at least one individual is certainly worth mentioning here. In February 1981, Lady Diana Spencer moved into Clarence House with the Queen Mother on the eve of the announcement of her engagement to Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. Little else needs to be said on that matter, but it wasn't without a little bit of irony when, following the Queen Mother's death in 2002, Clarence House passed to Prince Charles.

New Roles for Old Palaces

Although Marlborough House had generally been a beloved and well lived-in home for most of its history, after the death of Queen Mary in 1953, the 200-room palace was quickly deemed by the royal family to be too outmoded for modern living and too expensive to maintain, and it was soon passed on to the British Government. From an aesthetic point of view, it is probably true that at least part of the downfall of Marlborough House was due to the many renovations and additions it received over its long history. What began as a straightforward two-story building was, by the 19th century, a somewhat disjointed four-stories. Because of that, Marlborough House is considered by many to be a mere shadow of its more palatial neighbor, Lancaster House, although it is still, as Muirhead's Short Guide to London called it in 1928, "a good example of Sir Christopher Wren's red brick work."

Home today to the Commonwealth Secretariat, the central body of the Commonwealth of Nations, Marlborough House was most recently remodeled between 1989 and 1993, just a few years after it was called "a sorry sight." Criticisms by the architectural die-hards aside, a palace is still a palace, and the façade is sufficiently impressive to please the average person. Not to mention the fact that many of the interior spaces are satisfactorily grand, even after dozens of interior renovations by successive royal occupants and a major overhaul to convert it to government use. Perhaps one of the few elements of Marlborough House still somewhat close to original condition is the garden, which is said to be maintained largely as it was in the 18th century.

For lovers of royal history, Marlborough House holds a number of added physical and sentimental attractions. On the west side of the palace, facing Marlborough Road, is a bronze memorial to Queen Alexandra dating from 1932 and designed by sculptor Sir Alfred Gilbert. The palace also has strong connections to the Duke of Windsor who, as King Edward VIII in 1936, informed his mother, Queen Mary, at Marlborough House that he was determined to marry his American mistress, Wallis Simpson, even if it meant giving up the throne. More than 30 years later, in 1967, the long exiled and ostracized Wallis Simpson, as Duchess of Windsor, was invited for the first time to attend an event hosted by the British royal family. The event was the unveiling of a memorial plaque to the late Queen Mary at Marlborough House.

Like Marlborough House, Clarence House has also changed a great deal since it was built, owing to major alterations in the 1870s, numerous renovations, and the German bombs of the Second World War. In addition to no longer being "saffron" yellow, the most recent renovations modernized Clarence House for comfortable habitation by the Prince of Wales and his two sons, Princes William and Harry, and, more recently, by the Prince of Wales' new wife, the former Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Despite the renovations and the new occupants, Clarence House is still most often associated with Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The official word from Buckingham Palace is that the rooms and the much of the furnishings are still very much as they were in the Queen Mother's time. Considering that the Prince of Wales was very close to and fond of his grandmother, this comes as little surprise.

It's likely that the less palatial size of Clarence House has enabled it to remain a functioning royal palace, unlike Marlborough House. Although Clarence House doesn't have quite so long a history as its neighbor, or the physical monuments, it does boast some very important modern royal residents. And while Prince Charles is certainly not the first heir to the throne to live at Clarence House, he does hold the distinction of being the first Prince of Wales to occupy the palace.

As palaces on the periphery, Marlborough House and Clarence House may not be London's most notable, visible, or architecturally significant historic royal palaces, but both have unique and fascinating characters that make them far from underwhelming -- and well worth visiting.

Both palaces are working buildings, so have restricted opening times; however, both can be toured to a limited degree at specified times. Tours of Marlborough House are available Monday-Friday for groups of 15-30. The palace is also sometimes open to the public during Open House London each September. A limited number of ground floor rooms in Clarence House are open to the public by pre-booked tickets from August to early October, except on certain days.

More Information:

Clarence House

Clarence House visiting information

Marlborough House 360º Virtual Tour

Open House London

Tori V. Martínez is a writer and freelance public relations professional who spends as much time as possible researching and writing on her favorite subject -- history. Several years ago, Tori eschewed the life of a full-time career woman to travel and live around the world, particularly in Britain, where she spent considerable time exploring and researching historic destinations. At the moment, she is living in the US with her husband -- a Spaniard she met in England -- and is happily writing for a variety of online and print publications. For more about Tori, visit http://www.globetrottingbroad.com.
Article © 2006 Tori V. Martínez
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.org


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