[Note from Frolic: We’re so excited to welcome author Flora Harding to the site today. She’s talking all things Buckingham Palace. Take it away, Flora!]
‘Buckingham Palace, please,’ we said, trying to sound nonchalant about it as we climbed into the back of a black cab one sunny May day in 2019. But London cabbies are not easily impressed and our driver merely asked which entrance we wanted.
He dropped us on Constitution Hill where we joined a queue of others who had been invited to the Garden Party that day, some 3,000 of us, all dressed in our best, the ladies in obligatory hats. We shuffled round to the famous façade and through a security check before strolling rather self-consciously past the Guards in their bearskin hats and red tunics into the Palace itself, where we were charmingly shepherded past glimpses of glitter and grandeur out onto the terrace and down into the gardens.
The Palace lawns were thronged with guests and the occasional goose waddling up from the lake to see what was going on. Military bands played stirring music and excerpts from musicals. Yeomen of the Guard marched around in Tudor costumes. We spent a lot of time taking photos of each other with Buckingham Palace in the background (so uncool), tucked into a really delicious tea and stood for a while craning our necks in the hope of actually seeing the Queen (a brightly coloured hat in the distance).
Exciting as it is just to get inside the gates of Buckingham Palace, the Garden Parties only allow you to see the public face of the palace. Impossible not to look up at the windows and wonder what goes on inside. If you’re very lucky, you might get invited to a reception at the Palace, but for most of us your only real chance is to take a tour when the Queen is at Balmoral and the State Rooms are open to the public. It’s worth a visit, the rooms are, well, palatial, hung with huge chandeliers, furnished with antiques and dazzling works of art, and as fabulously gilded and decorated with as you would expect.
But the State Rooms are only 19 of 775 rooms in Buckingham Palace. Behind them is another world that only staff and those closest to the Royal Family ever get to see. In one corner of the White Drawing Room, a cabinet and mirror on one side of the fireplace conceal a secret door to the private apartments. The Queen and other members of the Royal Family use this to discreetly enter and leave receptions: one can only imagine the urge to toe off their shoes and shed the smile the moment they slip through into their private world.
It may offer escape from the public gaze, but Buckingham Palace, or BP as it is known to courtiers, is never going to be cosy. It’s a working palace providing offices for the various departments of the Royal Household. It has its own police station, post office, doctor’s surgery and chapel as well as separate apartments for different members of the Royal Family who use the Palace as a base for engagements during the week.
Today the Palace has a cinema, swimming pool, squash courts and a gym as well as the most up-to-date communications, but when Elizabeth moved from Windsor Castle after the war, she was lucky to have her own television. At eighteen, she was
given her own suite of rooms with a stunning view down the Mall. She had a study, a bedroom, a bathroom and a sitting room newly painted in cream with pale pink floral fabrics, with a basket by the fire for her corgi, Susan.
It was in the sitting room that she entertained Prince Philip of Greece to a nursery supper in January 1946. The King and Queen were not at all keen on Philip, who they viewed as a penniless outsider, and insisted that Princess Margaret was present as chaperone. Perhaps shy Elizabeth was glad of her sister’s chatty support. She had been writing to Philip through the war, but she hadn’t seen him for two years and she must surely have been nervous as well as excited about seeing him again.
Soon the nursery suppers had become a regular event, marked by races up and down the long Palace corridors, and Philip’s green MG was often seen parked in the forecourt. But the couple faced many obstacles until the King reluctantly gave his permission for them to be married. The wedding took place on 20 November 1947. That morning, Elizabeth woke up in her bedroom at the Palace, and through her window could see the crowds cheerfully massing along the Mall in spite of the rain.
Just like any other family wedding, the day was marked by various crises: the bouquet went astray (it turned out to have been put in a locker to keep cool by a footman who then went off duty without telling anyone what he had done), Elizabeth’s equerry had to retrieve a pearl necklace from a display in St James’s Palace and only just made it back in time, and the tiara Elizabeth had borrowed from her grandmother, Queen Mary, snapped in two as it was being lowered onto her head.
The bride and her father travelled to Westminster Abbey in the Irish State Coach, pulled by four magnificent Windsor Greys. When the coach appeared in the palace forecourt, a huge roar went up from the waiting crowds. It was the moment the private family wedding became a public occasion, but while the crowds cheered the King and Princess, inside the coach was a bride like any other, on the way to wed the man she loved and a marriage that would endure a remarkable 73 years.
About the Author:
Flora Harding began writing over 30 years ago to fund a PhD on the disposal of waste in Elizabethan York, and has juggled fact and fiction ever since. Under various pseudonyms she has written more than 75 novels, histories and other forms of non-fiction and continues to be fascinated by the relationship between the past and the present, whatever she happens to be writing. Flora still lives in York with the city walls and the Minster at the end of her street, and is a freelance project editor as well as an author. Much as she loves the historic city, she yearns too for open horizons, and is a keen walker, preferably in wild, open spaces.
Before the Crown by Flora Harding, out now!
Windsor Castle, 1943
As war rages across the world, Princess Elizabeth comes face to face with the dashing naval officer she first met in London nine years before.
One of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy, Philip represents everything she has always been taught to avoid. Instability. Audacity. Adventure.
But when the king learns of their relationship, the suitability of the foreign prince is questioned by all at court.
He is the risk she has never been allowed to take. The risk not even the shadow of the crown will stop her from taking…