Updated: 31 March 2019
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Appendix to the St James’s walk
MORE ABOUT ST JAMES’S
In-depth profiles of two of the most significant places mentioned in the St James’s walk, together with pictures.
This appendix is smaller than those for other walks as most of the relevant information has been included within the body of the walk itself.
ST JAMES’S PALACE was for many years London’s most important royal residence, losing that title when George III moved the Court to Buckingham Palace in 1762. However, it is still the Monarch’s official residence.
It was built by Henry VIII in the 1530s on the site of an old leper hospital that had been dedicated to St James the Less, from which it got its name.
In the past it has been the home of Queen Elizabeth I, as well as where Charles II, James II and Queen Anne were born. Charles I spent the night before his execution here, so he would not hear the sounds of the hammering whilst his scaffold was being built in Whitehall.
The Chapel Royal is one of only two surviving parts of the original 1530s palace, the other being the gate house. Elizabeth I prayed here during the threat of the Spanish Armada, Charles I received Holy Communion on the morning of his execution in 1649. More recently the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales lay before the altar so that family and friends could pay their respects before her funeral in Westminster Abbey.
Today it’s still where the Court of Queen Elizabeth II is based and where much of her business is conducted; for example, all foreign ambassadors are still referred to as being ‘Appointed to the Court of St James’.
It’s also the London home of the Princess Royal (Princess Anne), who stays here when she’s not at her main home at Gatcombe Park. The palace is actually a ‘complex’ and houses several other buildings that are the homes of various members of the royal family, Clarence House being one, which is the London home of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.
A lot more could be written about St James’s Palace, and if you are interested in finding out more there is plenty of further information on the internet, for example at the Royal Family website.
16 ST JAMES’S SQUARE (now the East India, Devonshire, Sports and Public Schools Club)
In addition to the explanation of what the house has been used for in more recent times (at least, since 1846) , the house has a particularly fascinating link with history, for it was here on the night of Wednesday June 21st, 1815 that news of the Duke of Wellington’s success over Napoleon reached the king.
The Battle of Waterloo was being fought in fields just a few miles south of Brussels in Belgium and, on Sunday 18th June 1815, the British and Prussian Army, under the command of the Duke of Wellington, finally managed to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte. Even back then, most people realised that this victory was going to be a defining moment in British and European history.
The Duke of Wellington ordered one of aides de camp to take the official news, including his personal handwritten account of the battle and the victory – forever known afterwards as the ‘Waterloo Despatch’ – directly to the Prime Minister in London. The man he chose was the Honourable Major Henry Percy of the 14th Light Dragoon. He was also given the French Army’s Imperial Eagles that had been captured on the battlefield as evidence of the British victory. Carrying these with him he travelled by post chaise from Brussels to Ostend where he boarded a British navy ship and, headed for England, but unfortunately the wind was against them and the 75-mile journey took 24 hours, far longer than normal. Arriving in Broadstairs on the Kent coast, Major Percy then commandeered a post chaise to take him on what was then a lengthy and at times hazardous journey to London. The journey was made worse as in all the towns and villages he passed through the locals could see the French Standards sticking out of the window of the carriage (they were too big to go inside) and upon realising that this would mean a British victory, huge cheering crowds began to form, slowing down his progress even more. (It was even more poignant as rumours had already began to spread in England that it was the French who had won, not the British.)
Still following the orders he had been given by the Duke of Wellington, the exhausted Percy pressed on without a break and went straight to Downing Street, arriving on 21st June. He immediately discovered that the prime minister was at a dinner party in Grosvenor Square and went straight there to deliver the news of the British victory in person. Having done so, the prime minister instructed him to go immediately to tell the news to the Prince Regent, who later became King George IV. He was attending a soiree at the home of a wealthy socialite, Mrs Edmund Boehm, who lived at 16 St James’s Square.
Percy dragged his bedraggled and exhausted self to the ballroom just as the orchestra was about to strike up for the first dance and, laying the two captured French Imperial Eagles in front of him, spoke the famous words: “Victory, victory Sire”. Mrs Boehm was furious; her carefully planned high society social evening was ruined! She never forgave the future king for allowing Percy to enter and call a halt to the proceedings, even though the king later tried to make it up by giving her an inscribed, gilded replica of the French Imperial Eagles. Sadly, I’m not sure what happened to Percy – hopefully the king rewarded him for his amazing efforts!
(The captured French Eagles are currently on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.)