Where should Elizabeth II’s loyal subjects send birthday gifts? They’re spoiled for choice:
The 775-room London HQ of ‘The Firm’ was acquired by Elizabeth’s great-great-great-great-grandpapa George III (1738-1820) in 1761 and has been the monarchy’s main lodgings since great-great-grandmama Victoria (1819-1901) moved there from Kensington Palace in 1837. Managing to somehow be both monumental and unimpressive, it’s the biggest working palace on the planet and boasts the largest private garden in London. Inside, the vulgar riot of mock-rococo fussiness, garish gilt and bowdlerised Belle Époque borrowings has set the palatial blueprint for every subsequent unelected despot from Nicolae Ceausescu (1918-1989) to the Sultan of Brunei, and provides clinching evidence, if it were needed, that no amount of money can buy good taste. Worthy commoners (i.e: time-servers, jobsworths, pen-pushers and assorted unquestioning pillars of conservativism) are occasionally allowed in by invitation to attend summer garden parties – excruciating occasions that epitomise the creepy-crawly culture of abject deference promulgated by the hereditary principle. They stand around for hours seeping into their incontinence pads in hired suits and silly hats while clutching a cup of tea and a crustless cucumber sandwich hoping for the opportunity to fawn before Majesty and stammer a stilted response to her stock “And what do you do?” inquiry – the one that forecloses any possibility of actual conversation while allowing She Who Must Be Obeyed to give a passable impersonation of being remotely interested as she moves on to the next dim bore. Buckingham Palace has an art gallery open to the public (admission £10.30) in which are displayed a miniscule percentage of the paintings in the priceless Royal Collection. Consisting of over 1,000,000 objects snaffled up from all corners of the world over the centuries by the unending sequence of invariably big-spending, money’s-no-object conspicuous consumers, the Royal Collection is the world’s biggest, most valuable hoard of treasure. It’s not that the royals are culture vultures and art lovers; on the contrary, they are the very personification of the low-brow, anti-intellectual, philistine, petit-bourgeoisie British aristocracy, only truly happy when out stomping through their lands in wellies huntin’shootin’n’fishin’, and only truly interested in the accumulation, consolidation and preservation of their incalculable wealth. Hence the Royal Collection is merely an insurance policy for a rainy day. Nominally ‘held in trust’, it would all be spirited away in the Palace’s underground escape tunnels come the revolution (as if).
Our dear queen’s out-of-town weekend retreat is the biggest castle in the UK and the 4th biggest in the world. It is also the world’s longest continually-occupied royal premises, a symbol in solid stone of both the utter ruthlessness of British royalty and the spineless inadequacy of the British. No other 11th century ruling dynasty even exists let alone has a sniff of power nearly 1,000 years later – it’s the equivalent of the Byzantine Empire still lording it in somewhere called Constantinople. Like all her many homes, Windsor Castle occupies land grabbed by violence, meaning she is technically a receiver of stolen goods. Elizabeth’s great…repeat 22 times…grandfather, William I (1028-1087), raised the original castle beside the strategic River Thames soon after the Norman conquest of England in the 1070s, one of a ring of fortifications built around London. Despite murderous infighting among various sub-branches of the Conqueror’s ancestors since then, nobody should be fooled into believing that the current ‘House of Windsor’ is anything but a repackaged version of the same atrocious family, preserving in aspic the vile, medieval precepts of the man the Welsh called ‘Gwilym Bastert’: might is right, wealth is power, equality is for losers, know your place. The spectacular, sprawling Castle glowers in five hectares (13 acres) of private gardens within a Royal Park of 2,020 hectares (5,000 acres), includes the fabulous 14th century St George’s Chapel (the royals’ own opulent place of worship and the mother church of the Order of the Garter, the profoundly sinister inner core of the British establishment), and showcases every architectural period and fashion of the past 10 centuries, each successive megalomaniac adding their own pompous mark to the ever-expanding goliath. Always adaptable, creative and enterprising when it comes to financial matters, in stark contrast to their rigidity, unoriginality and caution in all other regards, the royals have turned Windsor Castle into a tourist honey-pot and handy cash-cow during Elizabeth’s eternal tenure. It now gets a million visitors a year (admission £20); awestruck celeb stalkers and hierarchy addicts seeking their pitiful how-the-other-half-live fix, and helping the largest royal family in the world maintain the lavish lifestyles to which they have become so very accustomed.
Formerly the residence of Scottish monarchs, Holyrood fell into the hands of the English royals after the 1707 Act of Union that created ‘Britain’ – a one-sided marriage the Scots will shortly terminate. Elizabeth’s grandpapa George V (1865-1936) transformed the 16th century building with a no-expense-spared modernisation in the 1920s allowing it to be designated the monarch’s ‘Official Residence in Scotland’ (the Windsors have never felt the need for such a thing in Wales because that would tacitly endorse the idea of Wales as an extant entity and impertinently question their predecessors’ abolition of Wales in 1536 after a 400-year war in which a third of the Welsh population was slaughtered). The royals are fond of Scotland. More than half of it is owned by just 500 people and run as a vast sporting estate where seriously super-rich hedge-fund managers, merchant bankers and Texan oil barons pay £10,000 a day to shoot grouse and deer on land brazenly robbed from the Scottish people by the aristocracy in the 17th century. For the Windsors this amounts to paradise: they can kill lots and lots of sentient creatures, dress up in tartan kilts and never encounter a non-billionaire other than a genuflecting gillie and a brown-nosing beater. Holyrood, in the centre of sophisticated Edinburgh, is not their scene at all. Elizabeth deigns to stay there for one week each year, during which she adjusts her inscrutable expression into an approximation of enthusiasm while conducting investitures, pinning on medals and holding audiences with a wide cross-section of Scottish lairds. For the rest of the time the deceptively huge Palace is open to the public (admission £12). Make hay while the sun shines, Bet: the clans are gathering.
A Northern Ireland base became essential for the royals after the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 evicted them from their previous mansion in Dublin. A loud message had to be sent to Irish freedom-fighters that the British were going nowhere, and the menacing, implacable hulk of Hillsborough Castle fitted the bill perfectly. Originally a Georgian country house built in the 1770s for the Marquis of Downshire, the building was kitted out with all the requisite Ruritanian-style trappings and, as children, Elizabeth and alcoholic sister Margaret (1930-2002) spent many a blissful summer break playing in Hillsborough’s exquisite 40 hectare (100 acre) gardens. All changed when Irish republicanism revived in the 1960s and, since she couldn’t possibly wear a bullet proof vest, her maj only goes there now when required to cheerlessly add gravitas to some orchestrated international PR exercise or other. Otherwise it’s another money-spinner for the Crown Estate (admission £7.50).
To the Windsors Frogmore House counts as little more than a lean-to – well, it’s only got the 50 rooms. The beautiful, 17th century, Grade I listed building is so surplus to requirements it’s left permanently uninhabited but, thankfully for Elizabeth, in the wickedly perverse nation she reigns over only poor people pay bedroom tax, council tax and, for that matter, income tax, so Frogmore can function as yet another revenue stream (admission £9.80, £17 if entering the wondrous Savill Gardens – nothing whatsoever to do with the old royal confidante Sir Jimmy). Close to Windsor Castle, the Frogmore estate has been in royal clutches since the 16th century. For centuries it acted as a refuge where their many illegitimate children, unmarriageable surplus stock and mad relatives could be secreted. Victoria, self-indulging after Albert died in the longest transit through the Five Stages of Bereavement in human history, frequented Frogmore for its navel-gazing peace and quiet, but now it’s just a repository for ‘family souvenirs’ and the home of the Royal Burial Ground, a spectacular graveyard full of grandiose mausoleums where all royals bar sovereigns and consorts have been buried since 1928. Of course none of this means it’s ineligible for regular multi-million maintenance projects paid for out of the threadbare public purse.
So far, I’ve dealt with properties owned by the Crown Estate (supposedly on behalf of the British people); now onto Elizabeth’s privately-owned residences. The difference between the two ownership patterns is entirely nominal, just a way of further ring-fencing assets and separating the regal public persona from unknowable Lillibet doing whatever she does when left to her own devices (most likely molly-coddle corgis or something, hidden depths having long been bred out). The 8,000 hectare (20,000 acre) Sandringham Estate in Norfolk was bought by Victoria with small change out of her unearned income in 1862 and the 200-room, red-brick stylistic mish-mash of Sandringham House was built in 1870. Elizabeth likes to over-winter here because it reminds her of papa, George VI (1895-1952), who died in his Sandringham four-poster, and she can gather many of her ever-proliferating brood around her at Christmas to do whatever the gang do on such occasions (most likely massacre furry mammals or something; soppy sentimentality having long been bred out). It was in the grounds of Sandringham that a young Diana Spencer (1961-1997) first caught the roving eye of Charles Windsor; her lady-in-waiting mother lived in grace-and-favour Park House, one of numerous substantial royal-owned dwellings that are sprinkled across the Estate. Stuffed to its faux-turrets with bounty, Sandringham lets in visitors as a sideline when Brenda is elsewhere (admission £14).
In 1852 Victoria and Albert (1819-1861) snapped up the Balmoral Estate in Aberdeenshire for £32,000 (£40 million in today’s money). The modest 14th century castle was demolished and replaced by today’s massive, 120-room, granite exercise in pedantic Scots Baronial. Ever since, Balmoral has been the royals’ favoured summer hideaway. You can see why: the 20,000 hectare (50,000 acre) Estate is so big it encompasses seven of Scotland’s 282 ‘Munro’s’ (mountains over 3,000 ft), great swaths of the Dee valley, the largest remaining tracts of native Caledonian forest, farms, timber plantations, a distillery, lochs, over 150 other impressive stone buildings and, of course, grouse moors. This makes Balmoral perfect territory for what, in retrospect, seems to have been Elizabeth’s main motivation all along: keeping contact with ‘her’ people to the barest minimum she can get away with. What’s more, the carefully managed moors and forests are home to red grouse, black grouse, ptarmigan, capercaillie and herds of red deer, meaning the brutes can go on annual murder sprees come the Glorious Twelfth. And, after they’ve inflicted their weird blooding initiations on small children, they can be helicoptered back to the Castle in time for dinner – delicious fresh game prepared by the kitchen staff of 50 plucking peasants. Between April and July the ballroom and the formal gardens are open for the public to gawp at (admission £5), before the great unwashed clear ‘orf and make way for My Husband And I. At Balmoral they can play at being simple country folk, rather like Marie Antoinette in the milking parlour, and devoted Philip can take a break from his duties as President of the World Wide Fund for Nature and enjoy some Me Time annihilating it.
Having seized the throne in an organised putsch from his father-in-law James II (1633-1701) in 1688, Dutch-speaking uber-Protestant fanatic William III (1650-1702) promptly bought a Jacobean mansion set in 110 hectares (270 acres) of grounds on the outskirts of London for £20,000 (£500 million in today’s money). William had the same sense of overinflated entitlement that courses through the current incumbent’s bone-marrow: London wasn’t good enough – it ponged and triggered his asthma. Flabbergasting spending quadrupled the building’s size and completely transformed it into the world’s most impossibly luxurious palace, the preferred residence of all monarchs through to boorish, lascivious playboy George II (1683-1760). Subsequently it has been used as the 150-room, bling-laden holding compound for generations of ‘minor royals’, the platoons of high-maintenance spares left over from the tribe’s non-stop intensive breeding programme. Currently Kensington Palace is the official London residence of the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge plus children, Prince Harry, the Duke & Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke & Duchess of Kent and Prince & Princess Michael of Kent. Many hugely expensive upgrades and renovations, the tab always picked up by Joe Public, allow this lot to wallow in unimaginable splendour when they’re in town and all, of course, have plenty of other ‘residences’ too. Parts of the Palace are open to the public (admission £18), allowing easily-impressed tourists to take selfies in the State Rooms and further line the Windsors’ coffers. One abiding feature of the royal family is the unwavering mediocrity of its membership. Despite the immense, unique advantages and privileges bestowed on them for century after century, not one single royal has excelled at anything. No significant thinker, writer, musician, artist, scientist, engineer, inventor, athlete, campaigner, idealist or creative talent of any description has emerged from their background of stratospheric resources. Here is the evidence that money can’t buy you brains. And here too is what happens after a thousand years of keep-it-in-the-family interbreeding. They all marry each other, with disastrous consequences for the debilitated Windsor gene pool. Elizabeth and Philip, for instance, are second cousins – so it’s little surprise that their four offspring have turned out so badly.
Built for bankrupt, philandering drunkard William IV (1765-1837) in 1827, Clarence House is a 50-room, Grade I listed pearl of Regency architecture by John Nash (1752-1835). Traditionally the home of 2nd-tier royals, the stuccoed beauty is currently the London pad of Charles and his muse Camilla (they’re ninth cousins but luckily post-menopausal so there’s no danger of another retard). Because his mother is now both the oldest and the longest-reigning monarch in ‘British’ history (64 years 82 days and counting, topping previous record-holder Victoria’s 63 years 216 days), Charles is the oldest heir-apparent to bear the title ‘Prince of Wales’ since it was first concocted as part of an ongoing campaign to crush Wales by Edward I (1239-1307) in 1301. The first incumbent, the future Edward II (1284-1327), had only six years to wait for the main prize; poor Charles has been twiddling his thumbs trying to think up new forms of snobbery for 47 years to date – if one takes his investiture in a profoundly offensive, mock-medieval farrago at Caernarfon Castle in 1969 as the start point. The 23rd usurper, he is closing in on the all-time record of 60 years in limbo held by Victoria’s eldest the future Edward VII (1841-1910) and, as he approaches his 65th birthday, he has already easily set a new record as the oldest PoW ever. Given that grandmama lived to 101 on zero physical exercise and a diet of gin and quail, and that mummy is a particularly vigorous regina who can still control a 50 stone stallion with her 90-year-old thighs and who is surrounded by teams of the finest, most expert doctors on the planet micro-monitoring her every sniffle, it seems probable that Elizabeth will still be stubbornly alive for another decade at least – long enough to receive a telegram from herself! Unsurprisingly, being the richest woman in the world is a real tonic. Thwarted Charles will just have to kill time polishing his medals, secretly influencing government decisions, deciding how much tax he will ‘volunteer’ to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs and counting his £20 million a year Duchy of Cornwall pin-money at one of his many other addresses:
Birkhall – A 50-room mansion in 21,500 hectares (53,000 acres) of shooting grounds in Aberdeenshire.
Highgrove House – Charles’ country pile in Gloucestershire, bought for a cool million in 1980 (£5 million at today’s prices), includes 500 hectares (1,100 acres) of farmland and elaborate gardens. On selected days, and only after an exhaustive application process and a multitude of security checks, the public are allowed in to admire his gardens (admission £25) and be ripped off at his shops flogging ‘heritage’ tat, quack remedies and ‘Duchy Originals’ gourmet grot. At Highgrove Charles does grievous damage to the Green movement by associating it with snobby, misanthropic elitism.
Dumfries House – I knew I’d find a Cardiff connection somewhere, and here it is. This fabulous 18th century Palladian villa and its large Estate in Ayrshire was inherited by the 2nd Marquis of Bute (1793-1848) in 1814, and remained in the hands of the Bute dynasty that built Cardiff docks until the 7th Marquis, downsizing to his last castle on the Isle of Bute, sold it in 2007 to a ‘consortium’ led by Charles (who found the £45 million down the back of a sofa). The crumbling building was promptly restored and converted into a lucrative wedding/events/luxury hotel venue, open all year round for guided tours (admission £13).
Harewood Park – A 360 hectare (900 acre) Estate with three farms in Herefordshire.
Llwynywermod – No Prince of Wales, let alone any other British royal*, had ever thought it necessary to have a base in thoroughly subjugated, dirt poor and slightly alien Wales until Charles’s advisers persuaded him, in the light of devolution, that it might be politic to correct the glaring anomaly and establish a presence. Running a mere 700 years behind the times, and through those trademark gritted teeth, Charles bought a farmhouse, various outbuildings and 78 hectares (192 acres) in Carmarthenshire in 2007. Even though he only has to endure one week a year here, decorating flunkeys and wining and dining with lords lieutenant, it couldn’t be any old farmhouse any old where: it had to be converted into luxury premises by elite London architects and it had to be located in Myddfai, home of Wales’ ancient medicinal wisdom, the better to collect spurious ‘heritage’ and ‘eco’ credentials. So, another part of Wales has been lost: barred, gated and patrolled by the secret services when the adulterer honours us with his presence; or else, with contemptuous disregard for the long struggle against holiday homes in Wales, let out as upmarket holiday cottages (£190 per person per night) for the other 51 weeks a year.
Others – Two rural retreats in Transylvania, Romania (£125 per person per night, crucifixes and garlic not supplied); Camilla’s stately home in Wiltshire (stables included); sublime holiday hideaways on the Isles of Scilly; oh, nearly forgot, Cornwall.
ST JAMES’S PALACE
The oldest extant royal residence was commissioned in the 16th century by the uxoricidal, syphilitic tyrant Henry VIII (1491-1547). The red-brick, castellated Tudor palace rose in favour after the massive 15th century Palace of Whitehall was destroyed by fire in 1698 (the 1622 Banqueting House, still royal owned, survives in today’s Whitehall), but was only the main residence for a few of the hateful, hideous Hanoverians before being superseded. The formal home of the ‘Royal Court’ has grown into a labyrinthine complex of buildings, intimately connected to the heart of British governance. Whitehall, a synonym for the British establishment, is the rotten belly of the beast. Here the royalist philosophy was the birthing pool of the corrupt cultures of nepotism, preferment, the old school tie, pecking orders and not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know that still define the UK’s body politic. The ‘Court of St James’ includes Marlborough House, York House and Lancaster House, major mansions in their own right, the Queens Chapel and the Chapel Royal, two jewels in the crown of English ecclesiastical architecture, and many precious items hoarded into overflowing Royal Collections (for their eyes only). It’s gigantic enough to act as the London pied-a-terre for another tier of malingering benefit scroungers living the life of riley: the Princess Royal, Princess Beatrice, Princess Eugenie and Princess Alexandra, still alive last they checked. Chuck in Anne’s Gatcombe Park, Andrew’s Royal Lodge and Edward’s Bagshot Park, and you can see why the Windsor’s are never accused of cheese-paring. Well, at least not when it comes to themselves. The completely unaccountable Elizabeth conducts her financial affairs in opaque shrouds of obfuscation, feeling absolutely no obligation to divulge anything to the people who pay her basic annual salary of £42 million a year. But then, this is a woman who has never been known to make an interesting or spontaneous utterance, who has never given an interview, who stage-manages every representation of herself and who actually behaves as if she has the divine right to answer to no-one. This might not be so bad were she just another modest constitutional monarch on the Dutch/Swedish/Spanish etc model – a pared-down ceremonial head of state with a small retinue, no legal political powers and a social conscience. But she is the polar opposite: a bloated billionaire operating beyond the reach of a non-existent constitution, with armies of dependents, with real-time, frequently-wielded, surreptitious power to enable or veto policy, and with so little concern for her subject people that she sits back and does less than nothing while millions are plunged into destitution as her government wages class war, when donating just 1% of her conservatively estimated total capital+asset fortune of £50 billion would at a stroke house all the homeless, treat all the sick and feed all the hungry in this septic tank isle, the 6th richest economy in the world.
HAMPTON COURT PALACE
This stupendous, 300-room palace, an incongruous mix of Tudor and Baroque alongside the Thames, is another survivor from Henry VIII’s blood-soaked regime. No monarch used it after George II and in 1838, as go-ahead Albert persuaded Victoria to join the 19th century and stoop to tawdry commercialism, it became the first royal building to open to the public. Saturated in history, its magnificent gardens, maze, great hall, chapel, kitchens, apartments, art works, furnishings and architecture have established Hampton Court as a compulsory tourist destination and today it supplies Windsor Enterprises Ltd with a reliable torrent of ready money (admission £21). As Elizabeth starts on her 10th decade, I’ve noticed that she seems less and less compelled to adopt the dour facial expression she copyrighted for decades, that weary-but-stoical facade concocted to convey the arduousness and seriousness of her preposterous, sterile and strictly part-time ‘duties’ while hinting at above-the-fray, otherworldly ‘mystique’. As an inevitable touch of senility loosens up her cerebral cortex, the mask is lifting: these days she can often be seen openly smiling, grinning, laughing and sometimes even cackling uncontrollably. At last, at long last, she’s admitting it: We Are Highly Amused.
Although, believe it or not, they still possess Caernarfon Castle, seized in 1283.