The Queen’s Houses – Alan Titchmarsh (2014)


It seems that every time autumn rolls around, I end up thinking about growing up in England as their autumns can be spectacularly good (and/or spectacularly bad) depending on the year. On the good years, it’s all about Keats’ “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” and as this is my favoritest season, I love the whole thing.

The England thoughts led to this book title, The Queen’s Houses by Alan Titchmarsh, which is a well produced and glossy invitation to look inside six of the grand locations that the Queen (and/or her family past or present) call home:

  • Windsor Castle
  • Buckingham Palace
  • Balmoral
  • Sandringham
  • The Palace of Holyroodhouse
  • The Royal Mews

You’d think that since I’ve grown up in England that I would know a lot more about these places than I do, but no, not really so this was a fun romp through the Queen’s private quarters with a knowledgeable and rather witty guide. (You know – I do think the photos could have been better, but the content was good.)

As it covered so many vastly different places, I took random notes and so here they are in bullet points for you:

Random snippets:

One of the
One of the “strewer of herbs” people in action…
  • Charles II (mid 1660’s) was very extravagant as King and had lots of servants with titles such as “Royal Comb-Maker for Life,” “Marker of Swans” (swans were sign of royalty), a Periwig Maker, and one lady called Mary Dowle whose job was “Strewer of Herbs” and who always walked before the King to strew herbs (literal name) as they were believed to ward off the plague.
  • In the 1780’s, there was a position in the Royal Court titled “Keeper of the Buckets”…
  • An awful lot of rebuilding of palaces etc. all took place during the nineteenth century with both Victoria and her earlier relatives. (Before that time, a lot of these royal houses were in various states of disrepair.)
  • George IV (another extravagant young chappie) took over the country estate of his parents (which included Buckingham then-House) just outside London (then much smaller in size), and added wings and other pieces (such as the railings in front etc.) to make it fit his idea of a metropolitan palace. Before this, Buckingham House was a fairly small country house (country home speaking).
  • VE Day (8 May 1945) marked the end of WWII and is so-called because the full title is “Victory in Europe” Day. I  knew what the day stood for, but not the acronym. Huh. This seems so obvious now, but honestly, I didn’t know that.

Victoria snippets:

  • * Victoria had five attempted assassinations on her during her reign.
  • * When Victoria moved into Windsor Castle in 1837, it was a huge event with a big celebration including “the only English female aeronaut” Mrs. Margaret Graham. She went up in a balloon named “Victoria”. Apparently Mrs. Graham had several falls (presumably from high places), and one was described as “although the ground was very hard, there was an evident of her form upon it.” Despite this tendency, she lives to a grand old age for the times.
  • Victoria (oh, Victoria, how I love thee – you’re so weird!): After Albert had died and after her friend John Brown had died, she took an interest in two Indian servants. One of the two was called Mohammed Abdul Karim (or the Munshi for short) and Victoria developed a very close relationship with him. She even spent the night with him in a cottage on the Balmoral estates (much to everyone’s horror). He was not generally well liked – one person described him thus: “his one idea in life seems to be to do nothing and to eat as much as he can”… However, despite such widespread disapproval amongst the Court, Edward VII allowed Munshi to be the very last person to view Victoria’s body and then to take part in her funeral procession. He was subsequently dismissed and returned to India. (I wonder what he did then?…). ETA: I found and read a book about this guy. See here for more info.

QEII snippets:

Local Input~ ROYAL QUIZ- Q30 - Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation crown, 1953. Known as St Edward's Crown, it was made in 1661 for the coronation of King Charles II, and is reputed to contain gold from the crown of Edward the Confessor. It is set with 444 precious stones. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation crown, 1953. Known as St Edward’s Crown, it was made in 1661 for the coronation of King Charles II, and is reputed to contain gold from the crown of Edward the Confessor. It is set with 444 precious stones. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  • The Queen (QEII) has two birthdays, one of which (the “official” birthday) lands in the middle of June. This tradition was started in 1908 by Edward VII who had a November birthday, and whose outdoor birthday celebrations were invariably squelched by bad weather. (For some reason, I had thought that this was a centuries-old tradition.)
  • Re: Other country’s State Visits to England: no more than two countries accorded a state visit each year, and the cost is met by the Royal Treasury.
  • Re: 21 gun salutes: This is a standard gun salute for heads of state but the number can be increased to 41 if the salute is given in a royal park. President Obama and First Wife Michelle were given a 41-gun salute during their May 2011 trip to England. (They were in Green Park, a royal park.) That seems a really long time to stay interested in the event (at least to me). Still, lovely idea.
  • Speaking of processions, it wasn’t until 1953 that the Mall was resurfaced with an application of iron oxide pigment to give the idea of the royal processions walking on a red carpet. (Another thing that I had thought was really really old.)
  • Re: state banquets: The Butlers’ Guild (real thing) says it takes about 15 minutes to set each place setting, and soup has been abolished from state banquets as soup takes at least 20 minutes to serve, eat and then clear away which makes the occasions far too long.

Royal horses snippets:

  • The Royal Mews – all this time and I haven’t gone to the Mews so this has been added to the list for next time we’re over there. Called the Mews because the earliest records mentioning that location, back in 1377, said it was the place where royal hawks (usually falcons) were kept during their moulting (or mewing) time from late April to early October. (Mew is from French muer – to change, apparently.)
  • The Royal Mews were originally where Trafalgar Square is now, and were demolished in 1835.

And so it goes on with all sorts of intriguing little nuggets of information about royalty. If you’re curious about the domestic lives of royalty, you will love this book. A potential Christmas pressie, perhaps?

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