Imagine if Her Majesty the Queen was your London tour guide.
The Queen was born in 1926, and for a 90-year-old lady, she’s in remarkably good shape. However, we will keep this first tour to just a few places and pick up more in future.
This really is an imaginary tour. You’ll find that three of the six places were destroyed and rebuilt as something else. However, you may like some of the stories and recall them when you pass through the places later.
For most of her life, the Queen has lived at Buckingham Palace, but she had some earlier homes.
17 Bruton Street, Mayfair
This is a bit of a walk so you might want to skip it unless you’re coming from near Berkeley Square anyway.
The house where the Queen was born on April 21, 1926 used to be here. There’s a plaque on the wall but the building there now is more modern. Frankly, I’m not suggesting it’s worth the trip, but it’s not where I expected to find the Queen’s birthplace, so I’m glad I looked it up.
This was the London house of the Queen Mother’s parents. The Queen’s father had moved out of Buckingham Palace, his family home, probably not expecting to move back.
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace
On May 29, 1926, on this spot but not in this building, Elizabeth was christened. This is where the private chapel of Buckingham Palace used to stand.
The Royal Chapel was destroyed by a bomb on September 13, 1940. Four workers were injured, one fatally. His name was Alfred Davies.
Today for a fee of about £10 you can enter the Queen’s Gallery and see a selection of her impressive collection of art. I went there on my London Pass and at the time the featured exhibit was “The Heart of the Great Unknown: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography“, which I thought very well done, rich in detail.
145 Piccadilly (now the InterContinental Hotel)
The Queen wouldn’t remember living at Bruton Street because the family moved when she was very young.
Her childhood home was closer to Buckingham Palace, at 145 Piccadilly. This building too was destroyed in the Second World War.
One charming story about 145 Piccadilly involves little Lilibet and King George V, her “Grandpa England”. The King was very fond of his grand-daughter. From Buckingham Palace, he could see her window when the trees had dropped their leaves. They worked out an arrangement where she would wave to him every morning.
If you are staying at the InterContinental Hotel on Park Lane, you should try waving to the Queen over at Buckingham Palace and see if it works.
Undoubtedly, Her Majesty has visited many places in London multiple times and it’s hard to say what might make one place more memorable than another.
Apart from family and state occasions, an event that might stand out is her Army driving test.
Princess Elizabeth volunteered for service during the Second World War and trained as a truck driver-mechanic. A magazine article from 1947 claims that during the hour or so while her parents and the Prime Minister were meeting at Buckingham Palace and deciding Elizabeth shouldn’t take the driving exam, Elizabeth herself was performing the required journey in a camouflaged Army truck.
Apparently she drove from Camberley, Surrey to London, went twice round Piccadilly Circus and then home to the Palace.
In 1926, Elizabeth’s grandfather, King George V, was the monarch and her uncle, Edward, Prince of Wales, was first in line to succeed him. No one expected Elizabeth would ever become queen; Edward and then his future children would be ahead of her, and so would her own father.
Almost no one foresaw what was to come. No one but the King, that is. Edward’s own father is quoted as saying he didn’t think Edward would last a year as King. George V hoped his second son and then young “Lilibet” would inherit the throne.
That is exactly what happened. George V died on January 20, 1936. Edward became King Edward VIII. The coronation was planned for May 1937. Instead of going through with it, Edward abdicated on December 11. On May 12, 1937, Elizabeth’s father was crowned King George VI.
Today, Buckingham Palace is the place we all associate with Queen Elizabeth. It has been her official home in London since moving there from 145 Piccadilly with her parents and sister on February 15, 1937. This newspaper article from the day describes the change in lifestyle.
I haven’t been inside the Palace. My timing hasn’t been right; it’s not open all the time. The Royal Collection website has information about visiting. I just noticed now that a ticket can apparently be converted to a one-year pass, which might be a good deal. At least it’s worth checking out. (Of course this might change. I am writing this in September 2016.)
While the Queen must have many memories of family events and great occasions at Buckingham Palace, one of her best memories is from a time when she is said to have sneaked out.
It was VE Day, May 8, 1945. It seemed the whole world had come out to cheer and dance in the streets to celebrate the end of war in Europe. People thronged the front of the palace, yelling, singing, and celebrating.
Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret joined the crowd, incognito. The Queen has called this one of the most memorable moments of her life, which is saying a lot. (The phrase “bird in a gilded cage” comes to mind.)
Where to begin?
If the Queen were to take you to Westminster Abbey, she could give you the standard verger tour, but the main difference would be that many of the famous names inside the Abbey are connected to her. There are various degrees of blood relations, and a lot of the others who aren’t genetically related to her in some way have at least worn a crown, which is a closer connection that the rest of us will ever have.
The Coronation Chair is a highlight of any Abbey tour. This is the chair in which Her Majesty sat to be crowned, as did her father King George VI, her grandfather George V, her great-grandfather Edward VII, and her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. In fact, coronations have been held here since 1066, and the Coronation Chair dates back to 1300. A detailed history is given on the Westminster Abbey website.
Don’t look for royal christenings at the Abbey. The monarchs of the past 200 years have been baptized elsewhere.
Weddings are a different story.
It was Princess Patricia, a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, who in 1919 started the new tradition of getting married in the Abbey, though not all royals choose to do it. Before Patricia, the last royal wedding I found a reference to was in 1382 (Richard II and Anne of Bohemia).
The Queen’s own parents, then known as Prince Albert, Duke of York, and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, were married here on April 26, 1923. This silent video of the highlights includes Lady Elizabeth leaving from her parents’ house at 17 Bruton Street, where later the Queen was born.
Since the wedding of her parents, there have been other royal weddings at Westminster Abbey, including:
- November 24, 1934 – Prince George Edward, Duke of Kent and Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark. George Edward was one of Elizabeth’s paternal uncles, and she was a bridesmaid at his wedding. The Prince died in 1942, age 39, in the crash of a Royal Air Force plane.
- November 20, 1947 – The Queen’s own wedding to Prince Philip. At the time, she was Princess Elizabeth, and her father was the King.
This video, The Queen’s Wedding, traces the courtship and wedding of Her Majesty and the now Duke of Edinburgh. Just like the driving test, the story told in the video reveals a side of the Queen we don’t usually think of. When it really counted, she was determined to have her own way.
- May 6, 1960 – The Queen’s sister Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones, who became the Earl of Snowdon. Their wedding was televised, a first.
- November 14, 1973 – The Queen’s second child and only daughter Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips. This day was Prince Charles’ 25th birthday and at the time he was single. He later married Lady Diana Spencer at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
- July 23, 1986 – The Queen’s third child Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.
- April 29, 2011 – Prince William and Kate Middleton, the most recent wedding in the direct line of succession, watched by millions around the world.
As to funerals and burials, it’s been since the 1700s since a king or queen was buried in the Abbey.
One older burial related to current events is Anne Neville. The wife of Richard III, she died in March 1485 and is buried in the Abbey. Richard III died in battle in August of the same year. His body was famously found in Leicester in 2012 and reinterred in Leicester Cathedral in 2015.
There have been some royal funerals here in the 20th century, though not as many as you may think:
- Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII and mother of King George V, in 1925
- Princess Diana, former wife of Prince Charles and mother to Princes William and Harry, in 1997
- Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, in 2002 at the age of 101.
Other places related to the Queen
My personal list of places the Queen might take you in London is fairly long and a bit spread out, and it keeps growing.
In the triangle formed by Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, and Trafalgar Square, we could add all these below and much more. I’ll definitely be coming back with more “Queen” tours.
- Westminster Hall, where both of the Queen’s parents lay in state;
- Palace of Westminster, usually called the Houses of Parliament, where the Queen goes for the State Opening of Parliament, in itself a fascinating historical ceremony;
- The Banqueting House, not a pleasant place for a monarch, since this was where King Charles I was beheaded;
- 10 Downing Street, home of the Prime Minister (but it is the Prime Minister who visits the Queen and not the other way around);
- Horse Guards, home of the Household Cavalry;
- The statue of King Charles I, then through Trafalgar Square and on to
- The National Portrait Gallery, where the Queen can show you pictures of herself. Of course, you could just nip to the post office for that.
Did you like this story? I hope you’ll have a chance to visit some of the associated places.
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Places associated with this story
- 17 Bruton Street, where the Queen was born in 1921 (house has been demolished; there is a plaque).
- Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, the site of the former Royal Chapel where the Queen was christened in 1921. The chapel was bombed in the war.
- 145 Piccadilly / InterContinental Hotel, where the Queen lived until her father became the King. The house was bombed and now the hotel stands in approximately the same spot.
- Piccadilly Circus, where Princess Elizabeth, as she then was, drove an Army truck twice around as part of the driving test her parents and the Prime Minister were about to forbid her trying. She beat them to it.
- Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s home since 1937. One of her favourite memories is celebrating incognito out front with masses of people, on the night the war ended in Europe.
- Westminster Abbey, where she was married and later crowned; scene of coronations, royal weddings and funerals over the years.
Sources and further reading
The life of the Queen is very well documented and I used a variety of online sources to cross-check the facts. Within the article there are links to a couple of the less obvious sources.
The Westminster Abbey website has a brilliantly searchable list of all kinds of royal events that have happened there since the 11th century.