Over the past 2,000 years, inhabitants of London have built some of the world’s most historic buildings, which have survived devastating fires and wars. Buildings that were constructed decades ago, used by and home to some of the most important people in British and world history, still stand, providing some of London’s major tourist attractions. Read Culture Trip’s guide to ten of London’s most iconic buildings, and the history that surrounds them.
Anne of Denmark — the wife of King James I, who reigned from 1603–25 — commissioned the Queen’s House. It was an important residence for the early Stuart dynasty as well as for the Tudors. There have been a number of unexplained ghostly sightings in the Queen’s House; one of the first occurred during 1966, when a retired couple from Canada were visiting the premises. They took a photograph of the House’s Tulip staircase, and on return to Canada, the developed photograph revealed a shrouded figure on the staircase. Annual Visitors: 147,181
King William III bought Kensington Palace, originally known as Nottingham House, in 1689 from his Secretary of State. Once William bought it, Christopher Wren, one of the most highly acclaimed architects in history, was commissioned to extend and improve on the house. Until the death of George II in 1760, Kensington Palace was the favourite residence of the sovereign; although Queen Victoria was born and brought up in the Palace, upon her accession to the throne in 1837, she moved to Buckingham Palace and never again stayed at Kensington. Annual Visitors: 401,353
Buckingham Palace is the Queen’s official London Residence, as well as an office for the Head of State. The palace has 775 rooms, and today has a staff of over 800. The Palace was originally created by the Duke of Buckingham, which he built for himself as a grand London home. The architect John Nash transformed it into Buckingham Palace in the 1820s, but the first monarch to use the palace as her official residence was Queen Victoria when she moved there in 1837. Annual Visitors: 558,000
Hampton Court Palace was England’s most significant palace during the Tudor age. It was developed for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1515, but Henry VIII seized occupancy in 1529 and began the process of rebuilding and remodeling, which lasted approximately ten years. Henry transformed the palace beyond recognition. There are no drawings of the original Wolsey palace and very few written records of its constructions remain. Until recently, historians have had little idea as to just how much of Wolsey’s original palace survived amongst Henry VIII’s renovations.
Westminster Abbey, one of the most important Gothic buildings in the UK, has been the Coronation church since 1066 and is the final resting place of 17 monarchs and some of the most significant people in Britain’s history. The Abbey has been home to many royal occasions, including 16 royal weddings –most recently the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. The present building was built by King Henry III in 1245, when he pulled down part of the 11th century Abbey, which had been founded by King Edward the Confessor. Annual Visitors: 1,190,737
King William II built the Houses of Parliament between 1097 and 1099. Various royal residents remodeled the Palace until the 1500s, when Henry VIII decided to move out, bringing its role as royal residence to an end. Although it officially remained a royal palace, it was used by the two Houses of Parliament and by the various royal law courts. The Palace included no chambers for the two Houses and began to see significant alterations in the 18th century, due to Parliament’s struggle to carry out business in its limited available spaces. Annual Visitors: 1,253,326
The Old Royal Naval College is built on a site that was originally occupied by the manor house of the Duke of Gloucester, built in the 1420s. It was later acquired by Queen Margaret of Anjou, who extended it to create the Palace of Placentia. After being rebuilt by Henry VIII as Greenwich Palace in the late 1490s, the structure became a favourite royal residence of the Tudors. During the English Civil War, the palace fell into disrepair, and most of the buildings were demolished. Today only their foundations exist beneath Grand Square. Annual Visitors: 1,749,708
St Paul’s Cathedral was the first cathedral to be built after the English Reformation in the 16th century, when Henry VIII removed the Church of England from the jurisdiction of the Pope and placed control of the life of the church in the hands of the Crown. St Paul’s Cathedral is a masterpiece by Britain’s most famous architect, Christopher Wren, and is at least the fourth to have stood on the site that it was built on between 1675 and 1710, after its predecessor was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Annual Visitors: 1,782,741
The Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court at Somerset House (C) Jeff Knowles/Flickr
Somerset House was built on the site of an earlier Tudor palace that was demolished in 1775. The old building was demolished in order to build a new space to house many of the government’s offices and the principal learned societies under one roof. During the Reign of King James I, the building became the London residence of his wife, Anne of Denmark, and was renamed Denmark House. James also built a Chapel where Henrietta Maria of France, wife of King Charles I, could exercise her Roman Catholic religion. Annual Visitors: 2,463,201
Before the Victorian era, the Tower of London served as a royal residence and a notorious prison. It is over 27 meters tall and was designed to invoke fear. The tower was originally built in the 1070s, but was extended by Henry III and Edward I during the medieval period. During the Tudor era, the tower entered a bloody period, with cells and torture chambers full of political and religious prisoners in the aftermath of Henry VIII’s break from the authority of the Pope in Rome. Annual Visitors: 3,075,950