For more than a century, the reigning monarchs of Great Britain have used Buckingham Palace as their administrative headquarters. The fascinating building has survived everything from World War II bomb strikes to a crafty undergarment thief. If you ever decide to visit it in person, here are 10 things you should know about one of Europe’s most iconic and lavish homes.
1. The original Buckingham Palace was built for a duke—not a king or queen.
In 1703, John Sheffield, the first Duke of Buckingham, tore down an existing house in Westminster and built himself a new one on the site. This Buckingham House would be purchased in 1761 by King George III, who wanted to give his wife and children a private home that wasn’t too far away from St. James’s Palace, then the royal family’s official London residence. When Queen Victoria assumed the throne in 1837, she made Buckingham House her official residence. By then, the original building had undergone several renovations and become a palace in its own right.
2. Fossils are entombed in Buckingham Palace’s walls.
Oolitic limestone is a sedimentary rock made up of tiny spherical clumps. It was used in the construction of Buckingham Palace and many other landmarks, including the Empire State Building and the Pentagon. In a 2017 paper published by the journal Scientific Reports, researchers found that this kind of rock forms around the mineralized corpses of microscopic organisms rather than around grains of grit or sand, as previously thought. That means Buckingham Palace’s walls are loaded with tiny fossils that may be up to 200 million years old.
3. A teenager once broke in to Buckingham Palace and stole Queen Victoria’s underwear.
Edward Jones, also known as “Edward Cotton” or “Boy Jones,” was seemingly obsessed with young Queen Victoria during his teenage years. Nobody knows why. In 1838, Jones was apprehended after he’d snuck into Buckingham Palace and stolen many of Queen Victoria’s belongings, including a few pairs of her underwear. “He gained access to the palace through unlocked doors or unshuttered windows on the ground floors—there was no royal security in those days,” biographer Jan Bondeson told BBC News. Jones was caught entering Buckingham Palace on three separate occasions and admitted to having been inside the palace many more times. Jones was eventually sent overseas, though he temporarily returned to the United Kingdom as an adult.
4. Buckingham Palace hosted a Girl Guide company.
Before becoming queen, Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister Princess Margaret were Girl Guides (the UK equivalent of Girl Scouts) and their troop was organized at their royal home. Active between 1937 and 1939, the 1st Buckingham Palace Girl Guide Companyheld its meetings at a summerhouse on the palace grounds. Along with the two princesses, its members included more than 30 other girls whose parents were either royals or palace employees. In 1959, the troop was resurrected for Elizabeth’s daughter Princess Anne, and folded when Anne started boarding school in 1963.
5. Woodrow Wilson was the first sitting U.S. president to visit Buckingham Palace.
En route to a conference in Paris, President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady Edith Wilson visited the UK in December 1918. At Buckingham Palace, King George V threw a banquet in their honor, beginning a long tradition of U.S. heads of state visiting the royal residence. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter infamously broke protocol by giving Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother an unexpected kiss on the lips.
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6. Buckingham Palace was bombed during World War II.
Although the British government advised them to get out of London during the second World War, King George VI and his family chose to remain in Buckingham Palace. As his wife Queen Elizabeth put it, “The children will not leave unless I do. I shall not leave unless their father does, and the king will not leave the country in any circumstances, whatever.” She honed her pistol-firing skills by shooting at local rats. Before the Axis Powers surrendered, German bombers scored nine direct hits on Buckingham Palace.
7. There’s an ATM inside Buckingham Palace.
Coutts & Co., the royal family’s bank of choice, has installed an automatic teller machinedown in Buckingham Palace’s basement. Other amenities include a post office, movie theater, a cafeteria, and 78 bathrooms. John Lennon once claimed that the Beatles smoked some pot in a Buckingham Palace men’s room when they dropped by for a visit in 1964, but two of his bandmates denied the story.
8. In 2017, a female officer led Buckingham Palace’s changing of the guard.
The British North America Act’s passage on July 1, 1867 made Canada a self-governing dominion of the United Kingdom. In recognition of that event’s 150th anniversary, Canadian Armed Forces infantry officer Megan Couto became the first woman to lead the changing of the guard when the unit she commanded was invited to defend Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.
9. If the Union Jack is flying, it means the queen is away.
When Britain’s sitting monarch is physically present inside one of her royal residences like Buckingham Palace, the building raises the Royal Standard. But when she’s not around, the standard is swapped out for the UK’s national flag.
10. Buckingham Palace guests eat a lot of sandwiches.
Queen Elizabeth II hosts at least three garden parties every summer in Buckingham Palace’s 39-acre private garden, where guests consume about 20,000 sandwiches per party. “Guests, of which there are around 30,000 each year in total, are treated with Buckingham Palace-blend tea, cakes, and a chance to talk to members of the royal family informally,” says the British Monarchist Foundation.