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Visiting the Palaces through the centuries

Release date: Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse have been royal palaces since the 12th century and have welcomed visitors for hundreds of years. Today, one and a half million people visit the royal residences each year, enjoying these historic buildings and the great works of art from the Royal Collection.

As early as the reign of Elizabeth I, senior courtiers, foreign envoys and noblemen are known to have been shown around the State Apartments at Windsor Castle. During the 18th century, the royal family were rarely present at Windsor, as George I and George II preferred to live at Hampton Court and Kensington Palace, and the Castle became a destination for curious members of the public. Visitors travelled by coach or barge from London to walk along the terraces and view St George's Chapel and the State Apartments. The Castle's first guidebook was published in 1742.

Views of the Interior and Exterior of Windsor Castle, 1848, by Joseph Nash

Views of the Interior and Exterior of Windsor Castle, 1848, by Joseph Nash ©

Windsor became a centre of court life again under George III, and the royals were often seen walking along the terraces. In 1792 Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of poet William Wordsworth, wrote: 'The King stopped to talk with my Uncle and Aunt, and to play with the children...At Windsor they are seen unattended by pomp or state.'

The Castle stayed open throughout the major renovations undertaken by George IV and William IV. In 1825 the first official visitors' entrance was created, and precise opening hours established. When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, she introduced tickets for visitors which could be obtained from the Lord Chamberlain's Office or from select London booksellers. For the first time, tours were organised by staff specifically employed for the purpose, rather than by the resident housekeeper.

Visitors are shown strolling along the North Terrace in this 19th-century watercolour.

Visitors are shown strolling along the North Terrace in this 19th-century watercolour. ©

The arrival of the railway in 1858 made access to Windsor easier than ever, and in the next two decades annual visitor numbers reached 39,000. The State Apartments closed upon Queen Victoria's death in 1901, and when they reopened the following year the Inspector of the Castle reported: 'The Rooms have been full, & from the Entrance a queue has spread…there are at least a thousand persons waiting...'

In Edinburgh, it was Holyrood Abbey, rather than the Palace, that first became a visitor attraction. In 1758, the Abbey's wooden roof had been replaced with stone, its weight causing it to collapse ten years later. The ruined church became a popular and romantic sightseeing spot, and it was particularly fashionable to visit the atmospheric ruins by moonlight.

A watercolour showing members of the public gathered around the new fountain in the Forecourt.

A watercolour showing members of the public gathered around the new fountain in the Forecourt. ©

By the end of the 18th century, both locals and foreign visitors had developed a fascination with the apartments that had once been home to Mary, Queen of Scots. The climax of the tour, led by the housekeeper, was a view of the 'bloodstains' on the floorboards where Mary's secretary, David Rizzio, had been violently murdered by a group led by her husband, Lord Darnley.

Nineteenth-century visitors in Queen Mary’s Bedchamber.

Nineteenth-century visitors in Queen Mary’s Bedchamber. ©

Many visitors to the Palace in the 18th century reported that they had seen the thigh bones of Lord Darnley and a mummified corpse said to be that of a countess of Roxburghe. Visitors seem to have felt a mixture of revulsion and fascination at these displays - in 1785 one gentleman wrote that the 'exhibition was the most indelicate I ever beheld.'

By the 19th century the bones and mummy were no longer part of the tour at Holyrood, but each year visitors still come in their hundreds of thousands to see Mary, Queen of Scots' apartments and try to spot the bloodstains where Rizzio met his violent end.

Plan your visit and find out more about what there is to see and do at Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.