St. James’s Park is one of several royal parks that dominate the western side of Central London, all of which were once part of the hunting grounds of Henry VIII. In the 17th century Charles II had the park landscaped and opened to the public.
In the Middle Ages leprosy was a common and contagious disease. Those who caught it were sent away to isolate in leper hospitals, known as lazar houses. One such hospice for women was to the west of the hamlet of Charing, between Westminster Abbey and its Manor of Hide. It was founded by the citizens of London in 1189 and named St. James the Less after the Bishop of Jerusalem. Over time, the surrounding 160 acres was bequeathed to the hospice, and Edward I granted the right to hold an annual fair in the fields. It was a marshy area, often flooded by the River Tyburn. Pigs were kept in the surrounding meadows and to the south-west of the hospice lay the water of Rosamond’s Pond. In 1449 custody of the hospice was granted to the newly-founded Eton College.
Henry VIII wished to create a large hunting ground to the west of his palace at Whitehall. Westminster Abbey’s Hide Manor was confiscated and in 1531 Eton College surrendered the hospice and its lands. A large deer park was thus formed from what would be the future St. James’s Park, Green Park, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens. An Act of Parliament of 1536 stated that the King had “made a Parke, walled and envyroned with brick and stone”.
The leper hospital was swept away, and in its place, between 1531 and 1536, Henry had a red-brick hunting lodge built that evolved to become St. James’s Palace. At that time Henry’s major palace was Whitehall and he used St. James’s as a retreat away from the formalities of the royal court.
St. James’s has continued as a palace into modern times, occasionally as the main London residence of monarchs. Queen Mary I died in the palace and Charles I spent his last night there before his execution. Charles II, James II, Mary II, and Queen Anne were all born at St. James’s.
The meadows that surrounded the leper hospice were known as St. James’s Fields. The first mention of the name St. James’s Park was in 1539 when 15,000 people from London came out to witness Henry VIII review the City’s militia. Queen Elizabeth used it to hold fetes. A garden was created in the north-east of the park, north of Whitehall Palace’s Tilt Yard, where there was a spring. (The garden has long gone but the street there still bears the name of Spring Gardens).
It was James I who began to bring St. James’s Park into vogue. He had the area drained and landscaped to form a park that was open for the upper classes to stroll. Pools at the east side were used for hunting ducks. The King was fond of exotic animals, which he kept in the park, including camels, crocodiles, and an elephant, sent by foreign monarchs and Britons abroad. Aviaries of exotic birds were kept, and there was a flower garden close to the palace. A physic garden was planted, where the diarist John Evelyn witnessed orange trees for the first time. An area close to Rosamond’s Pond was leased to William Stallinge to create a mulberry orchard in an attempt to grow silk-worms.
The park went into decline after the death of James. Charles I had other things on his mind. He spent his last night at St. James’s Palace and the following morning was led across the park to his execution at Banqueting House at Whitehall.
The experiment to produce silk-worms was abandoned and Lord Goring built a house on the site of the mulberry orchard. Goring House was destroyed by fire in 1675, replaced by a new house facing St. James’s Park for Lord Arlington later that decade. At the turn of the century it was purchased by the Duke of Buckingham who demolished the building and created the grander Buckingham House slightly closer to Green Park and centred on the Mall. In the 19th century it would be transformed into Buckingham Palace.
St. James’s Park was a private ground for the royal family and invited guests until the reign of Charles II when members of polite society were admitted. During his time in exile Charles observed the elaborate gardens of the French royal family. When he returned to Whitehall Palace he had St. James’s Park redesigned by a French landscaper. Three hundred men worked on the project. A long, straight canal of 2,560 feet in length by 125 feet wide was created along the centre of the park, based on ideas from André le Nôtre, landscape gardener to Louis XIV who also provided designs for Greenwich Park. The canal was lined by an avenue of trees. During some winters it froze over and skating on the ice became popular, a recreation perhaps imported from Holland. The Doge of Venice provided a gift of two gondolas that were kept on the canal. For a time, two gondolieri and their families stayed in London but returned to Venice when Charles failed to pay their wages.
The wild animals had long gone but Charles had the park re-stocked with exotic birds. At the eastern end of the canal ‘Duck Island’, consisting of several small islands, was formed as a sanctuary for many species of waterfowl. In 1664 the Russian ambassador presented the King with a pair of pelicans and they continue to live in the park today. (They do not breed unless part of large flocks, so new pelicans are regularly introduced).
At the northern edge of St. James’s Park was a track, separated from the park by a single row of houses. Fields stretched to the north of the houses in what became the suburb of St. James’s. One of the houses was occupied by Charles’s mistress, Nell Gwynn. The King would stand at the edge of the park and talk with Gwynn in her garden. As John Evelyn noted in his diary, there was “a very familiar discourse between the King and Mrs. Nelly”.