An elegant retreat for Britain's royal family for over three centuries
Kensington Palace was once a small and suburban villa, known as Nottingham House. New monarchs William III and Mary II chose this modest mansion in 1689 to be their country retreat. Over the years, Stuart and Georgian monarchs transformed the palace into a fashionable home for Britain’s young royal families.
Queen Caroline shaped the palace and gardens, and Queen Victoria spent her childhood here. She left to live in Buckingham Palace in 1837. Kensington later became home for minor royals, including her daughter, the talented sculptor Princess Louise.
More recently, the palace has been home to Diana, Princess of Wales, Princess Margaret and The Duke and Duchess of Sussex. It is also the London home of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their children.
William and Mary
Newly-crowned monarchs William III and Mary II (1689-1702) were first based in Whitehall Palace, in the heart of London. However, the smoke and damp of the city, and long travelling time to their more rural home at Hampton Court spurred them to search for a new home with easy access to Parliament.
Image: Kensington, to the west of London, has always been an attractive royal retreat, as evoked in this image of the palace and grounds from the 1750s.
Transforming Nottingham House
In 1689, the King and Queen commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to draw up plans, but the Queen herself, excited by the project, took charge of the project to transform this little house into a palace.
Enthusiastic Mary made regular visits to check on progress and to hurry the work along. While a huge workforce was labouring with the building, a team of designers were already preparing decorative schemes for the new rooms.
However, Mary’s urging on the workmen had disastrous consequences. In November 1689 part of a newly-built wall collapsed. One man was killed and others badly injured. It happened minutes after the Queen had toured the site. A shaken Mary wrote to her husband of the incident: 'It shewed me the hand of God plainly in it, and I was truly humbled'.
Despite the setback, the palace was soon finished, and the King and Queen moved in on Christmas Eve 1689.
Image: Queen Mary II.
The party palace
William and Mary began an era of magnificent balls in a golden three-year period, beginning in 1691. They used their new ornate rooms, elegant staircases and impressive halls to great effect. Guests ate, drank, gambled and flirted until dawn.
Once or twice a week the King and Queen held Drawing Rooms, where they mingled with distinguished visitors such as ambassadors or foreign princes.
Image: The Drawing Room was the focal point of court life where the king would meet members of the court, dressed in their finery.
Saturday night last was a great entertynment made for the Prince of Baden at Kensington, where was dancing and gaming... and a great supper and a banquet of sweetmeats... there could not be less than 1000 persons.
A guest at one of William and Mary’s balls
When his beloved Mary died from smallpox in 1694, William lost his enthusiasm for these grand entertainments and instead held more sedate evenings and concerts.
Despite his grief, William finished the building with a grand gallery range to the south of the palace, enlarging Sir Christopher Wren’s original plan.
Did you know?
The gallery was originally hung with green velvet, and William would meet his spies and plan his military campaigns here.
The King's Gallery
It was here that the King caught a fatal chill, exacerbated by injuries after a horse riding accident days earlier at Hampton Court.
His death in 1702 was followed by the brief but eventful reign of Queen Anne.
Image: The King’s Gallery, Kensington, built for William III in 1695.
Kensington under Queen Anne
Queen Anne (1702-14) flitted from palace to palace, in between bouts of ill health and 17 pregnancies. Sadly, none of her children lived to succeed her.
As reigning queen, Anne used the King's Apartments at Kensington, while her husband Prince George of Denmark used the Queen’s Apartments.
The Queen spent little time at Kensington, preferring Hampton Court Palace, as she enjoyed hunting there in the extensive palace grounds.
Reigning for such a short time the Queen was not a great builder, but she contributed much to the design of the gardens.
At Kensington in the summer of 1704 Anne conceived of a new ‘greenhouse’ with a terrace where she could grow trees and exotic plants in ceramic pots.
Her most extravagant gesture at Kensington is one of London’s most beautiful and perfectly formed buildings.
Anne commissioned architects Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor to design an orangery which became far more than a greenhouse.
Young ‘upstart’ architect John Vanbrugh added details of his own. Inside, Grinling Gibbons carvings and elegant pillars created an airy and delightful space.
The Queen loved her Orangery, finished in 1705, and used it to host summer parties at Kensington.
She also used the Orangery for the traditional Easter ceremony of distributing money to her deserving subjects.
When George I (1714-27) succeeded to the throne, he found Kensington ‘very agreeable’.
Under his patronage the palace was adorned and enlarged by the upcoming artist designer and architect William Kent.
Kent filled it with art and fine furniture, which gave it the refined 18th-century appearance that many of the grand rooms retain today.
Image: The King’s Drawing Room at Kensington. The decorative ceiling was painted by William Kent in 1722.
The King's Staircase
Kent’s most lasting achievement at Kensington was his painted interiors. The spectacular King’s Staircase features life-size characters from George I’s court.
The next monarch, George II (1727-60) and his wife Queen Caroline I enjoyed hosting a far livelier court in these elaborately painted spaces.
They invigorated court life at Kensington, hosting lavish receptions and leading society life with sparkle. Clever Caroline held intellectual salons, where the brightest minds in arts and sciences gathered. She also helped shape the design of the palace gardens.
Image: The staircase was painted by William Kent and completed in 1724. The wrought iron balustrade is by French master blacksmith Jean Tijou.
The court in decline
After Caroline’s death in 1737, court life fell into a dull, predictable routine, with old courtiers described as ‘flies in the autumn, sunning themselves at a window, past even buzzing’ waiting for the hurricane of a new reign to sweep them all away.
When George II dropped dead of a heart attack in 1760, no reigning monarch then slept within the palace walls for almost 70 years. His grandson, George III, disliked the palace and never stayed there.
Did you know?
Despite often criticising Caroline, boorish George II was heartbroken when she died. He swore never to marry again.
The precious princess
George III granted apartments to other family members of the royal family as he didn’t wish to live at Kensington himself.
Among them was his fourth son Edward, Duke of Kent. His wife German duchess, Victoire, gave birth to a baby girl in 1819. She was christened Alexandrina Victoria (later Queen Victoria), and baptised in the splendour of the Cupola Room.
Edward died eight months later, leaving the Duchess to raise Victoria alone.
Image: Victoire, Duchess of Kent with Princess Victoria (after Beechey) c1824. The infant Victoria holds a miniature portrait of her late father. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.
A lonely childhood?
The Duchess of Kent did her best to educate and protect the girl who might one day become queen.
Victoria was educated almost entirely within the confines of the palace. Her daily programme of lessons, known as the ‘Kensington System’ was judged by some to be harsh.
Frequent trips to the theatre, daily rides in the gardens and her favourite dog Dash punctuated Victoria's early days.
However, Victoria saw virtually no other children and was kept away from life at court.
Later in her life, the Queen later recalled a childhood full of ‘painful and disagreeable’ scenes, but she also enjoyed life at Kensington.
Victoria becomes Queen
On the morning of 20 June 1837, Princess Victoria woke up to be told that the King had died and that she was now Queen. She was just 18 years old.
She held her first Privy Council meeting that day in the Red Saloon and a few weeks later departed for Buckingham Palace, admitting she would miss ‘poor old palace’.
Image: Victoria and her beloved spaniel Dash.
The Red Saloon
This famous painting of Victoria at her first Privy Council meeting still hangs at Kensington Palace. It portrays Victoria as very composed, a few hours after she had become queen.
As her uncle William IV had just died, Victoria would have been wearing a black mourning dress. However, the artist depicted her in white so that she stood out.
Image: The First Council of Queen Victoria, by David Wilkie, 1838, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.
The 'Aunt Heap'
After Victoria left for Buckingham Palace, Kensington took on a new quiet life as a royal ‘dormitory’. It was home to several minor members of the royal family.
As well as her eccentric uncle, the Duke of Sussex, Queen Victoria lodged two of her daughters here - Princess Beatrice and Princess Louise, a talented sculptor.
Louise designed the iconic statue of Queen Victoria on the West Front and it was unveiled in 1893 to celebrate Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
In 1899, Victoria opened the State Apartments to the public. This pattern of continued through the 1900s as parts of the palace remained open to the public while members of the royal family and loyal staff occupied the numerous private apartments.
As the royal inhabitants aged, the palace became known as the ‘Aunt Heap’.
After the war, with the old Victorian princesses long departed, a new generation took centre stage.
Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon lived at Kensington with their young family from the 1960s. The couple created fashionable interiors, in which they hosted many parties for celebrity guests, pop stars and artists.
The Prince and Princess of Wales lived at Kensington after their wedding in 1981. Their sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, grew up there.
Did you know?
In 1940, The Luftwaffe dropped incendiary bombs on Kensington, badly damaging the State Apartments.
Kensington Palace today
Kensington Palace remains home to members of the royal family, including TRH The Prince and Princess of Wales and their children. Kensington Palace was also the first marital home of The Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
In 2012, Historic Royal Palaces completed major refurbishments at Kensington. With a grand new entrance and new gardens that echo 18th-century designs, Kensington Palace has been restored to the prominence of its heyday.
Image: The Prince and Princess of Wales and the Duke of Sussex (then The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry) visited the White Garden at Kensington Palace in 2017. The garden was planted in tribute to their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. They were given a tour of the garden by Head Gardener, Sean Harkin, and Operations Manager, Graham Dillamore. © Historic Royal Palaces
Listen to the podcast
In this episode we’ll follow Chief Curator Lucy Worsley, into the pomp of Kensington Palace, to a staircase that has a lot more to reveal about the Georgian court than you would think. This is part of a mini-series, exploring a selection of treasured spaces in our palaces with the curators who know them best.More episodes
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