The story of Kew Palace

George III’s private retreat

George III’s private retreat

Kew Palace is the smallest of all the royal palaces.  It was originally built as a fashionable mansion for wealthy London silk merchant, Samuel Fortrey in 1631.

George II (r 1727-60) and Queen Caroline were first attracted to little Kew, thinking it a perfect lodging for their three eldest daughters.  After them, several generations of Georgian royalty used Kew and nearby Richmond Lodge as weekend retreats from an intensely public life in town.

Kew reflects the intimate personal and domestic life of Georgian kings and queens for much of the 18th century. Today the interior of this tiny, atmospheric palace tells the powerful story of George III, his mental illness and the members of his family who lived and died there.

The South Front, Kew Palace's bright red brick front with blue skies above and Kew Gardens surrounding.

Intimate royal retreat

In the 1720s, the royal family, George II and Queen Caroline and their children arrived and took leases on the palace and several other houses in the near vicinity. 

It was a place where they could be private, domestic, and live normal lives unencumbered by the trappings of ceremony and deference. The gardens were cultivated as an idyllic pleasure ground.

Later the house became a refuge for George III, when he fell ill and was thought to have become mad.

Even today, Kew’s scale and intimacy reflects a more humble and human picture of the British monarchy.

A portrait of King George III

The tragic illness of the King

However, once a place for summer relaxation and family life, Kew fell under the shadow of George III’s mental illness. The King was incarcerated there during his first bout of ‘madness’ in 1788.

Away from the public gaze, in the peace and seclusion of Kew, an increasingly desperate band of doctors tried to cure him.

The King survived being administered powerful emetics and laxatives, freezing baths and leeching.   He was also put into a strait-jacket if he refused to co-operate.

He recovered by 1789, but suffered recurrences in 1801 and 1804, before suffering a severe decline in 1810. A regency was declared in 1811.

Image: George III in happier times, © The National Portrait Gallery, London.

Profile of Queen Charlotte

A royal death

From 1809 the royal family rarely visited Kew, but early in 1818, Queen Charlotte was taken ill on a journey from London to Windsor. 

She stayed at Kew Palace for what was thought to be a few days, but her health never improved.

After a long illness, she died in her bedroom in November of that year.

Final farewell

The last enduring memory for the people of Kew was the slow procession of her coffin from the palace, taking her back to Windsor for burial. 

The cobbled courtyard of Windsor Castle were muffled with straw, so that the King, although by now severely demented, would not be aware of the funeral carriage bringing back his beloved wife.

Did you know?

The entire village turned out to pay its respects as the queen left her beloved Kew for the last time.

George III (1738-1820), Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) and their Six Eldest Children

No heir apparent

King George III and Queen Charlotte had 15 children during their long marriage. 

By 1817 however, only one legitimate grandchild had been born, and that royal heir, Princess Charlotte died tragically giving birth to a stillborn son.

Marriage of George and Charlotte's remaining sons, and the production of an heir to the throne now became more pressing than ever.

The baby race

As a succession crisis loomed, two of the royal sons, now in middle age, had to find appropriate royal wives.  They looked to the Germany for inspiration.

The princesses Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen and Victoire of Saxe-Coburg were eminently suitable choices. A race was now on between the couples to produce an heir to the throne.

Kew was the setting for a double wedding ceremony on 11 July 1818, as the Dukes married their duchesses in a service in the presence of the ailing Queen Charlotte.

Did you know?

William (later William IV) had ten illegitimate children by his long-term mistress, actress Dorothea Jordan, whom he abandoned to marry Princess Adelaide.

Victoria, Duchess of Kent (1786-1861) with Princess Victoria (after Beechey)  c.1824

A throne saved

Edward, Duke of Kent and and his Duchess Victoire won the ‘baby race’ by producing a daughter, born just nine months after the wedding.

This baby was destined for greatness: christened Alexandrina Victoria this little girl would grow up to become Queen Victoria.

Victoria’s great-great-grandaughter, our present day Queen Elizabeth II, celebrated her 80th birthday in 2006 with a family dinner party at Kew.

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 gold crown sits on a bright pink background covered in pink flowers
Events

Join us for a fun-filled celebration of summer in the stunning setting of Hampton Court Palace.

04-07 July 2019 (Preview evening: 01 July, RHS Members' Days 02 and 03 July)

Hampton Court Palace

Monday: 17:00-22.30; Tuesday to Saturday: 10:00-19.30; Sunday: 10:00-17.30

Separate ticket (advanced booking required)

Two gentlemen and a group of visitors enjoy a wander through a garden on a sunny Summers day at Hillsborough Castle. The westerly facade of the castle is visible in the background.
Things to see

Enter the castle grounds through the wonderful 18th-century walled garden, which has been expertly restored using traditional methods.

Opening in spring 2019

Hillsborough Castle

Included in all admission tickets (members go free)

View of Stair Hall looking towards stairs that lead to the Royal Corridor. The walls are a soft blue and a large patterned rug covers most of the wooden floor. The walls are adorned with old political cartoons depicting the history of Irish and American politics. A gold-framed mirror hangs on the wall and a red-cushioned bench sits opposite.
Things to see

Explore the story of some key moments in the history of Ireland that shaped the role of Hillsborough Castle and Gardens.

Open Wednesday-Sunday for castle tours

Hillsborough Castle

Included in castle tours (members go free)

Descriptive, informative, authoritative - a superb guide to your visit to Kew Palace.

Official Kew Palace guidebook

Descriptive, informative, authoritative - a superb guide to your visit to Kew Palace.

£4.99

Kew Palace luxury embroidered hanging decoration, luxury Christmas ornament depicts the Dutch House of Kew Palace which dates back to 1631

Kew Palace luxury embroidered hanging decoration

This luxury handmade Christmas tree decoration features the design of the front of the Dutch House at Kew Palace on the River Thames in south west London.

£29.99

A handmade luxury Christmas tree ornament of the Kew Pagoda made from fabric and with tiny pearls woven into it

Kew Pagoda luxury embroidered hanging decoration

A handmade luxury Christmas tree ornament made from fabric and with tiny pearls woven into it using traditional metal threading techniques.

£17.99