I’ve recently been in a palace state of mind, as Kensington Palace figures prominently in the opening scene of my new Wrexford and Sloane mystery—which is titled MURDER AT KENSINGTON PALACE! So of course, on my recent trip to London I had to do a thorough walk-through of the rooms and gardens!
Kensington Palace began life as a more modest two-story manor house, built by Sir George Coppin in 1605. It was purchased by the Earl of Nottingham in 1619 and came to be known as Nottingham House. The second earl , who was serving as the royal secretary of state, sold it to William and Mary in 1689. (For those of you a little fuzzy on your British history, Protestant Mary II and William III came as joint rulers to the throne after the Glorious Revolution that had deposed Mary’s Catholic father, King James II)
Mary engaged Sir Christopher Wren (who created St. Paul’s cathedral) to enlarge and remodel the residence. In order to save money, he decided to use much of the original structure, but added wings and exterior changes, which reflected his eye for grace and symmetry. For the next 70 years, British monarch chose to live at Kensington Palace rather than St. James’s Palace, which remained the official heart of the monarchy. (For Regency aficionados, Rotten Row, where many of our Heyer heroes and heroines ride every day, got its name from being part of the Rue de Roi—the king’s road which led from St. James’s Palace to Kensington Palace.
During the reign of George I and George II, the palace was a center of intellectual and artistic creativity, as the kings and their consorts played host to the leading writers, artists and musicians. It was also known as a hotbed of political intrigue as diplomats and courtiers jockeyed for power and influence. The interiors were remodeled at this time, with additions like architectural splendors like the famous Cupola Room and the ornate murals and painted ceilings that one sees today.
When George III came to the throne, Kensington Palace fell out of favor, and became a residence for lesser members of the royal family. One of George III’s younger sons, Prince Augustus Frederick, the Duke of Sussex, was given a set of rooms in 1805, known as Apartment 1. Augustus was very interested in science and the arts, and created a massive library of over 50,000 books (it filled ten rooms!) He also collected clocks and had a large number of pet birds, which were allowed to fly around loose. A member of the Royal Society, Britain’s leading scientific society, Augustus often hosted scientific soirees at Kensington Palace—a fact I use in my book!
The palace was also home to Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, another son of George III. His daughter, Alexandrina Victoria—later Queen Victoria—was born there in 1819. When she acceded to the throne, she moved to Buckingham Palace—no doubt because of unpleasant memories of her childhood at Kensington Palace, under the strict rule of her manipulative mother and her mother’s favorite advisor, John Conroy.
Since then, Kensington Palace continued to play host to a procession of royal family members. (I particularly like the story of the Victorian Princess Louise, who had the windows bricked up in her apartment when she discovered her husband was climbing out to meet for late night trysts with his lover.) The early 1900s saw such an assortment of minor royals taking up residence that Edward VIII called it “the aunt heap.”
The palace was badly damaged in WWII during the Blitz, but after its repair served as home to Prince Philip before his marriage to Queen Elizabeth. In modern times, it was home to Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon, who spent a fortune renovating a section now referred to as Apartment 1A. The current residents of 1A are Prince William and Kate (it’s their official London residence.)
In doing research, I came across a website that listed some of the “secrets” of Kensington Palace, and here are a few of the interesting tidbits! The King’s Art Gallery—a fabulous space—was also used for exercising (I think fencing was the sport of choice) And the fireplace has a special dial built in it that connects to the weathervane, so that the King could tell the wind direction—very important for a country that depended on its navy! Another insider bit of trivia is that Queen Victoria first met Albert at the palace.