L U X U R Y  T R A V E L E R

The Orangery at Kensington Palace.   Designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor
and built in 1704-5 for Queen Anne.   Photo: Historic Royal Palaces/newsteam.co.uk

(Encore Edition)

Kensington Palace was once a favoured home of some of Britain’s famous kings and queens and the setting for many great events and dramas in royal history.  Today, parts of the palace remain a private residence for members of the Royal Family. The State Apartments are open to the public and house the lavishly decorated King’s and Queen’s Apartments and the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection.

Kensington Palace was built as a private country house called Nottingham House in about 1605. It was purchased by William III and Mary II in the summer of 1689 from William’s trusted Secretary of State, Daniel Finch, Earl of Nottingham, at a cost of £20,000. The house was adapted for royal residence by Sir Christopher Wren, Surveyor of the King’s Works. For the next 70 years the palace was at the centre of the life and government of the kingdom and played host to the courts of William and Mary, Queen Anne, George I and George II.  However, when George III came to the throne in October 1760, he made Buckingham Palace his principal London home and Kensington ceased to serve as the seat of a reigning monarch.

One of the most well-known residents of Kensington Palace was Princess Victoria. On 24 May 1819 Princess Victoria was born at Kensington Palace and she was christened the following month in a private ceremony in the Cupola Room.

Eighteen years later, Princess Victoria was awakened at Kensington Palace early in the morning of 20 June 1837 with news of her accession to the throne. Her first Privy Council was held in the Red Salon on this day, before the young Queen moved permanently to Buckingham Palace with her mother.

The private apartments at Kensington Palace continued to be used by members of the Royal Family throughout the 19th century, however, the State Apartments were sadly neglected and were used as stores for various paintings and furnishings from other palaces. It was only Queen Victoria’s love for the palace in which she had grown up that saved it.  In April 1897, Parliament was persuaded to pay for the restoration of the State Apartments on condition they should be opened to the public. The State Apartments were opened to the public on Queen Victoria’s birthday, 24 May 1899.

Today, the State Apartments comprise the King’s and Queen’s Apartments (interpreted to represent the time of King William III and Queen Mary II) and the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, all open daily to the public. The private side of Kensington Palace has been home in recent years to Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II, and Diana, Princess of Wales.

Apartment 1A at Kensington Palace

In April 2003, responsibility of Apartments 1A and 3 (Princess Margaret’s Offices) were transferred from the Royal Household to conservation charity Historic Royal Palaces. It was opened to the public for the first time in its 300 year history in 2004.

Princess Margaret was the last resident of the apartment, living there until her death in February 2002, which marked the end of three centuries of private residential use.

The south-west wing of Kensington Palace was constructed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1689 to create a ceremonial approach to the King’s Grand Staircase and State Apartments (both open to the public). Some of the upper rooms of the apartment were then occupied by important officers of state and courtiers, such as the Lord Chamberlain and Lord Steward.

In 1804, King George III granted his son, Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, a large suite of rooms comprising the south and west sides of Clock Court.  Although he may not have occupied the whole of apartment 1A he utilised the corridor above the Stone Gallery and several other rooms to house his growing book collection (by 1827 his collection numbered 50,000 volumes and formed one of the most important English private libraries ever assembled!). In his later years, the Duke achieved great popularity and at his death, in 1843, his lying in state at Kensington was attended by up to 20,000 people. After the Duke’s death, his widow lived at Kensington until her own death in 1873.   Photo: Historic Royal Palaces/newsteam.co.uk

Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, and her husband John Campbell, Marquess of Lorne, heir to the 8th Duke of Argyll, moved into the apartment in February 1875. Princess Louise was an accomplished sculptor – her large marble statue of Queen Victoria still stands to the east of Kensington Palace. One of the alterations she undertook was the construction of a new studio in the garden nearby. Following the death of the Duke of Argyll in 1914, Princess Louise continued to live at Kensington Palace until her own death in 1939.

After the death of Princess Louise, the whole apartment remained vacant until part of it was taken over by Princess Marina in 1954.   Following their wedding on 6 May 1960, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon lived in another smaller apartment at Kensington Palace while they set about transforming what is now called Apartment 1A to new designs. Much of the earlier scheme was removed and replaced by a modern apartment in 18th century style, largely designed by Snowdon and Princess Margaret with the assistance of the theatre designer Carl Toms, one-time assistant to Oliver Messel, Lord Snowdon’s uncle, and a close friend of the royal couple.

The Queen’s Apartments

When William III and Mary II extended Nottingham House in 1689, four new blocks, or pavilions, were added to the main house to provide additional accommodation for the King and Queen. The Queen’s Apartments were in the north-west pavilion and the King’s in the south-east. Despite later alterations, the basic layout of separate suites for the King and Queen survive. 

Queen Mary’s Drawing Room is one of a series of small rooms which were used by the Queen as her private apartments. The room was badly damaged by incendiary bombs on the night of 14 October 1940; the paneling was destroyed and the walls are now covered with a modern paper.

The giltwood chandelier, which is probably English, c1730, was one of four originally hung in the Queen’s Gallery.  The room contains an impressive collection of late 17th-century furniture including an inlaid cabinet containing 17th and 18th-century porcelain and an inlaid ebony writing table, typical of the style preferred by Queen Mary.

Mary of Modena's bed is reinstated in Queen Mary's Bedchamber at Kensington Palace
in London.  Photo: Stephen Pond / newsteam.co.uk / Historic Royal Palaces 

Queen Mary’s Bedchamber

This room is one into which only the most senior of the Queen’s staff were allowed access.  The four poster state bed belonged to Queen Mary’s stepmother, Mary of Modena. It is sometimes known as the ‘warming-pan bed’ and is traditionally associated with the birth of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart (the ‘Old Pretender’) at St James’s Palace in 1688. The young Prince, son of James II and Mary of Modena, was the Catholic heir to the throne and news of his birth was not well received by the Protestant supporters of William of Orange (the future William III). Within hours a rumour was circulating that the infant was not the Queen’s child but a surrogate baby smuggled into the bed in a warming pan.

In recent years, the bed has been thoroughly examined and it appears to have been made up from several beds of various periods. It is likely that some of the principal hangings were made for James II and his consort, whose crowns and cyphers appear on the headcloth and board.

Queen Mary II died of smallpox on 28 December 1694, probably in this room.  After her death, at the early age of 32, the palace, including the Privy Chamber, Presence Chamber and the King’s own bedchamber were hung with 4,200 yards of black and purple mourning cloth.

The windows in the room were originally in the south wall (opposite the bed) but were blocked when the old Nottingham House was rebuilt in 1718-22. The windows in the west wall were opened as replacements.   The bedchamber originally had a splendid marble chimneypiece decorated with William III’s coat of arms and an overmantel carved by Grinling Gibbons but the fine cornice is the only decorative work that remains.

Queen Mary’s Dining Room

Queen Mary’s Dining Room was originally a square room but was reduced in size in the 19th century by the creation of a passage along its rear (west) wall.  It is the only room of the State Apartments specifically set aside for eating.  Neither William nor Mary enjoyed dining in public and this room allowed them to eat in relative privacy.

Household records show that William and Mary had an extremely generous daily allowance of food and drink, although simple suppers of fish and beer were not uncommon.  17th and 18th-century Chinese porcelain of the type avidly collected by Queen Mary is displayed on a late 17th-century black lacquer cabinet.  The room still retains its original marble fireplace and paneling, although it may have been once hung with gilt leather and tapestries.

Queen Mary’s Closet

This small closet was the scene of Queen Anne’s last meeting with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough which took place on the evening of Maundy Thursday, 6 April 1710. The Duchess was Anne’s closest friend and held several important positions in the Queen’s household, including First Lady of the Bedchamber. The two corresponded incessantly, using the invented names of Mrs Morley (the Queen) and Mrs Freeman (the Duchess) to demonstrate the equality of their relationship. However, their friendship ended after a disagreement, which was never resolved and in 1711 the Duchess resigned all her offices.

The original 17th-century paneling in this room was removed in the 19th century when the closet was converted into a kitchen. The room has now been restored to its original appearance by the introduction of new, unstained paneling.  The paintings on the west wall of the room include a profile portrait of Queen Anne and an oval of her husband, Prince George of Denmark.

Queen Mary’s Gallery

Queen Mary’s Gallery was originally furnished with fine lacquered chairs, tables and cabinets and 154 pieces of Chinese and Japanese porcelain.  The room was originally lit by four chandeliers of gilded wood, suspended down the centre of the room.  When the gallery was first built the paneled walls were hung with silk the colour ‘chosen by the Queen’ – with white damask curtains adorning the windows. The present curtains are modern.

The Queen’s Staircase

Designed by Wren, this plainly decorated staircase was primarily used by the Queen to give access between the private apartments and gardens.  The oak paneling was made under the direction of the King’s Master Joiner, Alexander Fort, who was responsible for the paneling and the fitting of sash windows throughout the palace.  The staircase leads down to a hall that was once Queen Mary II’s garden room. The garden door, facing the foot of the stairs, dates from 1690-1.  Outside, William and Mary’s monogram can be seen above the doorway, surrounded by swags of fruit and flowers.

Further information on Kensington Palace is available online by following this link.