Kensington Palace is a royal residence, separated into numerous apartments. The palace has its origins as a two-storey mansion built in 1605. In 1689 William and Mary ascended the throne and began searching for a residence away from the river Thames. They bought the mansion, known as Nottingham House, from the Earl of Nottingham. The architect, Christopher Wren, was called upon to enlarge the building, creating impressive hallways and ornate decor. As a favourite residence of the King and Queen, Kensington Palace was used to host parties and receive foreign ambassadors. Both William and Mary died at the Palace; Mary from smallpox in 1694 and William from pneumonia in 1702.
The palace continued to be developed by subsequent monarchs. One of the palace’s most famous features, the Orangery, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, was constructed in Queen Anne’s reign. During George I’s reign new royal apartments and a grand staircase were added, decorated by William Kent. The gardens were redesigned to include features we still see today – such as the Serpentine and the Round Pond. Under George II the palace was managed by Queen Caroline, who hosted lavish receptions and intellectual meetings, but after her death in 1737 it became neglected. George II died in the Palace in 1760, becoming the last reigning monarch to inhabit it.
Figure 1 – Bronze statue of William III in front of the South Front of the Palace
Source: Tony Hisgett, Wikicommons
The ‘Kensington System’
Queen Victoria, the daughter of George III’s fourth son, was born in the palace in 1819 and spent her protective childhood there. Her controlled upbringing and education was known as the ‘Kensington System’. On 20th June 1837, an eighteen-year-old Victoria received the news that the King had died and she was now Queen. A few weeks later she moved to Buckingham Palace and her childhood home became the residence of minor members of the royal family.
Figure 2 – Queen Victoria receiving the news of her Accession in Kensington Palace
Source: Henry Tanworth Wells, 1887. Credit: Royal Collection.
Kensington in the twentieth century and beyond
The State Rooms were restored towards the end of the nineteenth century and opened up to the public in 1899, becoming a space for permanent and temporary exhibitions. Since then, the rest of the palace has been divided up into apartments. One of the palace’s most famous residents was Diana, Princess of Wales. She lived there with her husband, the Prince of Wales, and it remained her official residence following their divorce. It was also the childhood home of her sons, Princes William and Harry. On 31st August 1997 Kensington Palace became the focal point for national mourning after the death of Diana, with over one million flowers, some reaching around 5 feet (1.5 metres) deep, placed outside the gates by the public.
Figure 3 – Flowers outside Kensington Palace following the death of Princess Diana, 1997
Source: Maxwell Hamilton, Wikicommons
Today Kensington Palace is notably the residence of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, as well as other members of the Royal Family. The State Rooms are managed by the charity Historic Royal Palaces and are open to the public.
Find out more:
E. Impey, Kensington Palace: The Official Illustrated History (London, 2003)
‘The story of Kensington Palace’, Historic Royal Palaces, 2018. <https://www.hrp.org.uk/kensington-palace/history-and-stories/the-story-of-kensington-palace/#gs.U4IZbKA>
Opening times/ access:The State Rooms are open daily, except 24th-26th December. Last admission is 17:00 in the summer, and 16:00 in the winter.