Before the iconic walls of Buckingham Palace were coronated with the majesty of Monarchy, a Jacobean mansion, built by Sir George Coppin in 1605 in the village of Kensington, was to be transformed into a palace which would be the first to take that prestigious title.
Nottingham House was purchased by King William and Queen Mary in the summer of 1689 who instructed Sir Christopher Wren to immediately begin an expansion on the house. Adding a three-storey pavilion, he ensured the King and Queen had their own apartments of which to conduct official duties. And as the architecture and layout of the house began to evolve, so did the Nottingham name. With the residence of the royal court shortly before Christmas that same year, Nottingham House became known as Kensington Palace.
For many who stroll the vast expanse of Kensington Park, the palace is a staple of the Monarchy’s past, present and future. It’s everlasting foundations have been a pillar stabilising the groundwork of a British institution which continues today.
But the future wasn’t always so bright for Kensington Palace. By the end of the 19th century, the State Rooms were severely neglected with decaying brickwork, woodwork infested with dry rot and the overall appearance of the once majestic centre of royal life, dimmed. It led to calls for the palace to be demolished, with officials declaring Kensington Palace was no longer fit for purpose. But the defiant Queen Victoria, who was born within the walls of the royal abode, announced that “while I lived, the palace in which I was born should not be destroyed”.
In 1887, the Parliament of the day would be persuaded to fund the restoration of the State Rooms, leading to their completion two years later. To celebrate the finished work, on the Queen’s birthday in 1899, they were opened to the British public, thus beginning the dual identity as a working palace and public museum.
If one thing is apparent about Kensington Palace, it is the fingerprints of Queen Victoria exist through every room. Her dynamic and pragmatic aura embellish the design, practicality and royal atmosphere of the palace. And this year Historic Royal Palaces – who run the exhibitions and maintenance of the royal home – showcased three phenomenal exhibits celebrating Victoria’s 200th birthday.
‘Victoria: A Royal Childhood’, ‘Victoria: Woman and Crown’ and ‘The Jewel Room’ perfectly demonstrate the uniqueness of the Queen’s reign, life and royal glamour. Displaying her petticoat, diaries and iconic mourning-black dress – of which she wore as a public symbol of her overwhelming grief at the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert – the exhibition perfectly encapsulates the indelible touch Victoria maintained across, not only her Kingdom, but Empire.
But what made Victoria one of our country’s most significant Royal icons? Kensington Palace have the answer with their ‘Victoria: A Royal Childhood’ exhibition. The vibrant rooms where the young Queen was born embody her extraordinary story of teenage survival, set against the backdrop of family feuds and tragedy. They timeline her fight against a male-dominated world to secure her right to the Throne, and reveal her success at establishing herself as a woman and Monarch not to be messed with.
Also on show are the items which makes the royals the envy of the world – their jewels – and Queen Victoria had an impressive collection. Within ‘The Jewel Room’ are three tiaras which embody the grandeur, majesty and opulence of royal fashion.
Queen Victoria’s Emerald Tiara, earrings, necklace and brooch were gifted to her by her husband Prince Albert, who also designed the pieces. She wrote of his ‘wonderful taste, and her joy that she could wear such a “lovely Diadem of diamonds and emeralds designed by my beloved Albert”. The Fife Tiara and dual-purpose Kokoshnik Tiara, which can be worn as either a tiara or necklace, were both owned by Princess Louise and are also on display for guests to be dazzled by.
For many current royal fans, Kensington Palace will hold a different significance than that of the life of Queen Victoria. For some, the “Queen of People’s Hearts” or “the People’s Princess” will be synonymous with those iconic iron gates. Diana, Princess of Wales called Kensington Palace home up until her untimely death in 1997, and the palace has become an unofficial shrine to the late Princess for over 22 years.
Recently closed, an exhibition showcased her enviable fashion collection. ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’ brought together some of the iconic and celebrated dresses Diana owned and highlighted her undimming status as a global fashion icon.
But beyond the tragedy of 1997, Kensington Palace has become a modern working royal residence. Now the home of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their three children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis, the palace has continued the story of the Royal Family into a new chapter.
The Cambridge’s reside in apartment 1A and spend most of the year behind the security of the palace walls. But with their headquarters being based at Kensington, it reminds us all of the importance this palace exudes. It is much more than a museum or an historical emblem of the past. It is helping construct the Monarchy of the future, similarly in the same vein of Queen Victoria before her accession to the Throne.
Kensington Palace is a place where the past and present coexist, actively working together to manifest the future. Within these walls live two future Kings and a future Queen-Consort, and with this has beckoned a new era of royal offices and Kensington Palace is at the forefront.
With their own Instagram page, offices and household, the words Kensington Palace has developed as much significance as its grander sibling, Buckingham Palace. Its constant evolution as a mansion, to a palace, to the birthplace of one of the world’s most important monarchs, to the home of the most famous woman of our age and now the apartments belonging to The Royal Family’s future; has cemented Kensington Palace with an accomplishment befitting its stature – continuity.
Buckingham Palace may now have taken the role of the Monarchy’s home and with it become the monarchy’s stability, but Kensington nurtures its future. It is here through the numerous royal gallery’s, rooms, corridors, staircases and apartments that the modern monarchy is building.
Kensington Palace is the key to this new dawning age of monarchy. Set against such vibrant history and transformation, the palace has beckoned in King and Queens for centuries. It has witnessed scandal, grief, renewal, celebration and has more than once pulled back from the brink. Nottingham Cottage was how Kensington Palace began, but throughout the years it has triumphantly refused to begin to even consider its end.
Thanks to Historic Royal Palaces and all their wonderful staff for their help!