Edward VII famously called Kensington Palace ‘the aunt heap’ – because so many of his relatives were squirrelled away in its vast warren of grand apartments.
To qualify for this choice address, however, residents didn’t even need to be distantly related to the Royal Family.
Throughout the 20th century, untold numbers of blue-blooded courtiers – some quite ancient – clung onto their grace-and-favour apartments.
Ron Wilson [not his real name], who worked as a servant at the palace in the 1960s, was often baffled by the fact that so many of the inhabitants seemed entirely unknown to one another.
‘There were well-known residents such as Princess Alice, who was completely batty in the way only old aristocratic women can be,’ he recalled. ‘But there were also a number of other elderly people with wonderfully clipped accents around the place.
‘They’d always speak in a commanding voice, so no one thought to question whether they should even have been there. We used to joke that so long as they sounded right, and were self-assured enough, they could have just walked in off the street and no one would have said a word.
George I (depicted) made it clear that he much preferred his mistress, Melusine, with whom he was to have three daughters. It was different when his wife took a lover
‘Some were quite mad. I remember one old lady took me by the arm one evening and began talking to me about a dance she’d been to before the war. I thought she meant the Second War but quickly realised she meant World War I.
‘She even gossiped in a low voice about the sexual appetites of Edward VII. She’d lean in close and say: “The little bastard hardly had a bath in his life. Absolutely stank. And do you know, he only went with women who’d had their hands on every man in London.” I’d smile and listen. It was very awkward because – as a servant – I could have been sacked for talking to her; yet if I’d walked away brusquely, she could have had me sacked anyway.
‘I still have no idea who she was.’
Kensington Palace owes its existence to the fact that King William III suffered from asthma. Keen to get away from his damp and smoky palace at Whitehall, he paid around £20,000 in 1689 for a beautiful house, set in fields and meadows, then spent another £92,000 enlarging it.
Several hundred courtiers moved in with the king and queen, though many resented having to leave the centre of town.
No one bothered to keep track of who they all were. Indeed, if a complete stranger looked and sounded like a gentleman, he could easily be admitted to the monarch’s grander rooms.
And if he then happened to be noticed by the king or queen, either because of his looks or witty repartee, his future at court was secured. No one worried that a stranger might try to assassinate the king.
The penalty for any such attempt was so terrifying that it was assumed no one would ever dare. Just as the well-dressed and confident could bluff their way into the king’s presence, the friends of servants could bluff their way into the Kensington kitchens for free lunches or dinners.
Who was to know who they were, when not just the courtiers but also some of the senior servants had their own teams of servants?
All were paid a pittance because it was assumed they’d steal practically anything that wasn’t nailed down. Even at the coronation of a king, food, cutlery, glasses, bunting and even the tables on which the feast had been served would all be pilfered at the end of the day.
Edward VII famously called Kensington Palace (pictured) ‘the aunt heap’ – because so many of his relatives were squirrelled away in its vast warren of grand apartments
This kind of thing was always at its worst at the royal palaces. At St James’s Palace, for example, a royal servant – Mr Fortnum – became so skilled at stealing candle-ends and other small items that he was able to go into business with his landlord Mr Mason in 1707.
Just up the road from the palace, they set up a shop that made their fortunes. Despite its questionable origins, Fortnum & Mason is still considered an upmarket store. Back at Kensington Palace, poor old King William – viewed by most as a dour Calvinist who didn’t know how to have fun – had to sit through several balls a week, attended by up to 600 people at a time. Looking at the state rooms now, which aren’t that big, it’s easy to see why guests complained of the appalling crush.
Worse, people relieved themselves either in the corner of rooms or in buckets or commodes, often tucked away in cavities behind the fireplaces. This was considered appropriate conduct — but the sheer numbers gathered at Kensington meant the odours became overwhelming.
Eventually, signs had to be erected in key rooms, saying: ‘No p***ing’.
The next monarch to occupy Kensington Palace was Queen Anne, whose private passions were recently exhumed in the 2018 film, The Favourite. Whether she actually had a physical relationship with her close friend, Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, is open to question, but they certainly had an intense connection.
For years, they wrote loving letters to each other using pseudonyms; Sarah was Mrs Freeman and Anne was Mrs Morley. But Sarah – who’d been friends with Anne since childhood – allowed familiarity to breed contempt.
When the queen could no longer bear to be spoken to as if she were the village idiot, she dismissed her friend from court and never spoke to her again. Meanwhile, Anne had become popular with her subjects.
Shrewdly, she’d revived an old royal tradition that the fastidious King William had binned: touching the skin of people suffering from scrofula, a condition that caused the lymph nodes to swell. Despite no evidence that her touch had magical powers, thousands of grateful subjects came to Kensington Palace in the hope of being healed by their queen.
As for Anne, her greatest comfort in her final years seems to have been food – especially chocolate. When she died in 1714, she was so fat her coffin was almost square. Since Anne had died without an heir, the throne passed to her nearest Protestant relative.
Thus Britain found itself with the first in a series of rather small, bad-tempered Germans. When he arrived, George I already had a dark history. He’d married a fun-loving young woman called Sophia for her money, but their relationship quickly turned sour.
From the start, he’d made it clear that he much preferred his mistress, Melusine, with whom he was to have three daughters. It was different when his wife took a lover. Rather like the Mafia, George’s family arranged for Count Philip von Konigsmark to disappear.
According to historians, he was either thrown into a river, or chopped into pieces and buried beneath the floorboards of George’s castle in Hanover. As for Sophia, she was locked in a castle for the next 30 years, and permitted to see no one, not even her children.
So the new king came to Kensington without his consort. Not that he wanted to be there at all: he never learned to speak English fluently and returned to Hanover for long breaks as often as he could.
Did he sense that some of his courtiers despised him? Certainly, George had none of the qualities they admired: he was neither witty nor a good conversationalist or particularly polite. Many mocked him for having both an extremely fat mistress and an extremely thin one.
Melusine Schulenburg, the thin one, was known as the Giraffe or the Maypole ; and Charlotte Kielmansegg, the fat one, was known as the Elephant.
They were also known as the Elephant and Castle. Why castle? Largely, it seems, because Schulenburg (the castle) had three children by George – which led to deliciously ribald comments about the king being ‘in his castle’.
Charlotte – the elephant – was in fact George’s half-sister, so it seems unlikely his relationship with her was sexual. But both she and Melusine were given rooms close to the king’s at Kensington, and treated like queens.
Apart from hunting and servicing his mistresses, George’s other abiding interest lay in spiting his son, also called George. He loathed him, and the feeling was mutual. No one knows precisely why. It seems a fair guess, though, that the Prince of Wales never forgave his father for banishing his mother to a lonely castle.
Sensibly, the young prince set up an alternative court at Leicester Square, which was soon attracting the great and the good. Partly to annoy his son, George I then had a magnificent new staircase constructed at Kensington, bought sparkling new fittings for the grand reception rooms and started throwing lavish parties.
Sometimes, however, father and son were forced to meet – such as when the younger George decided on a bride. When the king was introduced to his future daughter-in-law, Princess Caroline of Ansbach, he nodded, bowed and then lifted her skirts and looked underneath – a gesture hardly calculated to endear himself to the young couple.
Later, after the Prince of Wales and his wife had produced a family of three daughters and two sons, the king simply swooped one day and removed them – apart from the elder, who was being educated in Hanover.
Queen Anne’s private passions were recently exhumed in the 2018 film, The Favourite (pictured, Olivia Colman playing Queen Anne in the film)
The younger boy died soon after arriving at Kensington Palace; and for the rest of their childhood, the girls were only occasionally allowed to see their parents.
That aside, they had a pleasant upbringing. They soon had their own courtiers and were even taught how to play the harpsichord by Handel, a frequent visitor to Kensington Palace. As for the king, his actions became ever more idiosyncratic.
With the palace bursting at the seams – it now accommodated 1,000 people – he took to using the servants’ staircases and corridors to avoid his courtiers. And every evening, he’d sit with his mistress Melusine and their three illegitimate daughters for precisely three hours.
He died, probably of a stroke, in 1727 in his beloved Germany. Few people who attended the court at Kensington had a good word to say about George II.
Used to getting his way with everyone except his father, he was prone to explosive tantrums – he frequently tore off his wig and kicked it around the room. He was also so self-important that he couldn’t take a joke.
One evening, one of his daughters pulled away a lady’s chair as she sat down to play cards. She fell on the floor and the king roared with laughter. Two days later, the lady got her revenge by playing the same trick on the king – who was so furious he banished her from court.
The new king was pleased to have access to his three daughters again. But – shades of his father – he developed a strong aversion to his son and heir.
Part of the problem was that, after Frederick’s birth in Hanover, he’d simply left him there. They didn’t meet again until the boy came to England at 21. As far as his father was concerned, Frederick couldn’t do anything right.
And the prince, who married at 29, retaliated. For weeks, Frederick and his wife Augusta infuriated Queen Caro line by, for example, deliberately arriving late at the chapel at Kensington. To get to their seats, they had to squeeze past her, which meant the queen had to get up.
This continued until Caroline could stand it no longer: she told her son and his wife that they would have to use an alternative entrance. Frederick viewed this as a dreadful slight and refused ever to attend chapel again.
Fearful that the Prince of Wales would set up an alternative court – as he had done – George II continued to allow Frederick to attend the court at Kensington. But to the courtiers’ mirth, the two men ignored each other.
Then, in 1736, Frederick did something for which the king never forgave him. Augusta had gone into labour at the king’s palace at Hampton Court.
Without his father’s permission, Frederick dragged his wife out of bed, called for a carriage and drove through the night so the baby would be born at St James’s, well away from his hated parents who would have insisted on being present at the birth.
When the king and queen found out, they raced across London to catch up with them both. Not only were they furious that the couple had left without permission, but they suspected they’d run off to give themselves time to find a healthy male baby.
They calmed down only when they discovered she’d given birth to a girl. Nevertheless, the king remained incandescent that Frederick and Augusta had left one of his homes without his permission.
He immediately wrote to his ministers, courtiers and other members of his family to warn them that if anyone had anything to do with his son and daughter-in-law, they’d no longer be allowed into the presence of the king.
What riled him most was that his heir would one day sit on the throne. So when Frederick died in 1751 – from a lung abcess – George II couldn’t hide his delight. He died aged 76 in his lavatory at Kensington from a ruptured aortic aneurism.
A servant heard a sigh – ‘which was not the usual royal wind’, according to the king’s doctor – and found him on the floor. The crown duly passed to Frederick’s 22-year-old son, who became George III.
Perhaps because his memories of Kensington were not entirely happy, he had Buckingham House in Westminster turned into a palace. Kensington Palace was left cobwebbed, abandoned and unloved, with only a few old retainers kept in situ to keep an eye on things.
Its magnificent state rooms grew damp and eventually became a store for coal, broken furniture and abandoned pictures. But there were still enough habitable apartments for what now became a seemingly endless stream of uncles, distant cousins, retired courtiers and down-atheel aristocrats.
One of these was George III’s daughter Elizabeth, who was married at 48 to Frederick, Landgrave of Hesse-Homburg – a massively obese German widower known as Humbug.
He stank so much, it was said, that he had to be forced to wash immediately before the wedding – and as he and his bride drove away in their coach afterwards, he threw up all over her. Another resident was Queen Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, who racked up appalling debts.
After his death, when Victoria was aged just one, all his furniture and possessions at Kensington were removed by creditors. His widow borrowed enough money to buy everything back – so the whole lot had to be carted back to the palace a few weeks later. Victoria herself lived there until she became queen at 18.
Henceforth, she used Kensington as a repository for her own courtiers and relatives – among them her favourite uncle, Augustus, Duke of Sussex.
Endearingly eccentric, he was addicted in his later years to eating little more than ice cream and turtle soup, and spent nearly all his money collecting old Bibles and other books. At night, unable to sleep because of his asthma, he wandered through the corridors and gardens wearing a large black skull cap and long gown.
He refused to remove this cap on the grounds that when he did so once – for a group portrait on his niece Victoria’s accession – he’d fallen ill with a severe cold. For the last decade of the duke’s life, all of his many rooms at Kensington – including his six libraries – had to have their interconnecting doors left permanently open so his collection of songbirds could be released from cages to fly as they pleased.
And each day, one of his servants spent nearly all his time winding and adjusting Augustus’s vast collection of clocks.
The result was that on the hour (and in many cases, the half hour and quarter hour) his apartment was filled with bells and gongs, musical tunes, national anthems and martial airs. By the time he died in 1843, the duke had collected more than 5,000 Bibles – in which his interest was probably more academic than spiritual.
A man who bought one of his prayer books was startled to find a note in Augustus’s hand-writing, saying: ‘I don’t believe a word of it.’
By the mid-nineteenth century, an old mansion on the opposite side of Kensington High Street from the palace had been converted into a lunatic asylum. The joke among Londoners was that there was no way to tell, as you passed down the street, whether the asylum was on the left or the right.
In truth, some of the palace residents seemed to live in another world. Queen Victoria’s daughter Louise, for example, would compose lengthy prayers and post them to various members of the government.
As she lay dying in her bedroom at Kensington – at 91 – she donned her old wedding veil. Victoria’s youngest daughter, Beatrice, lived at the palace from 1896 until her death in 1944.
She never quite recovered from the shock of Britain twice going to war with Germany. A servant recalled her mumbling to herself: ‘Absurd. Poor Germany. They are our friends, indeed our family. Ridiculous.’
Moments later, she’d say: ‘Carriages are really so much more civilised [than cars].’
Another relic of times past was Princess Alice, who became the last surviving grandchild of Victoria. She lived to be 97 and died at Kensington in 1981.
She was often seen wandering alone around the shops in Kensington High Street.
Apparently, she’d been astonished to discover that you had to pay if you wanted to take anything away with you.
Extracted from Kensington Palace: An Intimate Memoir From Queen Mary To Meghan Markle by Tom Quinn, published by Biteback on May 14 at £20. © Tom Quinn 2020. To order a copy for £15, visit bitebackpublishing.com.