Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page

Kensington Palace

S a building this rather Dutch-looking palace cannot be called picturesque, but its surroundings undoubtedly are so. The avenue of fine old trees leading to it, the park-like land round it, the great pond at the east end, and the walks round it and amongst the trees are very lovely in summer. The gardens themselves are rich in all kinds of rare and beautiful flowers, and about its walks run generally those human flowers, little children, while the great pond is adorned by fairy boats sent afloat by childish hands.

There are some very fine horse chestnut trees in Kensington Gardens, and in May nothing can exceed the beauty of them, adorned from the turf to their highest summit with tall spires of flowers of ivory, tinged at the edges with faintest pink. They almost equal those at Bushy Park.

The palace is connected with many events in our history; it has been the scene of the death of four of our kings, and the birthplace of the most beloved of our sovereigns.

The house that originally stood here with six acres of ground round it, was the property of Daniel Finch, the second Earl of Nottingham King William III. took a fancy to it, and purchased it from him; but on the following November it caught fire, and was nearly destroyed, the sovereign narrowly escaping being burnt in his bed.

It was rebuilt, and only the north wing remains of the old mansion. William held several councils here; and Queen Mary, who was very fond of the place, delighted in decorating it. Here she died, and William III. also breathed his last here. It became then the property of Queen Anne, for whom the banqueting hall in the garden was built. It was at Kensington that this poor queen ended her reign. She came there from Windsor to try and put an end to the perpetual quarrels between Harley and Bolingbroke by dismissing the former, her Prime Minister.

She had frequently declared that the perpetual contention of which her Cabinet Council was the scene would cause her death, and assuredly it did; for after her dismissal of Harley another Council was held, and with equally ill results. The partizans of the displaced Premier kept the invalid queen sitting at the Council table till two in the morning, whilst they raged against the Jacobite members of it - Lord Harcourt, the Dukes of Ormond, Buckingham, and Shrewsbury, and Sir William Wyndham - in the most furious manner. At length the queen, complaining of her head, sank into a deep swoon from exhaustion, and was carried to bed seriously ill; she wept all night, and never closed her eyes. How terrible the spirit of party is, that could thus change English gentlemen into mere ruffians!

Two more Councils followed, again interrupted by the illness of the queen. Another Council was fixed for the 29th of July. Miss Strickland has given so good an account of this royal sufferer's end that we extract a short passage from it as a picture of the queenly and womanly sorrow suffered in this palace:-

"The anticipation of another agitating and protracted scene of altercation between the unmannerly worldlings, who, although they styled themselves her servants, not only violated the respect due to their sovereign, but conducted themselves with the most cruel disregard of her feelings as a lady, and her weakness as an invalid, was of course most distressing to the poor sufferer... Worn out as she was with sickness of mind and body, Anne had not completed her fiftieth year when the hour appointed for the royal victim to meet these trusty lords of her Council drew near Mrs. Danvers, the oldest and probably the most attached lady of her household, entering the presence-chamber at Kensington Palace, saw, to her surprise, her Majesty standing before the clock, and gazing intently on it. Mrs. Danvers was alarmed and perplexed by the sight, as her Majesty was seldom able to move without assistance. She approached, and ascertained that it was indeed Queen Anne who stood there. Venturing to interrupt the ominous silence that prevailed in the vast room, only broken by the heavy ticking of the clock, she asked 'whether her Majesty saw anything unusual there in the clock ?' The queen answered not, yet turned her eyes on the questioner with so woeful and ghastly a regard that, as this person afterwards affirmed, she saw death in the look. Assistance was summoned by the cries of the terrified attendant, and the queen was conveyed to her bed, from whence she never rose again."

She could not bear the mere anticipation of that hateful Council.

We wonder if the old clock that received the agonized look of the unhappy queen is still in the palace. The closet of William III. contained some time ago his writing-table and escritoire, and the patchwork closet had its walls and chairs covered with tapestry worked by Queen Mary. A clock of Queen Anne's reign may have lasted, if it did not go, to the present day. Some of the State apartments in the palace are hung with tapestry, and several rooms have painted ceilings, and carvings by Gibbon.

George II. and Queen Caroline spent much of their time at Kensington Palace; and there is a singular story of a robber meeting the king one evening when he war. strolling alone in a part of the grounds at some distance from the palace. The footpad demanded his purse, with a pistol presented at him; and as George was unarmed' he prudently yielded his money. But when the robber demanded a valuable ring that he wore, which had long been in his family, the king remonstrated; and then, as the fellow persisted in his demand, asked him if he would restore it to him for a sum named. The robber at length agreed; he would bring back the ring at the same time the next evening, and let the king thus ransom it, if he would pledge his honour as a gentleman to come alone for it, and not to attempt in any way to take the footpad. George II. gave his word and kept it. He was the bravest of the brave, and did not fear to go alone the next night (though probably armed) to meet his dishonest but obliging subject. The robber was true to his appointment; restored the ring at the price named; and the sovereign, in accordance with his promise, let him depart.

The palace must have been very gay at that time, when Queen Caroline's court was kept in it. Miss Bellenden and the beautiful Miss Lepell were maids of honour to her and friends of Pope, who has drawn from their own account a rather disagreeable picture of their life in the palace. "To eat Westphalia ham in a morning," he writes, "to ride over hedges and ditches (with the king) on borrowed hacks, to come home in the heat of the day with a fever, and (what is worse a hundred times) with a red mark in the forehead from an uneasy hat" was their fate; and "as soon as they could dress, they were obliged to simper an hour and catch cold in the princess's apartment; from thence (as Shakespeare has it) 'to dinner with what appetite they may'; and after that till midnight, walk, work, or think, which they please." 1 And we learn from the Suffolk Corespondance, 2 they romped in the gardens at night to the scandal of the married ladies of the court.

But the days in which poor Queen Anne wet her pillow with her tears, and the maids of honour romped in the gardens, are happily long passed away; and a charming memory now hangs about Kensington Palace. For there, in 1819, was born the sweet little princess, who, because her natal month was May, was called by her family by the pretty name of "May flower." The widowed Duchess of Kent wisely resolved to reside in England after her child's birth, and remained at Kensington Palace, devoting herself to the care of the infant. The little Victoria dined at a small table placed by her mother's side as soon as she could sit alone, and her little bed was always beside her mother's. She was often led about Kensington Gardens on her little donkey, decorated with blue ribbon, by a soldier servant of the late Duke of Kent, named Stillman, whom he had placed in a small cottage near the palace; and she was sometimes seen walking between her mother and her half-sister, Princess Feodora (a little girl of nine), always nodding her fair head to those who bowed to her, and smiling sweetly. Very often, following a pretty German fashion, the Duchess of Kent and her daughters would breakfast in the open air under the trees, surrounded by the little Princess's pets - her dogs.

Here also began that idyllic love between the princess and her young cousin of Saxe-Cobourg; and here also the sleeping "May flower" awoke one morning to find herself the Queen of a mighty empire.

At five o'clock on a June morning in 1837, a carriage and four dashed up the great central avenue of Kensington Palace, where the sweetness of early morning breathed from flower and shrub, the birds twittered in the early sunshine, and the sun rose in glory on a new reign.

Miss Wynn, in the "Diary of a Lady of Quality," has told the story, and it has been many times repeated; but it so belongs to the old palace that we must again quote it:

"The Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Howley) and the Lord Chamberlain (the Marquis of Conyhgham) left Windsor for Kensington Palace, where Princess Victoria had been residing, to inform her of the king's death. It was two hours after mid. night when they started, and they did not reach Kensington till five o'clock in the morning. They knocked, they rang, they thumped for a considerable time before they could rouse the porter at the gate; they were again kept waiting in the courtyard; then turned into one of the lower rooms, where they seemed to be forgotten by everybody. They rang the bell, and desired that the attendant of the Princess Victoria might be sent to inform her Royal Highness that they requested an audience on business of importance. After another delay, and another ringing to inquire the cause, the attendant was summoned, who stated that the Princess was in such a sweet sleep that she could not venture to disturb her. Then they said, 'We are come on business of State to the Queen, even her sleep must give way to that.' It did, and to prove that she did not keep them waiting, in a few moments she came into the room in a loose, white nightgown and shawl; her nightcap thrown off, and her hair falling upon her shoulders, her feet in slippers, tears in her eyes, but perfectly collected and dignified."

At eleven o'clock that morning the Queen met her first Council at Kensington Palace.

"Never was anything like the first impression she produced, or the chorus of praise and admiration which is raised about her manner and behaviour," says Mr. Greville in his diary.

"Her extreme youth and inexperience, and the ignorance of the world concerning her, naturally excited intense curiosity to see how she would act on this trying occasion, and there was a considerable assemblage at the Palace, notwithstanding the short notice that was given. The first thing to be done was to teach her her lesson, which for this purpose Melbourne had himself to learn. I gave him the Council papers, and explained all that was to be done, and he went and explained all this to her. He asked her if she would enter the room accompanied by the great officers of State, but she said she would come in alone. When the Lords were assembled, the Lord President (Lord Lansdown) informed them of the king's death, and suggested, as they were so numerous, that a few should repair to the presence of the Queen and inform her of the event, and that their lordships were assembled in consequence; and accordingly the two royal Dukes" (Cumberland, now King of Hanover, and Sussex) "and the two Archbishops were deputed; the Chancellor and Melbourne went with them. The Queen received them in an adjoining room alone."

"Then the doors were thrown open, and the Queen entered, accompanied by her two uncles. She bowed to the lords, and took her seat, and then read her speech in a clear, distinct, and audible voice, without any appearance of fear or embarrassment."

"She was quite plainly dressed," adds Mr. Greville, "and in mourning. After she had read her speech and signed the oath for the security of the Church of Scotland, administered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Privy Counsellors were sworn; the two royal dukes first by themselves; and as these old men, her uncles, knelt before her, swearing allegiance and kissing her hand, I saw her blush up to the eyes, as if she felt the contrast between their civil and their natural relations; and this v as the only sign of emotion that she evinced. Her manner to them both was very graceful and engaging; she kissed them both, and rose from her chair and moved towards the Duke of Sussex, who was furthest from her, and too infirm to reach her. She seemed rather bewildered at the multitude of men who were sworn, and who came one after the other to kiss her hand; but she did not speak to anybody, nor did she make the slightest difference in her manner, or show any in her countenance to any individual of any rank, station, or party."

Thus ended the first Council of Queen Victoria in the old Palace of Kensington.

* * * * * *

1. Pope's "Letters."
2.Vol. i, p. 333.

Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page
Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004