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Kensington Palace, London: An Introduction

A Brief History

Kensington Palace gates copyright Historic Royal Palaces Kensington palace, called Nottingham house at the time, was built in 1605 by Sir George Coppin. At the time it sat in farmland, but London soon grew to encompass it, and busy Kensington High street is now just a block away. William and Mary bought the house in 1689 for £20,000, thinking its fresh air would help his asthma. (Both were to die here.) He hired Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor to enlarge the house in an informal, "homey" style. The palace is modest looking from the outside, and the inside is more like a stately home than a grand palace.

Queen Anne added more rooms to the palace as well as having the orangery built for her plants. George I hired William Kent to further extend the building and replace the original apartments.

Mary II died at the palace of smallpox, while William III died here after a fall from a horse. Queen Anne and her husband the prince both died here. George II was the last reigning monarch to actually live at Kensington palace, and he, too, ended his days here. The state apartments fell into sad disarray and were not restored until Queen Victoria took them in hand.

What to See and Do

First, tour the palace building. Queen Mary’s gallery, with panelled walls, is hung with royal portraits. Other private apartments are decorated simply with 17th century furniture and pictures. In Queen Mary’s bedchamber is the state bed with original hangings.

Kensington Palace Kings Gallery copyright Historic Royal Palaces The privy chamber, presence chamber, King’s grand staircase (its walls decorated with a trompe-l-oeil painting), the King’s drawing room, the council chamber, Queen Victoria’s bedroom, and the King’s gallery make up the state apartments. The king’s gallery is hung with art from the royal collection. Over the fireplace is a dial showing the current wind direction, turned by a weathervane on the roof. The most impressive of the state rooms is the cupola room. In it are figures of Roman and Greek gods and busts of Roman emperors.

These Italianate rooms have ceiling paintings by William Kent.
Queen Victoria was born in the palace in 1819 and, on her 70th birthday in 1889, opened it to the public. Its apartments have served as an exclusive home to Princess Margaret, Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, the late Princess Diana (her apartments were in the north-west section), and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

Kensington Palace Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection copyright Historic Royal Palaces Next, visit the royal ceremonial dress collection. In the collection are court dresses worn by courtiers and royalty from the 16th century to the present. Included are several dresses worn by Queen Elizabeth II and a collection of royal wedding dresses, from 1840 to 1947. Like the crown jewels at the Tower of London, the collection shows the immense wealth of the aristocracy. It’s a reminder of a lost world of how people used to dress.

Kensington Palace Diana Dress Collection copyright Historic Royal Palaces Also on exhibition are 14 of the late Princess Diana’s dresses. Highlights of the collection include a lavishly embroidered pink silk dress with matching bolero jacket worn by the princess to a state banquet in India in 1992 and an ink blue silk velvet dress, worn for a dinner at the White House in 1985 when the princess danced with John Travolta.

Walk around the gardens and head for the orangery. The gardens once occupied 10 hectares around the palace itself. William and Mary put much money and care into their improvement, and this work was continued by Queen Anne. Over the years the gardens shrunk in size, and now all that remains is a sunken garden, completed in 1909, an alley of pleached lime trees, and flower beds around a central lily pond.

Kensington Palace Orangery Tea copyright Historic Royal Palaces At the Orangery, built in 1704 of red brick, lunches, teas and desserts are offered in a conservatory setting. Queen Anne used to take tea here. The food and ambience are excellent.

Prince Albert Memorial Kensington Park by Barbara Ballard When you have taken in the palace, and finished lunch or tea, then go for a walk in Kensington Gardens (really a park and not Kensington palace gardens), open to the public free of charge and extensive in size. Here is the Long Water/Serpentine Lake, on the other side of which is Hyde Park. Both parks are really one expanse of trees and greenery and cover 248 hectares of ground. In the summer you can hire boats on the Serpentine. Don’t miss the restored grand memorial to Prince Albert. Directly across from it is the Royal Albert hall.

At various times of the year, special performances and exhibits take place at Kensington Palace, among them music festivals, flower shows, military expositions, and more.

Visitor Information

Nearest Underground: High Street Kensington.
Open: March-end Oct, 10am-5pm daily; Nov-end Feb, 10am-4pm daily
To book advanced tickets: 0870 751 5180
Official Website: Historic Royal Palaces

Audio tours and entry to the Kensington palace state apartments are included in the admission price.

Insider tip: Weather permitting, Kensington Gardens are great for picnics and soaking up the sun while watching the passing parade.
A convenient accommodation for the area is Kensington Court Apartments, just off the high street and a few hundred yards from the gardens and palace. The Victoria and Albert museum, science museum, and natural history museum are within walking distance. Leighton House and Linley Sambourne House are a stone’s throw from the palace.

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