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Kew Palace: Rebirth of a Royal Retreat

by Tori V. Martínez

Beautiful as the 17th century Dutch-gabled country house along the River Thames is, it could hardly be called palatial, particularly by royal standards, and yet it is one of London's most notable historic royal palaces. No small feat considering Kew Palace, which is set within the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, is flanked by Windsor Castle 18 miles to the west and Buckingham Palace eight miles to the east, not to mention Hampton Court Palace nine miles to the south.

Kew Palace

With such magnificent and prominent neighboring royal palaces, it's little wonder that Kew Palace earned its place in history by being exactly the opposite -- retiring, modest and comfortable. In other words, it was the perfect royal retreat. Most famously, it served as just that for the prodigious family of King George III and Queen Charlotte and their retinue of servants and courtiers. Infamously, it even served for a time as the sanitarium of the "Mad King" during one of his bouts of so-called insanity.

First opened to the public by Queen Victoria in 1899, the palace was closed from 1996 to 2006 while undergoing £6.6 million of careful restoration and conservation. The money and effort have transformed Kew Palace from "a gaudy 1960s interpretation of the Georgian era" into a historically accurate study of the daily life and everyday domesticities of the palace and the royals who lived within it.

From Rich to Royal

Kew PalaceToday, Kew Palace is the oldest remaining building in Kew's Royal Botanic Gardens, but it was once just one of several in the area that housed kings George II and III and their families. The area didn't start out royal, however, and the origins of Kew Palace go back to 1631 when a successful Flemish merchant named Samuel Fortrey began building his stately, three-gabled mansion originally known as the Dutch House.

By the early 18th century, Kew's proximity to the royal palace Richmond Lodge had attracted the overflow of the growing Georgian royal family. In 1728, Dutch House became a royal residence when King George II (r. 1727-1760) leased it for his three daughters. Just a few years later, in 1731, the King's son and heir, Frederick, Prince of Wales, leased Kew House (afterward known as the White House), another stately home just to the south of Kew Palace (a.k.a. Dutch House). In time, the proximity of Kew Palace to the White House made it perfect as the private school house and independent household of Frederick's two sons, the future George III (r. 1760-1820) and his younger brother.

After Frederick's premature death in 1751, his widow, Princess Augusta, continued to live in the White House, and is today credited with establishing the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Her two sons, meanwhile, continued to reside and be educated in Kew Palace. Despite a strict schedule, the future king apparently came to love the palace and its relative privacy. He reaffirmed that affinity after becoming King George III, when he purchased Kew Palace for his wife, Queen Charlotte.

As it turned out, it was a wise investment. As each of the couple's 15 children was born, the need to house them grew increasingly urgent and, once again, Kew Palace became an outlet for the royal overflow. Just as had been arranged for the King and his brother as children, the palace became a school house for two of his own sons, including the future King George IV (r. 1820-1830), in 1772.

Retreat from Reality

Kew PalaceAlthough George III had developed a love for Kew as a boy, it was nonetheless against his will that he went there in November 1788. His "insanity," most likely caused by the disease porphyria, had culminated that month at Windsor Castle in a number of frightening episodes. As a result, his doctors decided the best place for him was at Kew. There he could have relative privacy -- an absolute necessity considering his bizarre and unpredictable behavior. During this first confinement at Kew, which lasted until April 1789, the King stayed in the White House, while his family lived in Kew Palace. The situation was reversed in 1801 when the King was confined to Kew Palace and his family resided in the White House.

Despite all the unhappiness and negative associations, the royal residences at Kew managed to stay in the good graces of the royal family and were also used for happier purposes. Kew Palace in particular was frequently used as a summer residence by the King and his family between 1800 and 1810. Queen Charlotte and her four adult daughters seemed to especially enjoy spending time there in comfortable retreat.

The royal princesses were naturally very interested in keeping current with the latest trends and are known to have influenced the interior design and decoration of the palace, much of which is still evident after 200 years. The modern restoration of Kew Palace has been particularly careful to restore and recreate these elements. In some cases, wallpaper and paint have been carefully reproduced; in others, the only remaining fragments of the originals have been preserved unaltered. In particular, the second floor of the palace, which will be opened to the public for the first time, has remained virtually untouched since the early 19th century and is being left "with the archeology of its form exposed."

Decline and Rebirth

Around 1800, during a period of improved health, George III commissioned architect James Wyatt to build a grand new palace in Kew, located just to the east of Kew Palace. In 1802, the White House was demolished to make way for this new "Castellated Palace." With the White House gone and the grand new palace under construction, Kew Palace reached its peak of importance to the royal family. In 1818, two significant events occurred there to mark this zenith.

Kew Palace

First, in July, the double wedding of the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Kent was held in the Queen's Drawing Room in Kew Palace. As sons of the King and Queen, these two men were certainly important; but without suitable wives, they meant little to a monarchy that was in desperate need of an unbroken line of succession -- hence the critical importance of the hurried double wedding. Ultimately, the Duke of Clarence, the elder of the two royal princes, failed to produce an heir for the Crown, although he did eventually rule as King William IV (r. 1830-1837). His younger brother, the Duke of Kent, didn't live long enough to come to the throne in his own right, but he did manage to produce the future Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901).

But the Victorian Era was still a long way off when the second significant event of 1818 took place at Kew Palace -- Queen Charlotte's death on November 17. She had spent the last six months of her life at the royal retreat that held so many bittersweet memories for her. In a sense, the active life of Kew Palace also effectively stopped when Queen Charlotte died. The palace fell into disuse and although most of the furnishings were removed, it was otherwise left almost exactly as it was upon her death.

Although the King survived his wife, another attack of his disease had struck in 1810, leaving him unfit to rule and almost completely isolated in Windsor Castle while the future George IV ruled the country as Regent from 1811. Construction on the new Castellated Palace had largely ceased by 1806, leaving a shell that was eventually demolished in 1827. Only Kew Palace remained. Virtually abandoned, it was offered to the Dowager Duchess of Kent in 1833, just four years before her daughter ascended the throne as Queen Victoria. She refused on the grounds that the palace was "very inadequate in accommodation and almost destitute of furniture."

Kew PalaceBased on that comment, it's not difficult to imagine what kind of condition Kew Palace was in when it opened to the public in 1899, when very little -- if anything -- had ever been done to change it. Amazingly, it seems very little was even done to the palace in the 97 years it remained open to the public. Fortunately, Historic Royal Palaces has taken advantage of this remarkable snapshot of casual 18th and early 19th century royal living and restored it to its former self.

A primary objective of the restoration has been to present the palace as it was between around 1803 and 1805, when it was at the peak of its use by King George III and his family. Historic Royal Palaces has relied on accounts and inventories contemporary to that period to ensure an accurate and faithful restoration. In addition to authentic and recreated early 19th century interiors, visitors will also be able to enjoy some more unusual items related to the "Mad King," such as a wax life-cast created by Madam Tussaud, and a shirt and vest worn by him.

Kew Palace is scheduled to reopen to the public Easter 2006 and a summer festival planned for May 27 to September 24 will highlight the reopening. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew are open year round, except on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

More Information

Kew Palace at the Historic Royal Palaces web site

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Tori V. Martínez is a writer and freelance public relations professional who spends as much time as possible researching and writing on her favorite subject -- history. Several years ago, Tori eschewed the life of a full-time career woman to travel and live around the world, particularly in Britain, where she spent considerable time exploring and researching historic destinations. At the moment, she is living in the US with her husband -- a Spaniard she met in England -- and is happily writing for a variety of online and print publications. For more about Tori, visit http://www.globetrottingbroad.com.
Article © 2005 Tori V. Martínez
Photos © Historic Royal Palaces (http://www.newsteam.co.uk)


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