Tudors to Windsors (Part Two, Georgians to Windsors)

Continued from Tudors to Windsors (Part One, Tudors to Stuarts)

To recap: The British Royal Family has been a source of interest for hundreds of years, both for people living in Britain and those abroad. Until the advent of television, most people never saw the reigning monarch except in paintings. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has partnered with the National Portrait Gallery to create a timeline of royal portraits from the Tudors until today. The exhibition, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, features over 150 portraits of kings, queens, consorts and children, spanning 500 years and five royal dynasties: Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian and Windsor.

George I (reigned 1714-27)

According to the 1701 Act of Settlement, only a Protestant could succeed to the British throne. All of Queen Anne’s children predeceased her, leaving no heir. Since Anne’s nearest relatives were Catholic, Parliament traced the family tree back to James I, then invited the former king’s great-grandson to take the throne. George of Hanover (1660-1727) accepted the crown, although he did not speak much English.

George I was the first king of a new dynasty, and not many people knew what he looked like. It was necessary to produce several portraits to prepare for new coins to make him more recognisable as the country’s monarch. Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), the Principal Painter to the Crown, produced a portrait of George I for the Royal Mint. It shows the king in profile wearing gold-edged armour draped in silk. Although George wore royal regalia in his coronation portrait to emphasise his power and status, Kneller presented him in military garb, indicating his determination to defend both his position and his faith.

George II (reigned 1727-60)

The public never quite warmed to George I, which was not helped by his frequent disappearances to the continent. Relations started to improve during the reign of George II (1683-1760), the son of the previous king. His coronation portrait was commissioned by the Corporation of London and painted in the studio of Charles Jervas (1675-1739), an Irish painter. The king’s power and majesty are evident in his clothing and the table with crown, orb and sceptre. Through the window, Westminster Abbey is visible, which is where George’s coronation service took place.

Like his father, George II spent months at a time abroad, but this was often due to warfare. He was the last British king to lead his troops into battle, where he defeated the French at Dettingham in 1743 during the War of the Austrian Succession. Two years later, a grandson of James II (1633-1701), nicknamed Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720-88), led an uprising in an attempt to reestablish the Catholic Stuart monarchy. George and his troops eventually defeated the rebels at the Battle of Culloden in Scotland.

Despite the wars, Britain prospered during the reign of George II. The country experienced rapid financial growth and political stability. This helped to increase the king’s popularity, resulting in the national anthem God Save the King. The author and composer of the anthem are widely debated, and the first line differed slightly from the standard version sung today.

God save great George our king,
Long live our noble king,
God save the king.
Send him victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the king!

George III (reigned 1760-1820)

Following George II’s death, the Hanoverian line skipped a generation and welcomed the late king’s grandson to the throne. George II’s son, Frederick (1707-51), predeceased his father, so the crown passed down to the next in line, George III (1738-1820). Unlike his great-grandfather and grandfather, George III was born in England. He publicly celebrated his identity as the first British-born Georgian king, declaring that he “gloried in the name of Briton”.

One year into his reign, George met and married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818). George had never seen Charlotte before their wedding day, and she only spoke German, whereas George only knew English. Despite this, they formed a strong bond and had fifteen children. To celebrate their union, the Scottish artist Allan Ramsay (1713-84) produced a pair of State portraits, in which the sitters wear gold and ermine costumes, the same clothing worn at George III’s coronation. At 23 years old, George appears young, graceful and dignified, but by the end of his reign, the king became unrecognisable from the portrait.

George reigned for 60 years, during which time Britain lost the American colonies. George prefered to live like the “middling sort”, i.e. wealthy merchants and entrepreneurs. Although he did not associate with the lower classes, George received the nickname “Farmer George”, which his children rebelled against by embracing their royal status. George’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales (later George IV), for example, was known for his lack of self-restraint and often got himself into debt. The prince caused many problems for his father, which on top of the pressures that came with being king, proved too much for George III. The king’s final decade was plagued with mental illness and in 1811, the Prince of Wales was installed as Prince Regent.

George IV (reigned 1820-30)

As the Prince of Wales, George IV (1762-1830) caused a lot of trouble for parliament and the royal family. He was a womaniser and had many lovers, including Maria Fitzherbert (1756-1837). Mrs Fitzherbert was a Catholic widow, who George married in secret in 1785. The marriage was illegal because all heirs to the throne were forbidden from marrying outside of the Protestant faith. It was thus considered void, which soured the prince’s relationship with parliament.

A miniature painting of the Prince of Wales by Richard Cosway (1742-1821) is thought to be a love token for Maria Fitzherbert or another of George’s lovers. George wears a powdered wig and a masquerade costume, which reflects his love of partying. The painting is mounted in a gold locket measuring 2 3/4 in. x 2 1/4 in. (70 mm x 57 mm).

Before becoming king, George was persuaded to marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821). This was a financial arrangement to help settle some of the prince’s debts, which he had accrued by purchasing an enormous collection of artwork. He did not love Caroline and abandoned her shortly after the birth of their daughter, Charlotte (1796-1813). The public was horrified with George’s poor treatment of his wife and placed their hopes on Charlotte coming to the throne. Sadly, Charlotte died in childbirth in 1817, leaving George IV without an heir.

William IV (reigned 1830-37)

By the end of his reign, George IV was obese and suffering from many health problems. Without an heir, Parliament looked towards George’s younger brother, William (1765-1837), as the next in line to the throne. William had spent most of his life as a naval officer, as he is depicted in a portrait by Sir Martin Archer Shee (1769-1850). He is depicted wearing the full-dress uniform of an admiral and was known for speaking like a sailor, rather than a member of the royal family.

With all eyes on him, William had to change his way of life, which involved ending his 21-year affair with the actress Dorothy Jordan, with whom he had ten illegitimate children. William was forced to marry Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen (1792-1849), after whom the capital of South Australia is named. William was not pleased about the match, writing to his eldest illegitimate son, “She is doomed, poor dear innocent young creature, to be my wife.”

In 1830, William IV became king following the death of his brother. One of William’s first roles as king was signing the Great Reform Act in 1832. The Act disenfranchised many British people and altered the method of selecting borough representatives. It largely benefitted Whig politicians and their supporters and emphasised that women were to play no part in politics. As a result, William had many enemies, and when the Houses of Parliament burnt down in 1834, Queen Adelaide believed it was divine punishment for passing the Great Reform Act.

Despite several pregnancies, Adelaide did not give birth to any living children. Once again, Britain had a monarch with no heir. William’s younger brother, Edward (1767-1820), had passed away, leaving Edward’s daughter as the next in line to the throne. On the 20th June 1837, William IV passed away, and his 18-year-old niece Alexandrina Victoria became queen.

Victoria (reigned 1837-1901)

Although born Alexandrina Victoria, the new queen chose to reign under the name Queen Victoria (1819-1901). English painter George Hayter (1792-1871) captured the queen’s youth in her coronation portrait, but also made her look the part of a powerful ruler. Victoria had the right to reign alone, and her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-61), was not allowed to take the title of king. Traditionally, a king is more powerful than a queen, so no one could hold the position of a king while Victoria was on the throne. Yet, conventional gender roles at the time made life as a sovereign difficult for Victoria. Parliament rarely let the queen give her opinion on matters, and Prince Albert made many decisions behind closed doors.

Major changes occurred during Victoria’s reign, particularly developments in science and technology. New technologies invented during the Industrial Revolution of 1760 to 1820 increased the number of discoveries during the following century. Famous names, such as Charles Darwin, Charles Babbage and Charles Dickens, were on everyone’s tongues, inspiring others to join the scientists, mathematicians, authors, geologists, astronomers and philosophers in changing the world.

The British Empire expanded to encompass Canada, Australia, India and West Africa. The results of colonisation and enforced religion are still felt today, although most countries have declared independence from British Rule. Several wars took place in the 19th century, most notably the Crimean War (1853-56), which paved the way for modern nursing with the help of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) and Mary Seacole (1805-81). Whilst the government gradually reduced the effects of the Great Reform Act, women were excluded from voting in parliamentary elections and other roles that were deemed masculine. Even Queen Victoria, who experienced the harshness of sexism, opposed women’s suffrage, describing it as a “wicked folly”.

A crucial development during Victoria’s reign was the advent of photography. This invention dramatically changed the way the public viewed the royal family. Previously, many people never physically saw the king or queen; they were only familiar with the monarchs’ painted portraits, which were not always accurate representations. Photography made it easier to distribute Victoria’s image across the country and capture moments far quicker than a painter. Initially, photographs were staged due to the complexities of the camera, but as technology improved, it became easier for members of the public to capture the queen on film. Soon, the royal family had no control over when or by whom photographs were taken.

When Prince Albert passed away in 1861, the devastated queen chose to permanently wear black. Nevertheless, she continued her duties as queen, reigning for a total of 64 years. As the queen aged, her health deteriorated. By the age of 80, Victoria suffered from rheumatism in her legs and cataracts. During the autumn and winter of 1900, she felt increasingly unwell and passed away on 22nd January 1901. Her eldest son Albert, who was present at her death, succeeded her as King Edward VII.

Edward VII (reigned 1901-10)

Sir Luke Fildes’s (1843-1927) state portrait of Edward VII (1841-1910) is more reminiscent of the Georgian era with the white ermine than Queen Victoria’s coronation portrait. Several copies of the painting were made for embassies across the world, and a team of artists were hired to produce them. Although Fildes painted the original, it is not certain whose hand produced the version belonging to the National Portrait Gallery.

Photography made the need for state portraits redundant, so there are very few paintings of Edward VII in comparison to his predecessors. Edward also had no interest in the arts, preferring sport. Edward had hoped for a military career and was awarded the rank of colonel on his 17th birthday. Queen Victoria discouraged his future with the British Army, preferring Edward to focus on his role as the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne.

As king, Edward VII reorganised the British Army, which finished fighting the Second Boer War in 1902. He was known as the “Peacemaker” for his attempts to better Britain’s relations with other European countries, most notably France. New technologies, such as the telegraph and telephone, made it easier to communicate with people around the country and abroad. It was also easier to travel from place to place in steam trains and motorcars. Unfortunately, Edward’s reign was short, and he passed away in 1910, aged 68.

George V (reigned 1910-36)

Until 1892, the future George V (1865-1936) had no notion of becoming king. Whilst his father was heir to the throne, George had an older brother, Albert (1864-92), who was second in line. Unfortunately, Albert died from pneumonia shortly before his 28th birthday. The following year, George married his deceased brother’s fiancee, Mary of Teck (1867-1935), with whom he went on to have six children.

In 1913, Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) painted a family portrait of the king with his wife and two of their children, the future Edward VIII (1894-1972) and Mary, Princess Royal (1897-1965). It was commissioned by the English printer Hugh Spottiswoode (1864-1915), but the royal family wanted to be involved with the painting’s development. As well as posing for the artist in the White Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace, the king and queen regularly visited the artist’s studio to keep an eye on his progress. On one occasion, they insisted on putting the finishing touches of royal blue paint to a Garter ribbon. The completed painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1913, where it was labelled a work of “romantic impressionism”.

Shortly after the completion of the painting, World War I broke out in Europe. George V and his family felt it was their duty to participate in the war effort. The king made at least 450 trips to visit British troops, as well as 300 visits to military hospitals. He also turned up at shipyards and munitions factories to thank the workers. Aware that the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sounded German, George V announced in 1917 that all descendants of Queen Victoria would bear the name Windsor. He wished to make it clear that the royal family did not affiliate with the enemy. Windsor is a castle with a long association with the monarchy, which is one of the reasons for the choice of name.

Edward VIII (reigned 1936)

As Prince of Wales, Edward was forbidden from fighting in the First World War, despite being part of the Grenadier Guards. Instead, he visited troops with his father and was admired for his charming personality and good looks. Frank Salisbury (1874-1962), “Britain’s Painter Laureate”, painted Edward in uniform during a visit to the Western Front in 1917.

When George V died in 1936, Edward became king, but he reigned for less than a year. Edward VIII had a difficult decision to make. He wished to marry Wallis Simpson (1896-1986), a twice-divorced American socialite, but the Church of England did not allow divorcees to marry at the time. As king, Edward was also the head of the church, so could not go against its rules. After causing a constitutional crisis, Edward realised he could not marry Wallis and remain on the throne, so he chose to abdicate. Edward and Wallis married the following year and moved to mainland Europe. Although granted the titles Duke and Duchess of Windsor, they had little contact with the royal family.

George VI (reigned 1936-52)

George VI’s (1895-1952) favourite portrait was painted by British painter Meredith Frampton (1894-1984) in 1929, when the future king was still Prince Albert, Duke of York. Wearing the full uniform of a Royal Navy Captain, the photorealistic portrait commemorated Albert’s presidency of Dr Barnardo’s Homes, a charity set up to care for vulnerable children. The prince had no idea he would one day be king. He had grown up in his brother’s shadow, suffering from a stammer, which made his duties as Duke of York difficult.

Unlike his brother, Albert served in the navy and airforce during the First World War. Usually, the heir to the throne cannot participate in warfare, but no one imagined Albert one day becoming king. Albert was thrust into the limelight in 1936, when he reluctantly replaced his brother on the throne, assuming the regnal name George VI. It has since come to light that the late George V wished Albert was his heir rather than Edward, who he thought would “ruin himself in twelve months”.

Not long after becoming king, Britain was at war again. George VI, his wife, Queen Elizabeth (1900-2002), and daughters, Princesses Elizabeth (b.1926) and Margaret (1930-2002), visited sites affected by the Blitz, which the public appreciated. After the war, George oversaw the dismantling of the British Empire and the establishment of the Commonwealth. Whereas the Empire controlled other countries by force, the Commonwealth is a voluntary association of independent states.

The stress of war combined with heavy smoking paid a toll on the king’s life. During the late 1940s, he developed lung cancer and suffered from various problems with his arteries. In 1951, his left lung was removed, which severely limited his everyday activities. His eldest daughter, Elizabeth, took on many of George VI’s roles, including touring. Six days after waving the princess off at London Airport (now Heathrow), George VI passed away from a coronary thrombosis on 6th February 1952, aged 56.

Elizabeth II (reigning since 1952)

When Elizabeth was born in 1926, her parents never imagined she would one day be queen. Unlike her father, who had the throne thrust upon him, Elizabeth had 16 years to prepare for her succession to the throne. At the time of George VI’s death, Elizabeth was in Kenya with her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921-2021). She immediately returned to Britain and picked up her duties.

Hundreds of photographs exist of Elizabeth II, far more than any British monarch. Due to the efficiency of the camera, there are far fewer paintings. Over the past two centuries, new art styles have emerged, and there are no painted portraits resembling the Queen’s ancestors in the 19th century. Yet, throughout the queen’s reign, artists have been commissioned to paint her likeness in their preferred style. Artists include Andy Warhol (1928-87), Lucian Freud (1922-2011) and Pietro Annigoni (1910-88).

Italian artist Pietro Annigoni first painted Elizabeth II two years after her coronation. In 1969, he was invited back by the National Portrait Gallery to produce another portrait. Rather than depict the queen in a royal setting, Annigoni chose a neutral background, emphasising the queen’s red clothing. He explained his decision saying, “I did not want to paint her as a film star; I saw her as a monarch, alone in the problems of her responsibility”.

Annigoni’s portrait symbolises Elizabeth II’s lengthy reign as a female monarch during an era more accepting of women’s roles in society. Unlike Queen Victoria, whose male family members and government attempted to overrule her decisions, Elizabeth has reigned in her own right. Admittedly, the queen has less power than her predecessors, but during a crisis, the country looks to her for reassuring words of comfort and support. She is a patron of over 600 charities and organisations and has regularly attended events and special occasions to celebrate their work.

Elizabeth II has ruled longer than any monarch in British history, and the majority of the population have never experienced having a king. Over the last few years, she has delegated some of her duties to her heirs, who have in turn grown in popularity, particularly her grandson, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (b. 1982). At the time of writing, the heir to the British throne is Charles, Prince of Wales (b. 1948), with Prince William next in line, and his son, George (b. 2013), third.

By looking at 500 years of royal portraits, it is possible to notice the changes in art style, particularly in the later years, as well as the upkeep of certain traditions. Early monarchs were depicted in formal regalia, which gradually changed in preference to military uniform. Artists painted the kings and queens as the royal family wished to be seen by the public. Early rulers came across as self-centred and greedy due to the jewelled clothing and ornaments that signified their status. Since Queen Victoria’s reign, the paintings appear more modest, with the kings revealing their support of the country through their military garb. The increased use of photography also helps to make the royal family appear more human, caring, and deserving of respect.

The exhibition, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, is open daily throughout October 2021 at the National Maritime Museum. Tickets cost £10 for adults and £5 for children, although members can visit for free.


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Tudors to Windsors (Part One, Tudors to Stuarts)

The British Royal Family has been a source of interest for hundreds of years, both for people living in Britain and those abroad. Until the advent of television, most people never saw the reigning monarch except in paintings. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has partnered with the National Portrait Gallery to create a timeline of royal portraits from the Tudors until today. The exhibition, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, features over 150 portraits of kings, queens, consorts and children, spanning 500 years and five royal dynasties: Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian and Windsor.

Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509)

The oldest painting in the exhibition is a portrait of Henry VII by an unnamed Netherlandish artist. Henry was born in 1457 to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and Lady Margaret Beaufort. His mother was a descendant of the Lancastrian king Edward III (1312-1377) and believed her son had a claim to the English throne. After defeating the Yorkist king Richard III (1452-85) at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Henry seized the crown. The following year, Henry married Elizabeth of York (1466-1503). The marriage united the York and Lancaster dynasties and put an end to the War of the Roses.

This portrait was produced after the death of Henry’s wife. The inscription along the bottom reveals it was painted on 29th October 1505 by the order of Herman Rinck, who worked for the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I (1459-1515). Art historians suspect it was given as part of a marriage proposal to the Emperor’s daughter Margaret of Savoy (1480-1530). The proposal was unsuccessful, and Henry passed away four years later. Henry’s eldest son Arthur (1486-1502) predeceased him, and his second child was a girl, Margaret (1489-1541), so the throne went to his third child, Henry.

Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47)

Painted in circa 1520, this portrait of Henry VIII pre-dates versions by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), who started working for the king in 1535. The artist is unknown but probably came from the Netherlands. Henry’s pose and the gilded corners suggest it was one of two companion paintings. The missing half was most likely a portrait of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536).

Henry was only 17 when he succeeded his father to the throne. He immediately married his brother’s widow but divorced her in 1533 after failing to produce a son. This event involved rejecting the Catholic Church and establishing the Church in England. Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn (1501-36), also failed to produce a male heir. Rather than divorce Anne, Henry ordered her execution.

Edward, Henry’s only legitimate son, was born to Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour (1508-37). Unfortunately, Jane died two weeks after the birth, and the king remarried for the fourth time. Henry disapproved of his new wife’s physical appearance, and the marriage remained unconsummated. He divorced Anne of Cleves (1515-57) in 1540 and married Catherine Howard (1523-42). After accusing Catherine of adultery, Henry had her beheaded and married his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr (1512-48). When Henry died in 1547, he only had three legitimate children, Edward, and two daughters from his first two wives, so Edward succeeded the throne.

Edward VI (reigned 1547-53)

Born at Hampton Court Palace in 1547, Edward was Henry VIII’s “most noble and most precious jewel”. He was only nine when his father died, so reigned with the assistance of his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset (1500-52), and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (1504-53). Unfortunately, Edward never reached the age of majority, so never ruled the kingdom on his own. He caught a chill in 1553 and passed away at the age of 15.

Several portraits of Edward were painted during his childhood, including this one, completed the year before he became king. By this time, William Scrots (active 1537-55) was the court painter, but art historians believe one of his students completed this particular image. The colours have faded significantly over time, resulting in an unfinished appearance. The background was originally blue, and Edward wore a luscious red coat, befitting a future king.

Lady Jane Grey (proclaimed 1553)

Shortly before Edward VI passed away, he named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey (1536-54), as his heir. Jane was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s youngest sister and was married to Guildford Dudley (1535-54), son of the Duke of Northumberland. They, like Edward, were Protestants and could carry on the Reformation in England, unlike his Catholic half-sister Mary. When Edward died, the Duke of Northumberland immediately seated Jane on the throne, but Mary and her supporters protested. Nine days later, Mary took the throne from Jane and threw Jane and her husband into prison for treason. After a rebellion in Jane’s favour, Mary had the nine-day queen beheaded.

Although the artist is unknown, analysis of the panel reveals Jane’s portrait was produced long after her death. It probably belonged to a series of paintings of Protestant martyrs, but it is impossible to tell how good a likeness it is because Jane’s portrait was never taken during her lifetime. Damage to the artwork suggests the painting may have been subject to an attack at some point in history, most likely by a rebellious Catholic.

Mary I (reigned 1553-58)

Mary (1516-58) was the only surviving child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She became the first crowned Queen of England at the age of 37 and restored the Catholic faith across the country. Those who refused to conform to the faith of the queen faced execution. As a result, she became known as “Bloody Mary”.

One year into her reign, Mary married Philip II of Spain (1527-98), who thus became a joint ruler of England. Despite this, Philip spent most of their marriage in Spain, and they produced no children. Miniature paintings of both Mary and Philip were produced to celebrate their union. They were given as gifts to notable courtiers and allies. Mary’s portrait is based on a larger painting by the Netherlandish artist Anthonis Mor (1517-77), which was commissioned by Philip’s father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-58).

Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603)

When Mary I died childless, her 25-year-old half-sister inherited the throne. Elizabeth (1533-1603) was the child of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. As queen, Elizabeth re-established the Church of England, once again removing Catholicism from the realm. Yet, she reigned in relative peace, except for the failed Spanish Armada in 1588. With Elizabeth’s permission, English explorers discovered new lands and established foreign trades, which brought new cultures to England.

Elizabeth remained unmarried, despite several marriage proposals. With no children and no legitimate siblings, the question of succession was ever-present. Elizabeth was also the first woman to rule alone without the help of a man, which was another reason some wished to find her a husband. Several portraits of the queen were painted, possibly to attract potential suitors. Instead, the portraits asserted Elizabeth’s power, despite being female.

This artificially staged portrait, known as The Ditchley Portrait, was requested in 1592 by Sir Henry Lee (1533-1611), who lived in Ditchley, Oxfordshire. Lee had recently retired from the role of Queen’s Champion but had fallen from grace after choosing to live with his mistress, Anne Vavasour. Painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636), the painting marks the occasion of the queen’s forgiveness of Lee. This is symbolised by stormy skies that retreat into the background, as though banished by the queen.

At the time of painting, Elizabeth was 59 years old, but, ignoring her mortality, Gheeraerts portrayed her as an iconic “Virgin Queen”, wearing the youthful clothing of an unmarried woman. She stands on a map of England, signalling her control over the nation. Her feet point toward Oxfordshire, where the painting was produced. On the right-hand side, the artist includes a sonnet about the sun, symbolising the monarch. Lee is the assumed author of the poem, in which he refers to Elizabeth as the “prince of light”.

James I (reigned 1603-1625)

The Virgin Queen died, and so ended the Tudor Dynasty. In 1603, her cousin, James VI of Scotland (1566-1625), acceded to the English throne, uniting England and Scotland for the first time. With James I came a new royal house, the Stuarts, whose rule resulted in significant changes across the country, not least civil war.

James I is perhaps the most scholarly of all past British monarchs. He wrote poetry, prose and arranged for the translation of the “King James” Bible. He and his wife, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), were patrons of visual arts, including architecture. The Queen’s House, next to the National Maritime Museum, was intended for Anne, although she passed away before its completion. The king and queen also enjoyed the theatre, especially plays by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who completed over half of his works during James’s reign.

Unlike his predecessor, James did not enjoy sitting for portraits. As a result, there are not many paintings of the first Stuart king. This portrait of James I wearing the robe of the Order of the Garter was painted by Dutch artist Daniël Mytens (1590-1648) in 1621. The inscription above his head reads, “Beati pacific”, which means “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Mytens included this in the painting to indicate James I’s peaceful reign.

Despite the king’s aim to be a peacemaker in Europe, he narrowly escaped death in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He also accrued significant debts during his reign, which turned some of his supporters against him. James and Anne’s eldest son, Prince Henry Frederick (1594-1612), predeceased his father at the age of 18. Following James’s death, the throne passed to the next eldest son, Charles (1600-49).

Charles I (reigned 1625-49)

Charles I carried on his father’s patronage of the arts and became one of the greatest royal collectors of paintings. He employed painters, such as Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), to produce portraits of his growing family. Despite suffering from physical disabilities as a child, Charles overcame his issues to establish a successful marriage with Henrietta Maria of France (1609-69) and produced six children who lived beyond childhood.

The majority of the famous portraits of King Charles I are in the Royal Collection, but the National Portrait Gallery owns one by the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656). It is fairly formal in comparison to grand paintings by Van Dyck, and historians believe it may have been a study for a larger painting at Hampton Court. Charles had commissioned Honthorst to produce a mural-like painting of the king and his wife as the Roman gods, Apollo and Diana, with other notable people as other deities.

Despite his eye for art, Charles was less adept at politics. He spent excessive money buying paintings, which he paid for by placing heavy taxes on the population. When Parliament complained, Charles dismissed them, which prompted the Puritanism movement within the Church of England. Many openly expressed their dissatisfaction with the king, which led to increasing civil and political unrest. Eventually, civil war broke out across Britain between the king’s supporters and the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). The war came to a dramatic end with the execution of Charles I outside the Banqueting House in London on 30th January 1649.

Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of England 1653-58)

Charles I’s death resulted in a republic, which lasted until 1653. During this time, Parliament argued about how to govern the country. These disputes resulted in the installation of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. Cromwell had been one of the leading men during the civil war, which made him a natural choice for the protector of the realm.

Unlike the previous monarchs, who wore glamorous, ornate clothing, Cromwell was a puritan and refused any decoration. His portrait, based on an unfinished version by Samuel Cooper (1609-72), depicts Cromwell in shining armour, emphasising his position as Lord Protector, rather than a king. The dull background colours befit his purist ways and pious religious beliefs, which rejected anything ostentatious and unnecessary.

Cromwell died in 1658, and despite his wishes, his funeral effigy was crowned as though a king. His son, Richard (1626-1712), briefly took on the role of Lord Protector, but he had very little political or military support. Parliament began to crumble, and the only way to save the country from ruin was to re-establish the monarchy.

Charles II (reigned 1660-85)

Charles I’s eldest son, also called Charles (1630-85), was invited back from exile to become king in 1660. Life under Puritan rule had been difficult, so the people rejoiced to see the return of the monarchy. Charles reopened theatres, which Cromwell had shut down, and allowed women to act on the stage for the first time. Charles also established the Royal Society to encourage scientific enquiries into the workings of the world.

Despite his warm welcome, the first few years of Charles II’s reign were challenged by events beyond his control. In 1665, the Great Plague caused over 70,000 deaths in London and neighbouring cities. The following year, the Great Fire of London devastated 436 acres of the capital city. Eighty-seven of London’s 109 churches were destroyed as well as approximately 13,200 houses.

Charles II’s portrait, attributed to the English artist Thomas Hawker (d. 1699), depicts the king towards the end of his reign. He was around 50 years old but still looked striking in his royal clothing, which matched his charming personality. Many considered Charles as a party-goer, although he could often be cynical and lazy. Events during his childhood and the execution of his father greatly affected the king, and he tried not to make the same mistakes as Charles I. He wanted to make his people happy, providing them with many sources of entertainment. He held a certain degree of popularity with the public and felt at ease with “ordinary people”.

Despite his attempts to be a good king, Charles received criticism about his numerous mistresses, including actress Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn (1650-87). Charles had fourteen illegitimate children but failed to produce an heir with his wife, Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705). When Charles died in 1680, none of his children had the right to the throne, so it passed on to his younger brother James (1633-1701).

James II (reigned 1685-88)

Within months of James II’s accession, a rebellion was led against him by Charles’ illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. Despite defeating his nephew, the public distrusted James for his Catholic beliefs. Since the reign of Elizabeth I, Britain had been a Protestant country, and the population was not happy to reintroduce Catholicism.

James’s first wife, Anne Hyde (1637-71), with whom he is pictured in a double portrait by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), was also a Catholic convert, but she did not receive the same hatred as her husband because she died before he became king. The portrait was painted when James was still the Duke of York. He met Anne while in exile on the continent and promised to marry her after getting her pregnant. The wedding took place in secret shortly after the coronation of Charles II, which upset many people. Not only was Anne Catholic, she was a “commoner”.

Anne and James’s first son, Charles (1660-61), died before his first birthday from smallpox. They went on to have seven children, but only two girls, Mary and Anne, survived infancy. Anne passed away shortly after the birth of their youngest child, Catherine (1671-71). In 1673, James married another Catholic, Mary of Modena (1658-1718). By the time James became king, all their children had died in infancy. At this time, James’s only heirs were Anne’s daughters, who had converted to Protestantism, but the birth of a son, James Francis (1688-1766), caused widespread anxiety throughout the kingdom. The public did not want another Catholic king.

To prevent Catholicism from prevailing, Parliament invited William of Orange (1650-1702), the husband of James’s eldest daughter, to invade England. William met little resistance, and the king, fearing for his life, fled to France. This Glorious Revolution resulted in the joint reign of Mary II (1662-94) and William III. They agreed to sign a Bill of Rights to make England a constitutional monarchy. This meant they had some power as head of state, but Parliament was entitled to make decisions about running the country.

Mary II (reigned 1689-94)

Mary and William reigned as joint rulers until Mary died in 1694. William spent the first couple of years in Ireland fighting against the Jacobites, who wanted James II returned to the throne. While he was away, Mary proved a wise ruler, establishing many charities, including the Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich. The painted hall at the hospital features allegorical paintings of Mary and William on the ceiling, which are still much admired today.

Jan van der Vaart’s (1650-1727) portrait of Mary is based on an earlier painting by Willem Wissing (1656-87), which was produced when Mary lived in the Netherlands. Van der Vaart altered Mary’s dress to resemble royal robes and added a crown and sceptre in the background.

Unlike her husband and sister, Mary was a tall and healthy woman but contracted smallpox in 1694. After isolating to prevent the spread of infection, Mary passed away at Kensington Palace, aged 32. William was devastated but agreed to reign alone as King of England. Sadly, he no longer resembled the happy man who reigned with his wife; instead, he felt like “the miserablest creature on earth”.

William III (reigned 1689-1702)

William III’s equestrian portrait was painted after Mary’s death but honoured the king’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland four years earlier. William also fought in the Nine Years’ War (1688-97) against France, which he eventually lost to Louis XIV (1638-1715). Despite this, the French king recognised William as the King of England, which gave him an ally against the Jacobites.

Towards the end of William’s reign, England was at peace with France, but this came to an end with the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). England and France were again on opposing sides, but William was less involved in the physical fight. Instead, William broke his collarbone after falling from his horse, which had tripped on a mole’s burrow. The wound caused complications, resulting in pneumonia, and William passed away in 1702.

William and Mary had no children, which meant they had no heir. Traditionally, the next eldest brother had the right to the throne, but the Bill of Rights signed at the beginning of William and Mary’s reign agreed that England could only have a Protestant monarch. As a result, the crown passed to Mary’s sister, Anne (1665-1714).

Anne (reigned 1702-14)

Although Anne had several health problems, she had a successful reign as Queen of England. During her reign, England was victorious in the War of Spanish Succession and negotiated peace in Europe through the Treaty of Utrecht. When Anne succeeded the throne, she was crowned the Queen of England, but in 1707, following the Act of Union with Scotland, she became the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.

Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) was the Principal Painter to Mary, William, Anne, and the next monarch, George I. Kneller produced this portrait of Anne in 1690 before she became queen, when she still looked young and slender. Later portraits of the queen depict her as a much larger woman, and she was known to suffer severe bouts of gout. She relied on a wheelchair to move around or a sedan when at royal events.

One of Anne’s claims to fame was having seventeen pregnancies within seventeen years. Sadly, only five resulted in live births, all of whom tragically died young. Only Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (1689-1700), reached double figures, but he passed away from unknown causes at age eleven. On the fourteenth anniversary of her son’s death, Anne suffered a stroke, which rendered her unable to speak. She passed away a month later on 1st August 1714 and was buried beside her husband and children in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

Once again, a monarch had passed away without an heir. Determined to keep the Catholic Stuarts from the throne, Parliament looked for distant, Protestant relatives of the queen. They traced the family tree back to Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), the eldest daughter of James I. This made Elizabeth’s daughter, Sophia of Hanover (1630-1714), the heir presumptive to the throne of Great Britain, but she too died in 1714. As a result, her son, Georg Ludwig (1660-1727), was crowned George I of Great Britain. Anne’s death resulted in the end of the Stuart dynasty, and George’s coronation marked the beginning of the Georgian era.

To be continued…


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The Home of Young Royals

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Kensington Palace, set in Kensington Gardens in London, has been a royal residence since the 17th-century. It is currently the home of several members of the British royal family, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the recently married Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. Parts of the palace, namely the State Rooms, are open to the public under the care of the independent charity Historic Royal Palaces. These rooms also contain many paintings and objects belonging to the royal collection.

Throughout its 300 year history, Kensington Palace has been a number of things, including army barracks, a museum, a home and, most importantly, a setting for the royal court. Kensington was originally a small, remote village with acres of open fields on which sat a simple squire’s mansion known as Nottingham House. In 1689, a year after James II (1633-1701) had been deposed, the new joint monarchs William III (1650-1702) and Mary II (1662-94) purchased the house, thus putting Kensington clearly on the map.

The house was fairly small in comparison to the size of the palace today. Shortly after purchasing the building for £20,000, the famous architect Sir Christopher Wren, famously remembered for the reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral, was hired to transform the house into a suitable royal residence. Although the Palace has since been extended further, this initial extension added several rooms, for instance, a chapel, kitchens, stables and, most importantly, the State Apartments.

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Staircase leading to the King’s State Apartments

The State Apartments are part of the palace open to visitors and are included in the initial entrance fee. The King’s rooms are located at the top of a painted staircase. When William and Mary moved in at the beginning of the 1690s, this staircase was furnished with plain wooden panels, however, this was replaced with the staircase still in place today during the Georgian-era.

William III had little interest in the palace after his wife died in 1694, although he did entertain the Russian Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) here in 1698. Queen Anne (1665-1714) was disinclined to make any changes to the building when she moved in, however, she did concentrate on the garden, adding an Orangery in 1705. Having no direct heir, Anne passed her throne to Georg Ludwig Elector of Hanover (1660-1727) who was distantly related to James I (1566-1625). George I was later succeeded by his son, George II (1683-1760), and it was during both their reigns that many changes and embellishments occurred at Kensington Palace.

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Georgian designer. Yorkshire-born William Kent

As visitors will see as they ascend the stairs to the King’s State Rooms, the walls are painted with imaginary architecture featuring balconies from which Georgian ladies and gentlemen look down at the passers-by. Yeomen of the Guard in their red uniforms stand among these figures and it is thought some of the characters were based on real members of the royal court. Identified people include the king’s page Ulric, Turkish servants and a feral boy named Peter who had been found living in the woods in Germany.

Interestingly, the artist commissioned to paint the King’s rooms was not Sir James Thornhill (1676-1734), the leading painter at the time, but the lesser known William Kent (1685-1748). The rather arrogant but talented artist included a portrait of himself on the ceiling wearing his artist’s cap and holding a palette.

The first room in the tour of the King’s State Apartments is the Presence Chamber. Sparsely furnished, this is where the reigning king received his important guests whilst seated on a throne under a crimson silk damask canopy. Although the original is either lost or too worn for display, a replica is in place in the Presence Chamber today.

Once again, William Kent produced the ceiling paintings and was inspired by the recently excavated houses on the Palatine Hill in Rome. In the centre circle, the Roman god Apollo is riding his chariot through the sky on a dark cloud. Surrounding the fireplace is a handful of Grinling Gibbons or sleeping cherubs surrounded by roses, which were once painted lead white, however, are now plain limewood.

Those lucky enough to be allowed further into the King’s State Rooms would next enter into the Privy Chamber, which was once Queen Caroline (1683-1737), the wife of George II’s favourite place to entertain guests and family.

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Privy Chamber

Again, Kent is responsible for the painted ceiling, which features Mars, the Roman god of war and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. These mythological figures are said to represent the king and queen. George II was the last British king to lead his troops into battle and Caroline had particular interests in art and science.

The walls of the Privy Chamber are hung with tapestries that come from the Mortlake Tapestry set representing the months of the year, once owned by Charles I (1600-49). These particular draperies show four different months: February, July, August and November.

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The Cupola Room

Following on from the Privy Chamber is the Cupola Room, which was the first room decorated by William Kent and definitely shows off his skill. Through his excellent use of Trompe-l’œil, an art technique which creates the optical illusion that the depicted objects are three-dimensional, Kent recreated a baroque Roman palace with the Star of the Order of the Garter in the centre of the ceiling. This impressed George I and earned Kent the honour of decorating the other rooms.

Today, the decor of the Cupola Room is overshadowed by an intriguing object in the centre of the room. After walking around it several times, visitors will realise that it is, in fact, a clock, albeit with the tiniest clock face. It is also a music box that once played music by Handel (1685-1759) as well as a work of art. The four panels on the upper portion of the object contain paintings depicting four ancient monarchies. Known as the ‘Temple of the Four Great Monarchies of the World’, this clock-cum-music-box was purchased by Princess Augusta (1719-72), the daughter-in-law of George II.

The Cupola Room was usually used for parties and dancing, although in 1819 it was the location for the baptism of the future Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Born to the Duke and Duchess of Kent, it was the Prince Regent (later George IV (1762-1830)) who decided on her name: Alexandrina Victoria, named after the Russian Tsar and Victoria’s mother respectively.

Next door to the Cupola Room is the King’s Drawing Room, which was also used for parties. The ceiling, once again painted by William Kent, shows the Roman god Jupiter accidentally killing his lover Semele. On the walls hang several paintings, one of which was a particular favourite of George II. Venus and Cupid by the Italian painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) still hangs in the room today, however, during 1735 when the king was in Hanover, Queen Caroline had it removed in preference of her collection of Van Dyck (1599-1641) portraits. On his return, the enraged king insisted on the reinstatement of his beloved painting.

Whilst the dancing was going on next door, the queen would often retreat to the Drawing Room with a handful of guests to play cards. Visitors to the palace are provided with the opportunity to play three types of games the Royals may once have played. The first is a board game titled Game of Court in which players navigate around the board to be the first to greet the king. Each player starts with twelve coins, although in the Georgian-era they would have played with their own money, and throws two dice to determine how far they travel along the board. Some squares contain instructions that may involve paying money, missing a turn or being rewarded. For example, if you land on 42, you “Lose 200 Guineas playing Cards. Pay a coin and roll a double to move.” On the other hand, landing on 18 “You speak the language of the court, French, superbly. Move forward the same number of squares again.” The player to reach the finish square first wins all the coins that have been put into the pot throughout the game.

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The second green baize card table contains a set of playing cards, which can be used to play a multiple of games. What is interesting about these particular cards is their design. The suit and number appear in the top left-hand corner but the rest of the card contains a verse and music notes. Take, for example, the seven of spades:
Come sweet lass,
Let’s banish sorrow
Till To’morrow;
Come sweet lass,
Let’s take a chirping glass.
Wine can clear
The vapours of despair;
And make us light as air;
Then drink and banish care.

On the third table is a dice game of chance named Hazard. Again, each player begins with twelve coins and the first player throws two dice. The number rolled, so long as it is either the number 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9, decides the game’s “lose” number. The second roll of the dice determines the “win” number, so long as it is the number 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 (but not the same as the “lose” number). Once these numbers have been established, the game can begin. Each player takes turns rolling the dice, putting in one coin in the pot every time it is their turn. If the “lose” number is thrown, that player is now out. When a player throws the “win” number, the game is over and that player wins all the coins that have been put in the pot.

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In the Drawing Room, Cupola Room and one of the adjoining rooms are a few examples of Georgian fashion. Visitors may be shocked by the width of the skirts ladies were expected to wear. Called a mantua, ladies were required to wear a coat-like dress with a train spread out over an enormous petticoat supported by a hoop. Unless they were attending parties at the palace, the wearers had to enter the room sideways because most doorways could not accommodate the width of the skirt. It was also very difficult to walk in and the hooped skirt forced ladies to take tiny steps, making it appear as though they were rolling along on wheels.

The dresses tended to be very frilly, the sleeves having at least three rows of ruffles. When attending the palace, ladies wore their best jewellery and feathers in their hair. They were also expected to carry a fan to be used as a form of sign language. By waving a fan in a particular way, one could signal the message “I am married” or “go away” as well as more encouraging words.

Men, whilst not burdened with a mantua, had other fashion rules to abide. All gentlemen had to wear a wig, regardless of the quality of their own hair. Their suit was embroidered with intricate designs and worn with silk stockings and pumps with glittery buckles. It was also customary to have a sword tied to your waist. While these costumes may sound extravagant today, the Georgian belief was you can never be overdressed.

A small room leading off from the Drawing Room is delegated Queen Caroline’s Closet. At one point in history, William III used this as a bedchamber and George I used it as a storage room for his books. Caroline, on the other hand, used it as a display room for hundreds of small paintings, miniatures and embroidery. The star exhibit was a precious portfolio the queen had discovered hidden in a cabinet. It contained many drawings by the famous Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) of Henry VIII (1491-1547) and his Tudor subjects. These were not finished artworks but studies of sitters for paintings. A couple of examples are on display today.

The final room in the tour of the King’s State Rooms is the King’s Gallery, which was built for William III. Although the walls are now red, it was originally hung with green velvet and the king would meet here with his spies to plan his military campaigns. In the centre of the room hangs a wind-dial made by Robert Morden (1650-1703), which was attached to a weather vane on the roof of the palace. This allowed William to see what direction the wind was blowing and judge whether there was a risk of invasion. While resting in this room after breaking his collar bone in a riding accident, it is believed William III caught a chill, which led to pneumonia and ultimately his death.

The green walls were replaced with red damask for George I and William Kent painted scenes from the life of the Roman hero Ulysses on the ceiling. Many of the picture frames and statues in the room were also designed by Kent. At the eastern end of the room hung Van Dyck’s painting of Charles I, which, in more recent years, has been replaced with a copy.

Other paintings in the room are a mix of religious and classical stories. A painting by Jacopo Bassano (1510-92) depicts the great flood recorded in the story of Noah’s Ark in Genesis 6-9. The painting shows people’s futile attempts to save children and animals from the deepening water. The Flood came into the possession of the Royal Collection when it was purchased by Charles I from the Gonzaga collection in Mantua.

There are also biblical scenes from the New Testament, for example, Christ and the Woman of Samaria by Bonifazio de’ Pitati (1487-1553). This was also acquired by Charles I and shows the scene described in John 4:5-26 where Christ rests at Jacob’s well on his way to Galilee. Here he meets and speaks with a Samaritan woman, something that was not allowed at the time, using the water in the well as a metaphor for salvation.

In 1835, the King’s Gallery was converted into three rooms for Princess Victoria while she was growing up. Whilst Victoria loved these rooms, the original gallery was restored a century later.

Adjacent to the King’s State Rooms are the Queen’s State Apartments. These are accessed by an elegant oak-panelled stairway, which is deliberately plainer than the King’s staircase, although still rather grand. Little has changed here since Christopher Wren built them in 1690, however, it is believed to be the first staircase of its kind.

The first room in the tour of the Queen’s Apartments is the Queen’s Gallery, which was designed as an airy space for Mary II to enjoy simple pastimes, such as, reading, needlework and, when raining, walking. Both Mary and her cousin William, Stadtholder of the Netherlands, had been living in Europe before they married and came to England to be crowned as joint rulers. Mary brought with her several treasures she had collected while in the Netherlands, including objects that had been brought overseas by the Dutch East India Company from places such as China, India and Japan. Mary used these items to furnish her new apartments.

Examples of Mary’s vast collection still furnish the gallery today. Originally, over 150 pieces were in this room alone, with oriental porcelain and Delft crammed onto every surface. As visitors will see, she even placed items above the doorways.

On the walls hang a number of paintings, including one of her husband William before he was made King of England. Posed wearing full armour, the Dutch artist Willem Wissing (1656-87) painted the Prince of Orange as an archetypal commander, perhaps foreseeing his future as king.

Another painting in the room is of Mary’s mother Anne Hyde (1637-71), the Duchess of York. Anne was the wife of James II and the mother of two future queens of England: Mary and Anne. This portrait may have been painted by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) who Anne sat for on a number of occasions.

In the corner sits a coloured bust of a Moor, an enslaved man, who has been identified as William III’s favourite personal servant. Although Moors were often kept in slavery, the British royals and upper classes were particularly passionate about their exotic artworks and marbles, such as this example carved by John Nost (d.1729).

The Interior of Antwerp Cathedral by day

The Interior of Antwerp Cathedral by day – Peeter Neeffs

The Queen’s Closet also contains a number of artworks and collectable objects, for example, a couple of paintings showing the interior of Antwerp Cathedral in Belgium by Peeter Neeffs the Elder (1578-1656), although these particular pieces were acquired much later by George III.

Mary II used this room when she wished to withdraw from the social world. Years later when her sister was queen, it was in this room that Queen Anne had a huge argument with her childhood friend Sarah Churchill (1660-1744), Duchess of Marlborough, and ended up stripping Sarah of her high-rank and dismissing her from court.

The Queen’s Closet leads into the Dining Room where William and Mary once shared simple private suppers of fish and beer. Mary could also dine alone here but it was too small for more than a couple of guests.

Again, there are a few pieces of art in this room, including a painting of a much-loved housekeeper above the fireplace. This was Katherine Elliot who had been the nurse for James II when he was a child. She later became both the court Dresser and Woman of the Bedchamber for James’ wives and inevitably had some interaction with his children.

“The Queen brought about the custom … of filling houses with China-ware which increased to a strange degree afterwards piling their China upon the tops of Cabinets, Scutores, and every Chymney-Piece to the tops of the Ceilings.”
– Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)

As the author Daniel Defoe rightly commented, Mary II owned a lot of porcelain, which adorns most rooms in the Queen’s apartments. During her lifetime, however, the majority of these ceramics could be found in the Queen’s Drawing Room. Originally panelled, this room was damaged by an incendiary bomb during World War Two, which is why the rooms are now wallpapered.

Although rather sparse in comparison to how it would have looked 300 years ago, the drawing room has a few items of interest, particularly a barometer set in a carved oak and walnut case. Made by Thomas Tompion (1639-1713), the most famous clockmaker in England at the time, the barometer indicates the weather on a silvered and matted gold dial. To the casual observer, the numbers on the dial mean nothing, however, each number is designated a type of weather ranging from Stormy (30) to Settled Fair (270).

The final room in the Queen’s Apartments is the Queen’s Bedroom, although it later became a cosy sociable place where Mary could show off more of her porcelain. The bed which can be found in the bedroom today is thought to be the one in which James Edward Stuart (1688-1766), son of King James II was born, at St James’ Palace, in 1688. How this bed came to be at Kensington Palace is not mentioned.

After visiting both the King and Queen’s rooms, there are still two parts of the palace to explore. One part contains temporary exhibitions where famous paintings, objects and items of clothing, for example, Princess Diana’s (1961-97) wedding dress can be found. Currently, the temporary exhibition is about the life of Queen Victoria, in honour of her two hundredth birthday. Whilst this is a temporary exhibition, the history of Victoria’s life is a permanent feature at the Palace and can be found in the rooms on the first floor.

Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on the 24th May 1819 at 4.15 am. Her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Kent had only recently arrived at the Palace and their daughter was born in a dining room that had hastily been turned into a bedroom ready for their arrival so that there would be easy access to hot water from the kitchen nearby.

When Alexandrina Victoria was born, she was fifth in line to the throne. Prince Edward (1767-1820), the Duke of Kent was the fourth son of George III and his wife, Victoire (1786-1861) was the widow of Emich Carl (1763-1814), the Prince of Leiningen. Although Victoire had two older children from her previous marriage – Prince Charles (1804-1856) and Princess Feodora (1807-72) – they did not have any claim to the British throne.

The Duke of Kent died after a short illness before Victoria’s first birthday, thus putting his daughter fourth in line to the throne. Victoire, despite speaking mainly German, decided to stay at Kensington Palace and provide her daughter with a royal upbringing.

As a young child, Victoria was happy and lively, playing with hundreds of toys, for example, her beloved dolls house, and being spoilt by everyone around her. She had a vivid imagination and was always making costumes for her dolls, dressing herself up, or inventing stories. As she grew older, she began producing drawings, many of which can be seen at Kensington Palace. Victoria was always dressed as a princess and was given a ring made of gold, emerald and ruby at a tender age.

She was, however, prone to tantrums, which led to her mother’s advisor Sir John Conroy (1786-1854) inventing a set of rules known as the “Kensington System”. These rules required Victoria to behave like a queen in every aspect of her life from diet and exercise to social engagements and religious observance. She was also taught a variety of subjects including the usual drawing and music as well as more masculine lessons, such as arithmetic, history and Latin. Whilst Conroy claimed to have Victoria’s education at heart, some people thought he was trying to control the princess. She was never allowed to be on her own or walk down the stairs without assistance. Nor did she have many friends her own age. Naturally, one of the first things Victoria did as queen was to get rid of the detested Conroy.

It was at Kensington Palace where Princess Victoria met her future husband. For her 17th birthday, her mother invited Victoria’s uncle and cousins to Kensington Palace. It had long been hoped that Victoria would marry her cousin Albert (1819-61), although, the present King William IV (1765-1837) had other ideas. Fortunately, Victoria and Albert fell in love during this visit and the princess wrote in her diary that Albert was “extremely handsome” and that she admired his good-naturedness and intelligence. After becoming queen, Victoria was able to take the initiative and propose to Albert with whom she lived happily until he died from typhoid in 1861.

Royal Collection

The First Council of Queen Victoria by Sir David Wilkie

“I must say, it was quite like a dream.”
– Victoria’s journal, 21st June 1837

On the 20th June 1837 at 6am, less than a month after Victoria had turned 18, she was woken up by her mother with the news that “my poor Uncle, the King, was no more … and consequently that I am Queen.” Her first Council meeting took place on the same morning in the Red Saloon, which is the final room in the tour of the Victoria Rooms. Unfortunately, Victoria had to leave her childhood home and move to Buckingham Palace, never to live at Kensington again.

Since Queen Victoria left Kensington Palace, many royals have moved in and out and a number of children have grown up in the same rooms as their ancestors. Many elderly descendants of Queen Victoria were granted apartments at the Palace, including two of her daughters: Louise (1848-1939) and Beatrice (1857-1944). Louise moved in while her mother was still alive and Victoria wrote in her journal that she was “happy to think one of my daughters shd. live in a part of it.”

Many of Victoria’s grandchildren lived at Kensington at some point, including her last surviving grandchild Princess Alice (1883-1981). Another granddaughter, Victoria Mountbatten (1863-1950), Marchioness of Milford Haven moved in after the death of her husband and often had her grandson Philip come to stay. This is the very same Philip who went on to marry the future Queen Elizabeth in November 1947.

In 1960, the newly married Princess Margaret (1930-2002) and Lord Snowdon (1930-2017) made Kensington Palace their home. Here they raised their children David and Sarah. In 1982, the residents of Kensington Palace welcomed the new Prince and Princess of Wales (Charles and Diana). Both of their sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, grew up here and Diana remained at the palace after her divorce from Prince Charles in 1992, who moved to Clarence House. Both young princes returned to the palace in adulthood and Prince William remains living there with his family today.

Before leaving Kensington Palace, visitors have the opportunity to purchase souvenirs in the gift shop or have a bite to eat in the cafe. There is also a beautiful garden to explore that has been developed over the past three hundred years and includes a sunken garden, orangery and a statue of Queen Victoria. These gardens are available to all visitors and can be explored without having purchased a ticket to enter the palace.

Kensington Palace is a wonderful place to visit and has been the home of many royal children over the past three centuries as well as the home of kings and queens. It is steeped in history but, as a working palace, it has also been brought into the contemporary era. The entry fee is quite expensive but it is a price worth paying. Cheaper tickets can be purchased online for £17.50 (adults) and £8.70 (children), however, they are more expensive if bought directly from the palace.


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