Can Kate Escape the Curse of Kensington?
Kensington Royals: By picking it as their marital home, will the Duchess of Cambridge succumb to the rumoured curse of the palace?
After days of agony, Queen Caroline finally succumbed to a gruesome, lingering end from blood poisoning. She was suffering from an umbilical hernia as a result of her eighth pregnancy. Even though doctors crowded round in despair, they were not able to examine her because it was deemed offensive to royal dignity. Finally, they steeled themselves to have a look at the section of bowel protruding through her abdomen. But rather than push it back, they took the fateful decision to chop it off.
Eight days later, Caroline, wife of George II , breathed her last. This horrifying deathbed scene took place in 1737, but Caroline – once the glamorous chatelaine of Kensington Palace – was not the only tragic royal figure to be associated with this royal residence. In its 320-year history, its walls, courtyards and corridors have been haunted by so much tragedy the wonder is that Prince William and Kate have now decided to make it their marital home.
According to the chief curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley, there have been at least seven princesses associated with Kensington who were either ‘sad, bad or even mad’. The litany of disasters is such that it may as well be cursed – and there is even a ghost to boot. These days, everyone recognises the palace’s majestic facade because of the enduring sight of the sea of flowers left outside the gates after Princess Diana’s tragic death in 1997. But behind those elegant portals, William’s mother never knew marital happiness. Nor did his great-aunt Princess Margaret, who lived her own chequered life in the same 21-room three-storey apartment that the young royal couple have just started renovating.
During the Sixties, the apartment bore witness to extraordinary glamour as Margaret and her photographer husband, Lord Snowdon, played host to celebrity friends such as ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev and The Beatles, who would gather in the kingfisher-blue drawing room for singsongs round the piano. After the couple’s bitter separation, those same rooms saw their share of scandal, with Princess Margaret’s visiting suitors including actor Peter Sellers and her toyboy Roddy Llewellyn. But, then, Kensington Palace has witnessed plenty of scandal and tragedy since its very beginnings more than three centuries ago.
In 1690, William III and Queen Mary commissioned the great architect of St Paul’s, Sir Christopher Wren, to remodel and extend a house they’d bought in Kensington to escape ‘the grime’ of the Palace of Whitehall, where monarchs traditionally lived. In those days, Kensington was known as a rural retreat. It was said by one contemporary to ‘cure without medicines’ because of its clean air. Alas, this did not prove to be the case for poor Queen Mary. Scarcely had the royal couple moved in than she contracted smallpox. Within a week she was dead, aged just 32.From a gruesome end to a tragic early death: Queen Caroline (left) and Queen Mary II both died early behind the palace walls. The public loved Mary for her glamour – so much so that there were Diana like outpourings when she died. John Evelyn, the great diarist, said ‘never was there so universal a-mourning’.
But the palace jinx had only just begun. In 1702, William III himself died and was succeeded by Mary’s sister Anne, an even more tragic figure associated with Kensington Palace. Poor Queen Anne was married to the extremely boring George of Denmark. ‘I have tried him drunk, I have tried him sober and there is nothing in him,’ remarked his own uncle, Charles II . Despite his lack of charisma, Anne underwent 17 pregnancies in an attempt to provide an heir to the throne, but none of her children reached adulthood.
Happy: Princess Margaret in a drawing room in Kensington Palace which is painted in one of her favourite colours, but the walls of the palace are tinged with a gruesome history Some she miscarried, some were stillborn, others died in infancy of smallpox. The longest living was Prince William, who succumbed to a mystery ailment at the age of 11. His worn-out, heartbroken mother followed him to the grave 14 years later, aged just 49 and riddled with gout. Anne’s failure to produce an heir meant the end of the Stuart dynasty. Though she had more than 50 close blood relatives, all were rejected because they were Roman Catholics. Instead, in 1714, the Hanoverians came to the throne in the portly shape of George I, Anne’s closest living Protestant relative.
Should you climb the king’s great staircase of Kensington Palace today, you will see portraits of valets, maids, even babies, all commissioned by George I in an attempt to dispel the curse hanging over the place and make it more welcoming than St James’s Palace – which was always a rival for the royals’ affections. (William and Kate themselves were said to have looked at an apartment at St James’s Palace before deciding upon Kensington instead.)
George I’s family life was a disaster. When he moved to London, he left his unfaithful wife Sophia locked in a remote German castle, and there were rumours that he had her lover hacked to death. The extensive renovations George I commissioned gave Kensington a brief period of glamour after decades of tragedy, but he didn’t live to see its best years. Only after his death in 1727 did its walls ring with the sound of influential chatter, when his daughter-inlaw Caroline, Queen Consort of George II , became chatelaine.
Caroline, known as the fattest and funniest princess of all as well as the cleverest, hosted salons even more glorious than Princess Margaret would over two centuries later.Lasting tribute: Now many recognise the facade of Kensington Palace after s sea of flowers were left in tribute to Princess Diana in 1997
A true intellectual, she wielded political influence over Prime Minister Robert Walpole, installed a palace library and commissioned busts of England’s monarchs. But the palace curse continued with her hernia and agonisingly slow death. The next princess to live there was Charlotte, who was born in 1796 when George III was on the throne. Charlotte was the daughter of the foppish Prince Regent, who would eventually become George IV . But her father hated her mother, Caroline of Brunswick, and claimed only to have had sex with her three times before he banished her to Kensington Palace.
George, however, loved his daughter. And when Charlotte married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg- Gotha with full pomp and ceremony in 1816, wearing a wedding dress that cost a staggering £10,000 (£600,000 in today’s money), he was delighted because it looked as if the succession would be assured. But just one year later, at the age of 21, Charlotte died along with her stillborn son after a 48-hour labour.
Grieving crowds came out on the streets, and her ashamed doctor committed suicide. Princess Charlotte’s death left an alarming question mark hanging over the succession, sparking the so-called ‘baby race’. For though her grandfather, George III had produced 15 children, none of their offspring was legitimate. An order was issued that all his sons must leave their mistresses, take wives and hurry to provide the throne with suitable heirs. The race was won by his fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent, who was married to a German princess. Their daughter Victoria, born in 1819, would become Britain’s longestserving monarch. Victoria lived in Kensington Palace throughout her childhood, but even she could not overcome its aura of unhappiness.
She was brought up there according to a draconian method which came to be known as the ‘Kensington System’, designed to isolate her so completely that she would always be dependent on her mother – and her mother’s unsavoury lover, the equerry Sir John Conroy. Little wonder that the day Victoria became Queen, she moved straight into Buckingham Palace. Two years later, she married Prince Albert, whom she had met while still living in Kensington.
Though he, too, died early, their loving marriage was one of the few propitious events associated with the palace. For though its next prominent royal occupant, Princess Margaret, spent £85,000 on its haunted halls (more than £1 million today) before she moved in in 1960, its glory days were again short-lived. After Margaret’s marriage crumbled in the Seventies, she lived there alone till her death in 2002 – her only regular company was a ghost known as the mysterious lady in blue. Her neighbour during these years was Princess Diana, with whom, as a royal rebel, she should have had much in common. But Margaret’s last years saw her reduced to peeping from behind the net curtains as Princess Diana brought home her own lovers in the boot of her car past Margaret’s apartment.
And though Margaret could not see the event from her windows on the other side of the courtyard, she certainly knew of one the most poignant occurrences which took place in the palace under Diana’s auspices, while William was growing up: the clandestine burial of the stillborn daughter of Diana’s best friend, Rosa Monckton, in the palace’s back garden. While £1 million will be spent by William and Kate on refurbishing the faded decor of Margaret’s apartment, these are just a few of the unhappy memories the new couple will have to banish in order to usher in another gilded period.
We surely wish Kate will have better luck than most of the princesses who have lived there.
By: Tene Sommer
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