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From Romantic Castles and Palaces, As Seen and Described by Famous Writers, edited and translated by Esther Singleton; New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1901; pp. 51-60.


Kensington Palace

Leigh Hunt

Black and white photograph of Kensington Palace, England, with a marble statue in the foreground and some shrubs that lie before it, taken in the late 19th century.


IT is not improbable that Kensington Palace and Gardens originated in the royal nursery established in this district, for the benefit of his children, by King Henry the Eighth. If so, here Queen Elizabeth grew up while, as well as Queen Victoria, and here health was in vain attempted to be given to the sicklier temperaments of Edward the Sixth, who died young, and his sister, Queen Mary, who lived only to be an unhappy bigot.

As the circumstance, however, does not appear ascertainable, antiquaries must put up with the later and less illustrious origin which has been found for these distinguished premises, in the house and grounds belonging to the family of the Finches, Earls of Nottingham, whether the tenement which they occupied had once been royal or not, it seems to have been but a small mansion in their time; probably consisting of nothing more than the now least-visible portion of it north-west; and indeed, though it was subsequently enlarged under almost every one of the sovereigns by whom it was occupied, it was never, in one respect, anything but what it is still, namely, one of the plainest and least pretending of princely abodes.

In vain we are told, that Wren is supposed to have 52 built the south front, and Kent (a man famous in his time) the east front. We can no more get up any enthusiasm about it as a building, than if it were a box, or a piece of cheese. But it possesses a Dutch solidity; it can be imagined full of English comfort; it is quiet; it has a good air; and though it is a palace, no tragical history is connected with it; all which considerations give it a sort of homely, fireside character, which seems to represent the domestic side of royalty itself, and thus renders an interesting service to what is not always so well recommended by cost and splendour. Windsor Castle is a place to receive monarchs in; Buckingham Palace to see fashion in; Kensington Palace seems a place to drink tea in; and this is by no means a state of things, in which the idea of royalty comes least home to the good wishes of the subjects. The reigns that flourished here, appositely enough to this notion of the building, were all tea-drinking reigns — at least, on the part of the ladies; and if the present queen does not reign there, she was born and bred there, growing up quietly under the care of a domestic mother; during which time, the pedestrian, as he now goes quietly along the gardens, fancies no harsher sound to have been heard from the Palace windows, than the “tuning of the tea-things,” or the sound of a piano-forte.

We may thus, in imagination, see the house and the gardens growing larger with each successive proprietor. First, there is Heneage Finch, the Speaker of the House of Commons, at the accession of Charles the First; for he is the earliest occupant we can discover.


This gentleman possessed but fifteen acres of ground; which his son, Sir Heneage Finch, afterwards Earl of Nottingham, increased by a grant that was made him out of Hyde Park. To the Earl’s son and heir, Daniel, succeeded King William the Third, who bought the house and grounds of Daniel, and enlarged them both, the latter to the extent of twenty-six acres. Anne added thirty acres; Queen Caroline, wife of George the Second, added three hundred; and the house, which had been growing all this time, was finally brought to its present size or appearance by the late Duke of Sussex, who added or rebuilt the rooms, with their still fresh-looking brick-work, that form the angle on the south-west.

The house nominally possesses gardens that are miles in circumference; but these having become public every day in the week, which in the early times of the Georges was not the case, it has, in reality, to any sequestered purpose of enjoyment, no gardens at all, except at one corner.

The gardens in the time of the Finches consisted of little but the ground squaring with the north side of the Palace, laid out in the first formal and sombre style of our native gardening, and originating the still existing circle of yew trees, a disposition of things congenial with the owners. Heneage Finch, the Speaker, and his sons, the first and second Earls of Nottingham, were all lawyers and statesmen; and though a clever, and upon the whole, a worthy, appear to have been a melancholy race. The first Earl suffered under a long depression of spirits before he died; the second was a man of so atrabilarious a complexion 54 that he was nicknamed Dismal; and Dismal’s son, from a like swarthy appearance, and the way in which he neglected his dress, was called the chimney-sweep. Hanbury Williams, the reigning lampooner of the days of George the Second, designated the whole race as the “black funereal Finches.”

These unusual “Finches of the Grove,” made way for a kind of Jupiter’s bird in the eagle-nosed, hawk-eyed, gaunt little William the Third; a personage as formal and melancholy as themselves, though not so noisy (for Dismal, notwithstanding his formality, was a great talker); and under William, the Gardens though they grew larger, did but exchange English formality for Dutch. The walks became longer and straighter, like canals; the yews were restrained and clipped; there was, perhaps, a less number of flowers, comparatively; for the English had always been fond of flowers, and the Dutch had not yet grown mad (commercially) for tulips; in short, William the Third with a natural love for his Dutch home, made the palace and gardens look as much like it as he could.

And his court, for the most part, was as gloomy as the gardens; for William was not fond of his new subjects; did not choose to converse with them; and was seldom visible but to his Dutch friends. Yet here were occasionally to be seen some of the liveliest wits and courtiers that have left a name in history, forsakers, indeed, of reserved and despotic King James, rather than enthusiasts for the equally reserved and hardly less power-loving King William, who had become, however, by force of circumstances, 55 the instrument for securing freedom. Here came the Earl of Dorset, Prior’s friend, who had been one of the wits of the Court of Charles the Second; Prior, himself, who has stirred William’s Dutch phlegm so agreeably as to be made one of the gentlemen of his bedchamber; Congreve, whose plays Queen Mary admired; Halifax, a minor wit, but no mean statesman; Sir William Temple, who combined public with private life to so high a degree of wisdom and elegance; Swift (probably) then a young man, whom Sir William made use of in his communications with the king; Burnet, the gossiping historian, sometimes wrong-headed, but generally right-hearted, whose officious zeal for the Revolution had made him a bishop; the Earl of Devonshire, whose nobler zeal had made him a duke, one of a family remarkable for their constant and happy combination of popular politics with all the graces of their rank; Lord Monmouth, afterwards the famous, restless Earl of Peterborough, friend of Swift and Pope, conqueror of Spain, and lover, at the age of seventy, of Lady Suffolk; Sheffield, afterwards Duke of Buckinghamshire, a minor wit and poet, in love with (the rank of) the Princess Anne; and last, not least in anything, but good-breeding, and a decent command over his passions, Peter the Great, semi-barbarian, the premature freer of Russian pseudo-civilization, who came to England in order to import the art of ship-building into his dominions, in his own proper mechanical person, and out of the five months which he spent here, passed a good many days out of one of them in interchanging visits with King William at Kensington. 56 The only distinct personal anecdote recorded of William the third in connection with Kensington will remind the reader of similar paternal stories of Agesilaus and others.

A tap was heard one day, at his closet door, while his secretary was in attendance.

“Who is there?” said the king.

“Lord Buck,” answered the little voice of a child of four years of age. It was Lord Buckhurst, the son of his Majesty’s lord high chamberlain, the Earl of Dorset.

“And what does Lord Buck want?” returned William, opening the door.

“You to be a horse to my coach,” rejoined the little magnate. “I’ve wanted you a long time.”

William smiled upon his little friend, with an amiableness which the secretary had never before thought his countenance capable of expressing, and taking the string of the toy in his hand, dragged it up and down the long gallery till his playfellow was satisfied.

The Court and Gardens of Kensington were not livelier in Queen Anne’s time than in that of King William. Anne, as we have seen at Campden House, was a dull woman with a dull husband. They had little to say for themselves; their greatest pleasures were in eating and drinking; the Queen was absurdly fond of etiquette; and as there was nothing to startle decorum in the court morals, the mistress in King William’s time had given something of a livelier stir to the gossip. Swift describes Anne in a circle of twenty visitors as sitting with her fan in her mouth, saying about three words once a minute to 57 some that were near her, and then upon hearing that dinner was ready, going out. In the evening she played at cards; which, long before, and afterwards, was the usual court pastime at that hour.

She does not appear to have been fond of music, or pictures, or books, or anything but what administered to the commonest animal satisfactions, or which delivered her mind at all other times from its tendency to irresolution and tedium.

Addison and Steele might have been occasionally seen at her Kensington levees among the Whigs; and Swift, Prior, and Bolingbroke among the Tories. Marlborough would be there also; ever courtly and smiling, whether he was victorious as general and as the favourite Duchess’s husband, or only bowing the more obsequiously alas! for fear of losing his place and his perquisites.

Anne enlarged the Gardens, but she did not improve the style of gardening. Addison in a paper of the Spectator, written during the last year but one of her reign, catching the last glimpse of a variation, speaks with rapture of the conversion of a disused gravel-pit, which had been left remaining, into a cultivated dell; but it would seem as if this exploit on the part of the gardeners was rather in the hope of making the best of what they considered a bad thing, than intended as an advance towards something better; for they laid out the Queen’s additional acres in the same formal style as King William’s.

Long, straight gravel-walks, and clipped hedges, prevailed throughout, undiversified with the present mixture of 58 freer growing wood. An alcove or two, still existing, were added; and Anne exerted herself to build a long kind of out-house, which still remains; and which she intended, it is said, for the balls and suppers, which certainly took place in it; though we suspect, from the narrowness of its construction, it never was designed for anything but what it is, a green-house.

These most probably constituted all those “elegancies of art,” with which a writer of the time gives her credit for improving the Gardens. Such, at any rate, was the case in the more public portions of them; and if the private ones enjoyed any others, we may guess what they were, from Pope’s banter of the horticultural fashions of the day, in a paper which he contributed to the Guardian, the year after the appearance of that of Addison’s in the Spectator. The following is a taste of them. The poet is giving a catalogue of plants that were to be disposed of by auction:

“Adam and Eve in yew; Adam a little shattered by the fall of the Tree of Knowledge in the great storm; Eve and the Serpent very flourishing.

“St. George in a box; his arm scarce long enough, but will be in a condition to stick the Dragon by next April.

“An old Maid of Honour in wormwood.

“A topping Ben Jonson in laurel.

“A quick-set hog, shot up into a porcupine, by its being forgot a week in rainy weather.”

The Kensington Gardens were popular throughout the whole of the three Georges’ reign, but flourished most, as far as names and fashions are concerned, in those of the 59 first and second. The space of time includes half a century; and Walpole, Lady Suffolk, Beau Nash, and Colley Cibber, lived through it all; the two last from a much earlier period, and Walpole into a much later one, down to the French Revolution. At the beginning of it, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, with the wits of the Kit-Cat club about her, may be considered as having been the reigning belle of the promenaders; to her, succeeded the Bellendens and Lepells, with the same wits grown older; then came Lady Townshend, with the new wits, Horace Walpole, Selwyn, Hanbury Williams, and others; and then crowds were alternately drawn by the “Chudleigh” and the Miss Gunnings.

With the decease of George the Second, glory departed from Kensington as far as Courts were concerned. No reigning sovereign has resided there since George the Third, who inheriting, perhaps, a dislike of the place from his father, the Prince of Wales, appears to have taken no notice of it, except in appointing the clever, but impudent quack, Sir John Hill, its gardener, at the recommendation of Sir John’s then omnipotent brother botanist, the Earl of Bute.

George the Fourth probably regarded the place as a homely concern, quite out of his line. It might suit well enough the book-collecting inclinations of his brother, the Duke of Sussex, with which he had no sympathy; was not amiss as a means of affording a lodging to his brother, the Duke of Kent, with whose habits of regularity, and pardonable amount of debt, his sympathies were as little; and 60 lastly he was well content to think, that the staid-looking house and formal gardens rendered the spot a good out-of-the-way sort of place enough, for obscuring the growth and breeding of his niece, and probable heiress, the Princess Victoria, whose life, under the guidance of a wise mother, promised to furnish so estimable a contrast to his own. As to his brother, King William the Fourth, though he too was a brother, in most respects, very different from himself, we never heard his name mentioned in any what whatever in connection with Kensington.

Adieu then, for the present, and for we know not how long a time hereafter, to Court-holdings in the Palace; to Court splendours, and Court scandals. Adieu Kings listening in closets, and Queens calumniated by ungrateful biographers. Adieu even Maids of Honour. They departed their life with George the Second, and went to live a terribly dull one with his grandson’s Queen, Charlotte, who nearly tired Miss Burney into a consumption.


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