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What Is Kensington Palace?

By Elizabeth West
Updated May 17, 2024
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Kensington Palace in London is one of the British royal family's current residences, home to nobles from 300 years of England's history. Princess Margaret and Princess Diana both lived there, and it is the birthplace of long-reigning British ruler Queen Victoria. Located in the midst of the spacious Kensington Gardens, the palace is a working museum of the history of the monarchy. Kensington is managed by Historic Royal Palaces and visitors are a large portion of its revenue stream. Renovations begun in 2011 promised to make the palace a fairy-tale destination for tourists.

In the early 1600s Kensington district was located outside the city of London, where a house was originally built for the Earl of Nottingham. King William III was the first monarch to live there, and it was known as Kensington House because it was still a private residence. Later it was enlarged and reoriented by famed architect Sir Christopher Wren with more elaborate apartments and rooms of state. Subsequent royal residents called for numerous additions to Kensington Palace, including the Orangery for Queen Anne, a lavish garden and the Cupola Room designed by artist William Kent in 1722.

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, a large portion of the district became the grounds of Kensington Palace and the home for King George II and Queen Caroline. Outdated baroque landscaping was redesigned by Charles Bridgeman into what is now Kensington Gardens, so that the royals strolling about the grounds would have magnificent views of the palace from every conceivable angle. Queen Victoria, whose reign from 1837 to 1901 was the longest of any English monarch, was christened in the Cupola Room and grew up in Kensington Palace. Elizabeth II's grandmother Queen Mary, owner of a famous dollhouse, was also born there.

Some of the features of Kensington Palace include a throne, which at one time visitors were required to bow to even if unoccupied. The King's Staircase, where royalty would enter their apartments, is decorated with William Kent's life-sized painting of George I's court. Preserved much as they were at the time are the King’s Gallery, containing a Van Dyck portrait of Charles I on horseback, and the bedroom where Victoria learned she was queen at age eighteen. Historic Royal Palaces, a nonprofit charity, maintains the State Rooms of the palace while the private quarters are managed under the Royal Household Property Section.

With security concerns for its famous residents at the forefront, over time the buildings of Kensington Palace were secluded behind barriers of fences and hedges. In 2011, renovations were begun to integrate Kensington Palace back into the surrounding Gardens. The renovation intended to also provide facilities for education and community activities, and welcome visitors to an enchanted and historical interactive experience.

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