The Secret History of Kensington Palace

As Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces there is no one better placed than Lucy Worsley to take us on a tour of the history of Kensington Palace. In her new book Courtiers she gives us the men and women who considered it home, worked there and visited during the time of George II, and in this accompanying Q & A she explains why she considers it to be one of London’s great undiscovered secrets.

She tells us what life in the Georgian court would have been like, especially for ladies, and provides a guide to Georgian etiquette. She also explains what she does in her day job with Historic Royal Palaces, and when you might be seeing her on your television in 2010 …

On Courtiers

Why did you write ‘Courtiers’? How did it start?

[blog] courtiers 200I got the idea for Courtiers from my work as Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. Several times a week, I climb up the King’s Grand Staircase leading to the state apartments at Kensington Palace. In the 1720s, William Kent painted the staircase with murals, including portraits of 45 servants in the royal household at the time. Looking up at their faces, I found myself increasingly curious to find out who they all were. When I started looking into the subject of who was who, I found that all the different guidebooks contradicted each other, and that many of their identifications were quite mistaken.

So, I decided I had to do the job properly, and start research from scratch. Five years later … Courtiers was the result. It tells the story of the Georgian court through the eyes of some of the people who knew it best: the royal servants.

Do you have a favourite courtier from the book? Why?

I have a soft spot for the three main female characters in the book: firstly, Queen Caroline, who was a fat, funny German immigrant who never expected or wanted to become queen. She would have preferred a life as a philosopher. She did a great job as queen, despite being cruelly abandoned by her husband George II, and suffered a horrible death with extreme bravery. She had an infectious laugh and her servants adored her. The way her husband left his mistress and came back to her towards the very end is one of the eighteenth century’s greatest love stories.

Secondly, there’s Henrietta Howard. Rather bizarrely, she was Queen Caroline’s bedchamber servant as well as being her husband’s mistress: a very odd love triangle. Caroline and Henrietta actually got on rather well together, as Henrietta only worked in the royal household to escape from her violent alcoholic husband. The queen sympathised with her and shielded her. Nor was it terribly shocking to the court as a whole that the German-born king was unfaithful to his wife. When his grandmother heard about Henrietta, she said ‘at least she will improve his English’.

Finally, there’s Molly Lepell, the young and glamorous Maid of Honour, who made an impulsive, secret and crazy marriage to the court’s bisexual Vice-Chamberlain, a mistake which could have wrecked her life. Molly, who struggled with depression and dabbled with laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol), eventually escaped from court to live serenely on her own, comforted by books.

Is there a courtier that you dislike? Why?

Oh, the more you know about people, the more you understand them, and the more you understand them, the harder it is to dislike them. On the surface, King George II is a deeply unpleasant man: unfaithful to his wonderful wife, constantly at daggers drawn with his father and with his children, bad-tempered and short-sighted. But I warmed to him when I understood what a poor hand life had dealt him.

When he was eleven, his mother was imprisoned for adultery. His father, King George I, kidnapped four of his children, and one of them died in his care. His wife and five of his eight children died before him, and he only realised too late how much he loved them. This helps to explain his celebrated blustering and bad temper.

You clearly think Kensington Palace is important: why so?

Kensington Palace is most famous as the home of Diana, Princess of Wales, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s one of the great undiscovered secrets of London, because most people don’t even realise that it’s open to visitors, or that it contains objects and stories covering the whole of royal history from the seventeenth century onwards. We’re carrying out a big project to open up the palace to many more visitors, which will be complete in 2012.

I particularly like the way the palace captures four centuries of royal history. We go from William and Mary and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, to spectacular eighteenth-century state apartments of the Hanoverians, to the childhood of Queen Victoria (who was born, grew up, met Albert and became queen at Kensington Palace), to the modern royal family: Princesses Margaret and Diana are key twentieth-century Kensington residents.

The other thing I like about Kensington Palace is the way that it’s a curiously feminine place, and many of the princesses who’ve lived here have been mad, sad and sometimes bad. I’m fascinated by the job of princess: duty and pleasure in constant conflict.

Why did so many people clamour to become courtiers if the job was so awful?

People made enormous efforts to obtain court posts, and underwent humiliation, gruelling work and financial ruin to keep them. The explanation is ambition. At court, you could potentially win power, royal favour or great riches. Although the eighteenth century sees the rise of Parliament and the gradual decline of royal power, the court still matters in this period. It’s really the last great gasp of palace life.

What are a few of your favourite anecdotes from the book?

I’ve always been horribly fascinated by Queen Caroline’s death. She collapsed in November 1737 with a pain in her stomach, and it turned out that for several years she’d an umbilical hernia – basically a hole in her belly – which she’d kept secret from everyone but her husband. She didn’t want to be examined by doctors, or to have to admit such an embarrassing, immodest complaint. In 1737, a loop of her intestine popped out through the hole. What the doctors should have done is push it back inside. What they actually did was to cut it off, destroying her digestive system. It took her ten days to die.

Another rather curious episode revolves around the missing letters in the courtier John Hervey’s letter book. Ancestor of the various frivolous Herveys of Ickworth House who are active upon today’s social scene, he was a likewise a great socialite, but nearly lost everything though his weakness for young men. Sodomy was still a crime still punishable by death. His relationship with his lover Ste Fox is well known to historians, but rather mysteriously letters from the period 1730-1732 have been cut out of his letter book, and his memoirs for those years are likewise missing. I argue that the excisions were made by a prudish, Victorian, Hervey, who wanted to cover up the evidence that his ancestor also had a second, secret and even more dangerous sexual relationship: with Frederick, the Prince of Wales.

Peter the Wild Boy has an incredible story; do you think the court showed compassion or cruelty when they decided to keep him as a type of ‘pet’?

Peter the Wild Boy had a heart-rending story: he was an autistic child found wandering in the woods near Hanover, and was brought to court as a kind of human pet. The courtiers loved the puzzle he presented: what did it mean to be human? Did Peter, who possessed no speech, possess a soul?  These questions were central to the Enlightenment.

Peter’s tutor, Dr John Arbuthnot, did his best to teach the Wild Boy to talk, but ‘he had a tendency to run away if not held by his coat’, and was beaten with a leather strap. He had to wear an iron collar (middle picture above) marked with his name.

You can’t help feeling sorry for Peter, but by the standards of the rest of the courtiers he had a happy ending. He did not end up crossed in love, or addicted to alcohol, but was sent to live on a farm in Berkhamstead where he passed the time in singing or stargazing.

The acceptance of mistresses at court is unimaginable by today’s standards. Do you think this role offered women more freedom, or was it just another type of constraint?

Ooh, interesting question. It’s tempting to see royal mistresses as feisty females, using their brains and wiles to get on in the world. And some of them did, very successfully. But you can also see, in the distressing story of Henrietta Howard, someone who was forced into the role of mistress. Her husband was a violent spendthrift, so she had to take a job as the queen’s servant in order to escape from him and to support herself. Then, to keep her job, she had to become the king’s mistress, which was clearly no joke. But Henrietta had a stroke of luck: an unexpected legacy allowed her to leave both her first husband and her royal lover, and to get married a second time to the true love of her life.

The next king after George II (George III) was determined never to have mistresses like his predecessor, because he thought that princes fallen into female hands ‘make miserable figures’. Morally he may have been correct, but women were much less influential at his court, and their voices less clearly heard.

A Fact Sheet on the Curious World of the Georgian Court

The Georgian royal household was staggeringly vast and complicated. The highest ranking of its members, the courtiers proper, were the ladies and gentlemen in waiting. These noblemen and women were glad to serve the king and queen in even quite menial ways because of the honour involved. Henrietta Howard, for example, had to hold the basin into which the queen spat while cleaning her teeth.

Beneath these top courtiers were about 950 other servants, organised into a byzantine web of departments ranging from hair-dressing to rat-catching, and extending right down to the four ‘necessary women’ who cleaned the palace and emptied the ‘necessaries’ or chamber-pots.

What did you wear at court?

If you were a lady, you had to wear the court uniform: the ‘mantua’. A coat-like dress spread out sideways over immensely wide hoops, this formal court dress became trapped in a fashion time warp when the rest of the world moved on. Tightly-laced, uncomfortable, and immensely heavy because of the silver thread, the skirts got wider and wider as the eighteenth century went on. Gentlemen wore a wig, an embroidered suit and a sword, and under their elbows they carried a flat, unwearable version of a hat. Because you had to bare your head in front of the king, no one wore real hats at court.

How do you walk in a dress like this?

It’s quite hard to walk in a mantua – the whalebone hoops force you to take tiny steps, and you have to go through doors sideways. (Grand palace doorways are just the right width to accommodate the hooped skirts.) Because of their tiny steps people said court ladies looked like they rolled about on wheels. Ladies in waiting weren’t allowed to sit down, or to fold their arms, and leave the royal presence they had to curtsey three times then back out of the room. Your dancing master trained you how to do all this.

How do you get about town?

Travelling by sedan chair, you would fold up your whalebone hoops on each side: ladies were described as looking like strange winged insects. This reveals everything underneath, and Georgian ladies didn’t wear underpants (not invented yet). But they didn’t mind what their footmen saw.  You also had to tilt your head back and remain motionless so the roof didn’t squash your piled-up hair.

How do you go to the loo in a dress like this?

Easier than it looks, as you weren’t wearing knickers. You would either squat over a chamberpot, or use a ‘bourdaloue’: a little jug like a gravy boat that you clenched between your thighs. However, if the queen didn’t grant you permission to go, you just had to try to hold on. Once, one of Queen Caroline’s ladies couldn’t wait, and a humiliating pool of urine crept out from under her skirt and ‘threatened the shoes of bystanders’.

What messages can you signal with your fan?

Most people think that the secret language of the fan – ‘beware, my husband approaches’, ‘you are cruel’, ‘don’t forget me’, etc. – is a Victorian invention. But I believe it was already in place in the 1720s. According to the language of the fan, the ladies painted by William Kent on the staircase at the Kensington Palace are all saying variations of the same thing: ‘I am married’, ‘I wish to get rid of you’ or just plain ‘no’. Either this is a very strange coincidence, or else William Kent was playing a joke in depicting all these ravishing ladies making such cruel denials.

Q & A on Historic Royal Palaces and life as its Chief Curator

What is Historic Royal Palaces and what is your job?

[blog] worsley 200Historic Royal Palaces is the independent charity which looks after the five unoccupied royal palaces in London: Hampton Court, The Tower of London, the state apartments at Kensington Palace, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens. We get no money from the Royal Family or the government, so we’re really grateful to every single person who buys a ticket to visit us!  As well as having a day out, they’re supporting our conservation and education work.

My team of fifteen curators are based across our various sites. It’s our job to research the history of each palace, make new acquisitions for the collections, put together new displays, supervise archaeological digs, write guidebooks, give tours, make TV programmes: all the fun stuff.

That sounds interesting! And where do you actually work?

My main office is at Hampton Court Palace, in what used to be a courtier’s apartment. It’s up a spiral staircase of fifty-one steps off Chapel Court, and it’s just like Hogwarts. My room is full of ‘resting’ exhibits, including a famous stuffed raven from the Tower of London called Black Jack. He was killed by the sound of the cannons going off at the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1851.

During the course of a week I usually visit the Tower of London or Kensington Palace as well. We’ve got a big project going on at Kensington at the moment, because the whole place needs opening up and re-presenting. That’ll be finished shortly; in the meantime we’re having an exhibition of eighteenth-century court dress.

And how did you become a curator?

My father’s a scientist, and when I was sixteen I chose to study maths, chemistry and biology to please him. But I just wasn’t enjoying it, and I decided to follow my heart and change to history instead. Golly, my dad was cross. ‘You’ll never earn your living with a history degree!’ he said. So now I really enjoy thinking ‘Ha! I do’.

I did my history degree at Oxford, and while I was living in a fourteenth-century building there (New College) I got interested in historic architecture. My first job after leaving college was at a minor stately home called Milton Manor, where I worked in the archives and fed the llamas. After that I became the administrator of the Wind and Watermills Section of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. This is a very august conservation charity that was founded by William Morris. Then I became Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings for English Heritage. I worked at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire, putting together new exhibitions and doing research.

There I became rather obsessed with the character of the man who built the castle, the arch-Royalist Duke of Newcastle, whose interests were horses, women and architecture. He lost a vital battle in the English Civil War because he was sitting in his coach having a smoke at the wrong moment. I ended up writing about his life and houses in my book Cavalier (2007). When the job at Historic Royal Palaces came up I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do more. I’ve always had to work really hard, but you’ll hear no complaints from me: history is my vocation.

What TV programmes are you presenting during 2010?

First, in February, a half-hour programme for BBC1 South about King Alfred the Great. I present an assessment of his life kicking off from his jewel that survives in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Made in and around Winchester, capital of Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex, it’s part of the BBC’s festival called ‘A history of the world in 100 objects’.

Then in May, I’ll be appearing as a lead expert contributor for a Channel 4/The Smithsonian Channel documentary called The Curse of the Hope Diamond. I investigate the diamond’s theft, along with the rest of the French Crown Jewels, in 1792, and its subsequent possible ownership by George IV. I visit locations including the chateau of Versailles, the Grand-Meuble in the Place de la Concorde, the Musee Carnavalet, the British Library, Kensington Palace and the Wallace Collection in London.

Then, in the autumn, I’m presenting a series called If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, first on BBC4 and then on primetime BBC2. Four one-hour episodes will explore the history of the bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen.

There’s more from Lucy at her website:


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