New book reveals the extraordinary sex life of the royal family that held court at Kensington Palace
Edward VII famously called Kensington Palace ‘the aunt hope’ – because so many of his family members were huddled in his sprawling maze of large apartments.
However, residents did not even have to be distantly related to the royal family to qualify for this address.
Throughout the 20th century, untold numbers of blue-blooded courtiers – some quite old – clung to their grace and favor apartments.
Ron Wilson [not his real name], who worked as a servant in the palace in the 1960s, was often baffled by the fact that so many inhabitants seemed completely unknown to each other.
“There were well-known residents like Princess Alice, who was completely mad as only old aristocratic women can be,” he recalled. ‘But there were also a number of other elderly people with wonderfully cut accents in the area.
“They always spoke in a commanding voice, so no one thought to ask if they should have been there. We joked that as long as they sounded good and were confident enough, they could just walk out into the street and no one had said a word.
George I (pictured) made it clear that he much preferred his mistress, Melusine, with whom he would have three daughters. It was different when his wife took a lover
“Some were quite angry. I remember an old lady taking me by one evening and talking to me about a dance she had been before the war. I thought she meant World War II, but soon realized she meant World War I.
She even gossiped softly about Edward VII’s sexual desires. She leaned over and said, “The little bastard barely had a bath in his life. Absolutely smelly. And you know, he only went with women who had owned every man in London. ” I laughed and listened. It was very clumsy because I – as a servant – could have been fired for talking to her; but if I had run away abruptly, she could have fired me.
“I still have no idea who she was.”
Kensington Palace owes its existence to the fact that King William III suffered from asthma. Wanting to get away from his damp and smoky palace in Whitehall, he paid about £ 20,000 for a beautiful house set in fields and meadows in 1689, then spent another £ 92,000 enlarging it.
Several hundred courtiers moved in with the king and queen, although many found it annoying to leave the city center.
Nobody bothered to keep track of who they all were. Indeed, if an utter stranger looked and sounded like a gentleman, he could easily be included in the monarch’s larger chambers.
And if he was then noticed by the king or queen, whether because of his appearance or witty reprisal, his future at the court was assured. Nobody was afraid that a stranger would try to kill the king.
The punishment for such an attempt was so terrifying that it was believed that no one would ever dare. Just as the well-dressed and confident bluffed their way to the king, the servants’ friends could make their way into the Kensington kitchens for free lunches or dinners.
Who would know who they were when not only the courtiers, but some of the higher servants also had their own team of servants?
They all got a pittance, as it was believed that they would steal practically anything that wasn’t nailed. Even at a king’s coronation, food, cutlery, glasses, streamers and even the tables at which the party was served would all be stolen at the end of the day.
Edward VII famously called Kensington Palace (pictured) ‘the aunt hope’ – because so many of his relatives were crawling away in his sprawling maze of large apartments
Things like this were always worst in the royal palaces. For example, at St James’s Palace, a royal servant – Mr. Fortnum – became so adept at stealing candles and other small objects that he was able to do business with his landlord, Mr. Mason, in 1707.
Just up the road from the palace, they set up a shop that made their fortune. Despite its questionable origins, Fortnum & Mason is still considered a chic shop. Back at Kensington Palace, poor old King William – seen by most as a tough Calvinist who didn’t know how to have fun – had to go through several balls a week, attended by up to 600 people at a time. Looking now at the state rooms, which are not that big, it is easy to see why guests complained about the appalling infatuation.
Even worse, people used to defecate in the corner of rooms or in buckets or chests of drawers, often tucked away in hollows behind the fireplaces. This was considered appropriate behavior, but the sheer numbers collected in Kensington meant that the smells became overwhelming.
Eventually, signs in the main rooms had to say ‘No p *** ing’.
The next monarch to occupy Kensington Palace was Queen Anne, whose personal passions were recently unearthed in the 2018 movie The Favorite. Whether she actually had a physical relationship with her close friend, Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, is up for debate, but they certainly had an intense bond.
For years they wrote love letters with pseudonyms; Sarah was Mrs. Freeman and Anne was Mrs. Morley. But Sarah – who had been friends with Anne since childhood – allowed fame to create contempt.
When the queen could no longer bear to be addressed as if she were a village idiot, she sent her friend off the court and never spoke to her again. Meanwhile, Anne had become popular with her subjects.
Cleverly, she had revived an old royal tradition thrown away by picky King William: touching the skin of people with scrofula, a condition that caused the lymph nodes to swell. Despite no evidence that her touch had magical powers, thousands of grateful subjects came to Kensington Palace hoping to be healed by their queen.
As for Anne, her greatest comfort in her last years seems to have been food – especially chocolate. When she died in 1714, she was so fat that her chest was almost square. Because Anne died without an heir, the throne passed to her closest Protestant relative.
For example, Britain was among the first in a series of rather small, ill-tempered Germans. When he arrived, George I already had a dark history. He was married to a cheerful young woman named Sophia for her money, but their relationship quickly turned sour.
From the beginning, he had made it clear that he preferred his mistress, Melusine, with whom he would have three daughters. It was different when his wife took a lover. Like the Mafia, George’s family caused Count Philip von Konigsmark to disappear.
According to historians, he was either thrown into a river or chopped up and buried under the floorboards of George’s Castle in Hanover. Sophia was locked in a castle for the next 30 years and was not allowed to see anyone, not even her children.
So the new king came to Kensington without his consort. Not that he wanted to be there at all: he never learned to speak fluent English and returned to Hanover as often as he could.
Did he feel that some of his courtiers despised him? George certainly did not have the qualities they admired: he was neither witty, nor a good conversationalist or exceptionally polite. Many ridicule him for having both an extremely fat mistress and an extremely thin mistress.
Melusine Schulenburg, the thin one, was known as the giraffe or the maypole; and Charlotte Kielmansegg, the fat one, was known as the elephant.
They were also known as the elephant and the castle. Why castle? Largely, it seems, because Schulenburg (the castle) had three children of George – which led to wonderfully hoarse comments about the king who was “in his castle.”
Charlotte – the elephant – was in fact George’s half-sister, so it seems unlikely that his relationship with her was sexual. But both she and Melusine were given rooms close to the king in Kensington and treated like queens.
Aside from hunting and maintaining his mistresses, George’s other continuing interest was spitting his son, also known as George. He detested him and the feeling was mutual. Nobody knows exactly why. However, it seems a good bet that the Prince of Wales never forgave his father for banishing his mother to a lonely castle.
It was sensible for the young prince to set up an alternative court in Leicester Square, which soon drew the big and the good. Partly to annoy his son, George I then had a beautiful new staircase built in Kensington, bought sparkling new furniture for the large reception areas and started throwing lavish parties.
Sometimes, however, father and son were forced to meet, for example, when the younger George chose a bride. When the king was introduced to his future daughter-in-law, Princess Caroline of Ansbach, he nodded, bowed and lifted her skirts and looked underneath – a gesture hardly intended to endear himself to the young couple.
Later, after the Prince of Wales and his wife produced a family of three daughters and two sons, the king simply ducked in one day and removed them – apart from the oldest, who was trained in Hanover.
Queen Anne’s private passions were recently unearthed in the 2018 movie, The Favorite (pictured, Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne in the movie)
The younger boy died shortly after arriving at Kensington Palace; and for the rest of their youth, the girls were only allowed to see their parents occasionally.
Apart from that, they had a pleasant upbringing. They soon had their own courtiers and were even taught the harpsichord by Handel, a frequent visitor to Kensington Palace. As for the king, his actions became increasingly idiosyncratic.
The palace was bursting at the seams – it could now seat 1,000 people – and started using the servants’ stairs and hallways to evade his courtiers. And every night he spent exactly three hours with his mistress Melusine and their three illegitimate daughters.
He died, probably of a stroke, in 1727 in his beloved Germany. Few people who attended the Kensington court had a good word to say about George II.
Used to finding everyone except his father, he was prone to explosive tantrums – he often tore off his wig and kicked it across the room. He was also so important that he couldn’t joke.
One evening, one of his daughters pulled out a ladies chair as she sat down to play cards. She fell to the ground and the king roared with laughter. Two days later, the lady got revenge by doing the same trick with the king – who was so furious that he banned her from the court.
The new king was happy to have access to his three daughters again. But – shades from his father – he developed a strong aversion to his son and heir.
Part of the problem was that after Frederick was born in Hanover, he just left it there. They only met again when the boy came to England at 9 p.m. As for his father, Frederick could do no good.
And the prince, who married at the age of 29, retaliated. For weeks, Frederick and his wife Augusta infuriated Queen Caro’s line, for example, arriving late at the chapel in Kensington on purpose. To get to their seats, they had to push past her, which meant the queen had to get up.
This continued until Caroline could no longer hold out: she told her son and his wife that they should use an alternative entrance. Frederick saw this as a terrible baloney and once refused to visit the chapel again.
Afraid that the Prince of Wales would establish an alternative court – as he had done – George II continued to allow Frederick to attend the Kensington court. But to the delight of the courtiers, the two men ignored each other.
Then, in 1736, Frederick did something the king never forgave him for. Augusta had given birth in the royal palace at Hampton Court.
Without his father’s permission, Frederick dragged his wife out of bed, called for a carriage, and drove through the night so that the baby would be born at St James’s, far from his hated parents who insisted on being at birth.
When the king and queen found out, they ran through London to catch up with both of them. Not only were they furious that the couple had left without permission, but they suspected they would run to give themselves time to find a healthy male baby.
They only calmed down when they discovered she had given birth to a girl. Nevertheless, the king kept glowing that Frederick and Augusta had left one of his houses without his permission.
He immediately wrote to his ministers, courtiers and other members of his family to warn them that if anyone had anything to do with his son and daughter-in-law, they would no longer be allowed into the presence of the king.
What irritated him most was that his heir would one day sit on the throne. So when Frederick died in 1751 – from a lung abscess – George II couldn’t hide his joy. He died in his toilet in Kensington at the age of 76 from a ruptured aortic aneurysm.
A servant heard a sigh – “which was not the usual royal wind,” said the king’s doctor – and found him on the floor. The crown duly passed to Frederick’s 22-year-old son, who became George III.
Perhaps because his memories of Kensington were not entirely happy, he turned Buckingham House in Westminster into a palace. Kensington Palace was left with cobwebs, abandoned and unloved, with only a few old keepers on site to keep an eye on things.
The beautiful state rooms became damp and eventually became a shop for coal, broken furniture and abandoned photographs. But there were still enough habitable apartments for what now became a seemingly endless stream of uncles, distant cousins, retired courtiers, and wheeled aristocrats.
One of them was the daughter of George III, Elizabeth, who was married to Frederick, Landgraaf of Hesse-Homburg at the age of 48 – a hugely obese German widower known as Humbug.
He smelled so bad, it was said, that he was forced to wash immediately before the wedding – and when he and his bride drove off in their carriage afterward, he threw himself over her. Another resident was the father of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Kent, who was in terrible debt.
After his death, when Victoria was only a year old, all his furniture and belongings in Kensington were removed by creditors. His widow borrowed enough money to buy everything back – so it had to be returned to the palace a few weeks later. Victoria lived there herself until she became queen at the age of 18.
From now on, she used Kensington as a repository for her own courtiers and relatives – including her favorite uncle Augustus, Duke of Sussex.
Endearingly eccentric, he was addicted to eating little more than ice cream and turtle soup in his later years, spending almost all of his money collecting old Bibles and other books. At night, unable to sleep due to his asthma, he roamed the corridors and gardens wearing a large black skull cap and long dress.
He refused to remove this cap because when he did – for a group portrait of his cousin Victoria joining – he had become ill with a bad cold. During the last decade of the Duke’s life, all of his many rooms in Kensington – including his six libraries – had to leave their connecting doors permanently open so that his collection of songbirds could be released from cages to fly as they pleased.
And every day one of his servants spent almost all of his time winding and customizing Augustus’s huge collection of clocks.
As a result, his apartment was filled by the hour (and in many cases half an hour and fifteen minutes) with bells and gongs, music melodies, folk songs, and martial airs. By the time of his death in 1843, the Duke had collected more than 5,000 Bibles – in which his interest was probably more academic than spiritual.
A man who bought one of his prayer books was shocked to find a note in August’s handwriting and said, “I don’t believe a word of it.”
In the mid-1800s, an old mansion on the other side of Kensington High Street had been converted from the palace into a madhouse. The joke among Londoners was that when passing the street you couldn’t tell if the shelter was left or right.
In reality, some palace residents seemed to live in a different world. For example, Queen Victoria’s daughter, Louise, would write long prayers and send them to several members of the government.
Dying in her bedroom in Kensington – at 91 – she put on her old wedding veil. Victoria’s youngest daughter, Beatrice, lived in the palace from 1896 until her death in 1944.
She has never fully recovered from the shock of Britain’s two-fold war with Germany. A servant recalled muttering to herself, “Absurd. Poor Germany. They are our friends, indeed our family. Ridiculous. ”
Moments later, she said, “Carriages are really so much more civilized [than cars]. ‘
Another relic of the past was Princess Alice, who became Victoria’s last surviving grandchild. She turned 97 and died in Kensington in 1981.
She was often wandered alone in the shops on Kensington High Street.
Apparently, she was surprised to find that you had to pay if you wanted to take something with you.
Taken from Kensington Palace: An Intimate Memoir From Queen Mary To Meghan Markle by Tom Quinn, published by Biteback on May 14 for £ 20. © Tom Quinn 2020. To order a copy for £ 15, visit bitebackpublishing.com.