Month: July 2014

The King’s Palaces

When we think of the British royal family, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle immediately spring to mind. But it’s interesting to discover both these iconic residences owe much of their modern prominence to a relatively recent king: George III.

 

George III came to the throne in 1760, determined to live in a different style from his forebears. He disliked the formal, stately palaces of Kensington and Hampton Court, which he associated with his hated grandfather. While he was happy to perform ceremonial duties in St. James’s Palace, he wanted a peaceful home for his wife and children. To this end he purchased a modest red brick house from the Duke of Buckingham, informing his Prime Minister it was “not meant for a palace, but a retreat”.

Naturally, Buckingham House required some remodelling to become “Queen’s House” – the name it went by during George III’s reign. But rather than vamping it up, George actually had the house toned down. Grand iron screens were replaced by simple railing, while the elaborate formal gardens were simplified.

This was in keeping with George’s modest tastes. His apartments, on the ground floor were sparsely decorated by royal standards, painted green-grey “without the smallest affectation, ostentation or meanness.” The grandest rooms were the King’s great libraries; the two storey octagon library that could only be entered through his bedchamber and the west library, connected directly to the weather-vane so the King could see how his fleet fared at sea.

However, George and his young wife Charlotte were not adverse to a little splendour. The Queen’s rooms, on the next floor, were a show case for her collections of watches and curiosities. Mrs Powys notes the queen had “the most capital pictures, the finest Dresden…besides the gilt plate, innumerable nick-nacks”.It seems that then, as today, decorative touches and fashionable décor were considered part of the women’s realm. We can glimpse red damask walls and marble chimney pieces in paintings of Charlotte with her young children, as well as black and gold “japanned” panels in her breakfast room. Antique roman ceilings and crystal chandeliers blocked out the next storey, which held the nursery and the servants. Rather usefully, the upper storey had “floors so contrived as to prevent all noise” from disturbing the queen.

Although George and Charlotte succeeded in making Queen’s House a family home, where the majority of their children were born, it didn’t fulfill their need to improve and develop. Windsor Castle was another project taken up by the royal couple. Long disused, the castle itself was unfit for habitation, so they bought up two lodges nearby, one of which used to belong to Queen Anne, the other to Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynn. Vast extensions were made to accommodate George and Charlotte’s swelling family, giving the buildings the look of a barracks. Nonetheless, only the finest decorations were to be found inside; paper hangings, carved gilt frames, curtains of white dimity with cotton fringes, Portland stone staircases and chairs knotted with floss silk.

Once more, Windsor became a focal point of royal life, as it was in the Stuart days. George liked the country life at Windsor, building his own mill and miniature farm. I get the feeling that Charlotte was less keen, staying indoors with a migraine while her husband took the children on long, muddy, “barbaric” walks about the countryside.

George III

Between 1781 and 1804 renovation work took place at the castle. While apartments remained unfinished, courtiers often urged one another to bring warm cloaks for the drafty corridors and thick boots for the gravel of the terrace. Even when building was complete, the rooms remained cold. Charlotte complained of needing to huddle up with her daughters in furs beside the fire. She was not allowed carpets as the King said they harboured dust. I imagine she would have rather stayed in her lodge, but alas it was demolished. Luckily for Charlotte, she was able to buy Frogmore House as her little retreat within the grounds of Windsor, and decorate it more to her own taste.

Charlotte and George’s son, George IV, remodelled Queen’s House into Buckingham Palace and restored Windsor Castle to a state of pure opulence, making them the grand houses we know today. However, amongst these success stories for the family there is one poignant project that was never finished: George III’s “Castellated Palace” at Kew. A gothic wonder of turrets, the Castellated Palace was conceived in one of George’s many bouts of illness. He was to make “Ludlow Castle, improved”, a fortress in stone. But with an eccentric, sick king, an architect with “a certain lack of diligence” and a shortage of workmen, the plan was doomed to failure. Running up bills of £100,000 – over twice its original estimate- the Castellated Palace was finally abandoned when George became incurable in 1810. The shell remained, “an image of distempered reason”, until George IV demolished it in the late 1820s, using the building materials for other projects.

 

The Duchess joins the ranks

220px-Vicky_of_KentYesterday I was researching at Kensington Palace (my second office, as I like to think of it), which has a wealth of Hanoverian connections. My main reason for going was to see Past Pleasures, who are putting on a wonderful series of Georgian re-enactments for the 300th anniversary of George I’s accession. I was lucky enough to meet the Duchess of Richmond (later mother to the infamous Lady Sarah Lennox) and assist her in dressing Queen Caroline. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos for you. To protect the precious history inside Kensington, flash is not allowed and my camera refuses to take anything but a black blur without flash. So you will just have to go and see it for yourself!

While I was wandering round, I decided to visit the wonderful Victoria Revealed exhibition again. If you haven’t been I would highly recommend it. Victoria’s world is brought to life with her words stenciled on the walls and a wealth of her personal possessions. Her black baby boots are one of my favourite pieces, along with the bracelet of hearts commemorating the birth of each of her children. You also get to see Victoria’s beautiful wedding dress. What I love about this is that Victoria was only 5ft 1 and they have displayed her dress in front of a mirror. So if you stand before it and angle your head, you can see how you would look wearing the dress! (Yes, it did suit me rather well.)

The exhibition reminded me how much I love Victoria. Yes, she was neurotic, obsessed and a pretty bad mother but she was also brave, loyal and fiercely intelligent. The mix of good and bad in her is one that fascinates me. I remember reading long extracts from her earlier diaries and really connecting with the young lady who tried to be good and loved her dog called Dash (my dog at the time was called Splash, I like to think they would have been friends). It began to trouble me that this Queen, who interested me so much, was not included in my Hanoverian monarchs series. She was the last Hanoverian Queen – and she was Hanoverian through and through. From her protruding blue eyes to her lust, temper tantrums and hatred of her eldest son, she lived and breathed the family characteristics I have come to know so well.

Initially, I suppose Victoria missed my list because she was a queen, in her own right. My books were planned as a series covering the women who loved the Hanoverian monarchs, and this monarch was a woman herself. Moreover, she is still a well known figure today, not a forgotten heroine without a voice. But yesterday I considered the women in Victoria’s life and realised there was much to say. Many talented authors have already covered the stories of Victoria’s daughters – but what about her mother?

Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld married George III and Queen Charlotte’s fourth son, Edward Duke of Kent. She had already been widowed once and was to find herself a widow again before many years had passed. She first began to interest me when I was researching the life of Princess Sophia for Queen of Bedlam. Sophia and Duchess Victoria were close friends. They had two things in common: concern for the upbringing of little Victoria and a fascination with John Conroy. There came other family ties as the years progressed: the Duchess’s brother, Leopold, married my favourite Georgian princess, Charlotte of Wales. As you will know if you read my blog, I am completely smitten by handsome Leopold, so naturally I also take an interest in his sister! I came across Victoria of Kent yet again when looking into the life of Queen Adelaide. As the Duchess’s daughter was to succeed Adelaide’s husband, the two often came into close contact. Poor Adelaide had to smooth the way on many occasions between William IV and the Duchess.

These disagreements with the King hint to Victoria of Kent’s character. She was proud, controlling and shrewd. She has an infamous reputation as the ultimate pushy mother who wanted to rule through her daughter. But actually, she was a woman left in very difficult circumstances who fought for the rights of her daughter. I think it would be amazing to explore the real woman behind this dark legend. Even more thrilling would be the chance to see and write about Victoria through her eyes.  So I am adding Duchess Victoria of Kent to the Hanoverian Series. This will ensure I cover the dynasty from beginning to end (although Edward VII did have Hanoverian blood, and certainly the eyes, he was officially of the house of Saxe-Coburg Gotha because of his father). The book will be all the more interesting because it will start in the reign of George III and progress all the way to the beginning of the Victorian age. Quiet a fitting way, I think, to tie up the story. There are other novels to work on first, but I have to confess – I can’t wait to begin this one!

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