Kensington Palace is among the most misunderstood of royal residences. To outsiders, the elegant pavilion designed by Sir Christopher Wren for King William and Queen Mary in the 1690s, and bordering the western edge of London’s unrivalled series of interlinked city parks, looks hard to beat.
In royal circles, however, Kensington Palace has always been regarded as the booby prize (Clarence House, Charles’s house, is the jewel in the crown).
Although it has had its fair share of glamorous residents—Diana, Margaret, and now William and Kate (who took over Margo’s former digs, scene of many a ’60s bacchanal)—it has long been home to successive generations of impoverished minor royals too incompetent or too hidebound by tradition to earn their own living.
Indeed, some idea of the enthusiasm the royals have for the place can be gleaned from the fate of Margaret’s apartment after her exit—it was used for storing chairs, before it was restored, at great expense, for the benefit of William and Kate.
Currently it houses Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester; the three men are the queen’s cousins and hardly names to conjure with.
Edward VII called it “the Aunt heap” and the queen used to refer to “KP” as the “dowager dumping ground.”
Unkind commentators would say that Princess Eugenie’s unconfirmed but reportedly imminent arrival in the grounds of the palace merely cements that long tradition. The Yorks have long had an unenviable reputation as Britain’s laziest, freeloading royals.
In fact, however, Eugenie’s forthcoming move to Kensington Palace—she is taking over Ivy Cottage, a substantial three-bedroom home adjacent to Harry’s house, Nottingham Cottage—is a dramatic statement of intent by William, Kate, and Harry telegraphing the fact that they intend the compound to be a significant power base over the next decades; for the duration, effectively, of King Charles’s rule.
“They play it down and just call it ‘our London base’ and it doesn’t feel like a ‘court’ as such, but it definitely is the center of operations for them,” says a source. In contrast to the formality that Charles loves so much, at KP, “It’s all very self-consciously relaxed,” says the source, “First names are insisted on. Harry sticks on a baseball hat and pops out to Starbucks on Kensington Gore to get lattes for the staff and nips down to Tesco on the High Street to get milk. He never gets spotted—it’s weird.”
In the fullness of time, the queen’s cousins will pass on and it will be interesting to see who gets to move into the big house as they drop away.
Harry (plus, hopefully, a spouse) will be first in line to get a proper apartment in the building, but it now seems like the Cambridges are contemplating bringing Eugenie in from the cold (her boyfriend Jack Brooksbank is universally loved by the family, unlike Bea’s ex, Dave Clark).
Her father, Andrew, has been ruthlessly cut out of the royal ensemble by Charles, so it would be a rather rebellious and typically headstrong move by William to once again involve Eugenie in the official life of the monarchy, and giving her a proper grace-and-favor home (she will be paying an undisclosed rent on Ivy Cottage) in the palace even more so.
And there is no reason why KP should not rise again, to be once more the epitome of royal cool. Until the demise of George II, it was the full-time residence of the monarch and current rumor has it that William, Kate, George, and Charlotte will be relocating back there permanently in the next few years—relegating their country pad, Anmer Hall, to the status of weekend hidey-hole when George starts school.
Apartment 1A, which they live in, and which the world finally saw the twee-luxe inside of during President Obama’s interview with a dressing-gown clad Prince George, is actually a magnificent 10-bedroom town house.
But Eugenie’s return to KP is a fascinating development for royal nerds.
There are many who feel Charles’s “slimming down” of the monarchy has gone rather too far. Yes, Andrew was a liability and had to be cut off, but in freezing out the inoffensive Edward and Sophie, Charles may, critics suggest, have cut off his nose to spite his face.
Charitable organizations, who rely on a royal connection, however tenuous, are increasingly nervous about what a royal family of five—Charles, Camilla, Will, Kate, and Harry—means for them.
Those anxious fundraisers may have Will and Kate on their side. The Cambridges have made it pretty clear they do not intend to do 400-plus engagements a year like their parents and grandparents have done.
To make their appearance schedule compatible with having a family life, they will need help. Rather than slimming the family down, William appears to be contemplating fattening it back up.
They may conclude, as many monarchs have done before them, that a set of rooms for a compliant cousin at Kensington Palace is a small price to pay for a loyal, stand-in ribbon cutter.
Another difference is that unlike previous heirs to the monarchy, Will and Kate are not planning their own departure from the premises—Charles, 67, could easily live another 25 years.
And sources say that he has no desire to move out of lovely Clarence House into the rather municipal, apartment-above-the-store that is Buckingham Palace.
And this, really, is why KP is finally shaking off its historical legacy as a sort of regal old people’s home, and instead cementing itself as the nerve center of young royal operations.
Although Charles’s reluctance to move into Buck House has forced the issue, how Charles will react to Eugenie being housed at KP is anyone’s guess. The depth of his fraternal mistrust and disappointment with Andrew should not be underestimated, and, for such a traditional man, he is very unpredictable.
What is clear is that his long-cherished master plan—to control all three royal courts (his mother’s, his own, and KP)—is dead in the water. William won’t stand for it, and nor will Duchess Kate.
Charles likes being in control. He thinks, as king, it should be his right to organize the affairs of the monarchy top to bottom.
His son, it appears, has other ideas, and developing KP as the fulcrum on which a dynamic young royal team can leverage its power is an important step in William’s path to making the monarchy his own one day.