Life in the Palace
His Royal Highness Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester and first cousin to Queen Elizabeth, moved into Kensington Palace in 1972, 10 years before Charles and Diana. He and his wife, Birgitte, their three children, his mother, Princess Alice, and their staff occupy 35 rooms on the palace’s choice southwest corner, next to Princess Margaret’s apartment. The Duke, 41, an architect by training, recently sat down over a palace blueprint with London bureau chief Fred Hauptfuhrer. It was the first time one of the royal residents has talked about what it’s like to live in “K.P.”
Do the inhabitants always call Kensington Palace K.P.?
Always. If you ask a taxi driver to take you to Kensington Palace, he takes you to the Kensington Palace Hotel. So it’s K.P.
Why do royals, who obviously can afford their own digs, end up living together?
All the palaces were designed for multiple occupancy, if you like. It started when Louis XIV of France built Versailles. Louis inherited a large, wealthy, potentially strong country that had been wracked by civil war between rival aristocratic groups. He needed the aristocracy; but, on the other hand, he was determined to destroy their real power. So he created this extraordinary institution whereby they were all voluntarily incarcerated in this great pile at Versailles. The purpose was to get anybody who was anybody in one place where they’d all be watching each other. It was obviously a nightmare to live there.
So Kensington was modeled on Versailles?
Just in terms of who lived there. In this country our courts were much less egocentric. When King William III bought this property from the Earl of Nottingham in 1689, he told the architect, Christopher Wren, “Build me a palace at Kensington, but make it plain, like a farmhouse.” Wren didn’t really build it plain like a farmhouse, but it’s very much plainer than, say, Hampton Court, another Wren-designed residence.
Yet the monarch doesn’t live at Kensington Palace anymore.
No. It ceased to be a royal palace in 1760 and became the home of lesser members of the family. They did not lead a “court life” inasmuch as people would not come to call on them before breakfast as they would have in a monarch’s house. You know, the King was almost never alone. Somebody or other had the right to be in the bedchambers, and policy was discussed while he put on his shirt, or even while he was sitting on the loo. The “Privy Council” were those who had the right to sit there while he was grunting away, literally. But that was in the dim and distant past.
Why do you live here?
If you were offered it, wouldn’t you live here? I moved in when I married. At the time, my family was living at York House, which is part of St. James’s Palace. It had no garden and was pretty charmless as a private house. So when we came here, we at last found a small, compact and charming house with a garden. My wife has redecorated several of the rooms. It’s her nest, so to speak.
What are the sights and sounds from your window?
One hears the birds and you look out the window and you can see kites that people fly in Kensington Gardens. When there is a thunderstorm, I look out of my room and I can see a row of white classic urns on the top of the southern facade. If you get the sun shining on that with the black thunder-cloud behind, it can be very dramatic.
It’s quite noisy during Ramadan. The Moslem children get fed before sunrise, and they don’t want to go back to bed. So they go and play in the park. It might be six in the morning, and you wonder what on earth is going on. Then you suddenly realize.
Who pays for your accommodations?
There’s no rent, and the Department of the Environment is responsible for the upkeep of the building. I think they paid for the decoration initially, and then when we redid it, I think we paid for it. Or perhaps we shared the cost. I’m not absolutely sure. We pay heating, electricity, water and telephone. These are apportioned by household.
How is K.P. for children?
Quite nice. It’s always nice for children to see other children around, and they bump into each other when their nannies ferry them to and from school. Having a garden is also a huge advantage: When they’re young, they can’t get out of it. There are no ghosts here, but all the floorboards creak. When they have their school friends over, they have plenty of room to play around. They can roller-skate and wander around the courtyards. Breakable objects like porcelain sometimes go for six [get smashed]. But as you can see, we’ve still got a few left.
Has the palace changed with the arrival of Charles and Diana?
Oh, yes. When we first came here, there were four policemen we knew fairly intimately. Now that the Prince and Princess of Wales live here, there are I don’t know how many. I don’t know them, and they don’t all know me, which is irritating when you try to get in and they say, “Who are you?”
Are you closer with the royals who live here than the ones in other residences?
No, not really. There’s not that much contact among residents. Our nannies meet, and so do our private secretaries. But it’s only rarely that we’d invite each other to dinner because we meet at so many other occasions. I’ve no idea where Princess Margaret is today, for instance. Possibly if our chauffeur were sick we might borrow her chauffeur, or vice versa. We “lend a cup of sugar,” so to speak.
How would you feel about trading places with another family in K.P.?
It would depend on the circumstances. We are very happy where we are, but it would be nice to have another room one day—we don’t have a guest room. Princess Margaret’s apartment is a little larger in scale and has a huge garden. The Prince of Wales doesn’t have much of a garden. I wouldn’t be terribly keen on any relocation, put it that way. I’m not sure I hold all the cards, but luckily, it’s first come, first served—at least I hope it is.