The Legacy of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s Kensington Palace Home

01.02.18

We can’t all live in a palace but when it comes to planning the urban housing of the future, one grand example shows us that well-maintained buildings with flexible units for rent that can appeal to tenants of all ages could be the solution. Build enough of those and many more of us could live like royals.

When news of Princess Eugenie’s engagement to long-term boyfriend Jack Brooksbank broke last week, the celebrations were much like those enjoyed by any other young couple: there was an engagement ring, albeit a £100,000 pink sapphire sparkler.

There were photos of the happy couple. A venue was announced — St George’s Chapel at Windsor, where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will also marry, in May.

So far, so traditional. What nobody mentioned is how far ahead of the trend Eugenie, 28, and wine merchant Jack, 31, will be in making their marital home in a carved-up old house that accommodates an extended, multigenerational family ranging in age from Princess Charlotte at just two years old, to the Duke of Kent at 82.

It’s true that Kensington Palace is not your average London estate. But it represents a type of shared accommodation that could be a model for the urban housing of the future.

Eugenie, the Queen’s sixth grandchild, recently moved into Ivy Cottage from the four-bedroom apartment she shared with her sister Beatrice at St James’s Palace.

A three-bedroom house adjoining the rear of Kensington Palace, Ivy Cottage is close to two-bedroom Nottingham Cottage, where her cousin Harry and his American actress fiancée Meghan live.

Next door to Eugenie is Wren Cottage, home of the Duke and Duchess of Kent. These buildings are all in a modest two-storey cluster that once housed palace staff.

Across a communal courtyard is a much more imposing quadrangle of buildings. This is divided up into what are officially called apartments, but are really more like grand terrace houses.

Princess Diana once lived in apartments 8 and 9 — now occupied by royal staff — while apartment 10 is the three-storey home of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent.

In the adjoining quadrangle are the largest homes in the palace, the 22-room four-storey apartment 1a, formerly the home of Princess Margaret and now occupied by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — who spent £4.5 million on a makeover before they moved in, adding a second kitchen in a don’t move, improve moment — and apartment 1, home to the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

Media coverage of this aristocratic ‘commune’ is often critical, focusing on what is seen as the indefensible privilege of young or minor royals living in palatial accommodation at taxpayers’ expense.

Seen from another perspective, the situation not only makes economic sense but also provides an inspiring picture of flexible, intergenerational housing.

Over the following century it was greatly enlarged, with leading architects Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and William Kent all playing a role in turning it into a palace to rival Versailles. It soon became the monarch’s principal London home, replacing decaying Whitehall Palace.

But the State Rooms that occupy the parts of the palace visible from Kensington Gardens are only half the story. Behind these formal areas, now open to the public, lie extensive and more modest buildings that have long been home to members of the extended royal family, and to a sprinkling of retired military men and staff.

The estate had a £12 million face lift in 2012. The Historic Royal Palaces board called it “waking up a sleeping beauty”. Or was it preparing for a new generation of homeless royals?

It was after George III acquired Buckingham House (later Palace) in 1761 that the real age of multi-family occupancy in Kensington began.

Several of his 15 children made homes in carved-out apartments, including the Duke of Kent, father to Queen Victoria. Victoria shared a bedroom with her mother at Kensington until the age of 18, when she received news there that she had become queen.

In the 1880s she was asked by PM Lord Salisbury to consider selling the palace to cut her costs. She said selling any royal home didn’t look good for the monarchy.

This intransigence turned out to be a wise move, as the use of the palace as a kind of royal commune has saved subsequent monarchs the exorbitant expense of buying London houses for their descendants.

Among Victoria’s own relatives who lived at the palace were her cousin Princess Mary, mother of Queen Mary, and her granddaughter, Princess Victoria, grandmother of the Duke of Edinburgh, who lived there himself with her before he married the Queen.

In the early 20th century the palace became so packed with Victoria’s descendants that Edward VIII called it “the aunt heap”. But as the older ones died and monarchs had fewer children, the number of occupants greatly reduced.

And though the likes of Prince Michael of Kent and the Duke of Gloucester are often referred to as minor royals, they are both grandchildren of a king, George V, and therefore have the same status and rights to live at the palace as Princess Eugenie.

Other young royals, Lady Helen Taylor and Freddie Windsor for example, have had to find their own digs.

When it comes to the economics of funding this historic arrangement the details are complex.

The Queen owns Kensington Palace on behalf of the nation, but costs of maintaining the building come out of the Sovereign Grant. This is the portion of the income from the Crown Estate — £42.8 million for 2016-17 — that is paid to the Queen each year to fund the royal family’s public duties and upkeep of their official homes.

Critics often refer to this as taxpayers’ money but it’s a grey area: the Crown Estate is owned by the Queen but managed independently, with 25 per cent of its revenue going to the monarch and the rest to the Treasury. None of it comes from direct taxation.

Nevertheless, in 2006 it was announced Prince Michael of Kent would begin to pay £10,000 a month rent for his Kensington Palace home.

It has also been reported that Eugenie, who works for Hauser & Wirth gallery, will pay a market rent for Ivy Cottage; a two-bedroom house in nearby Palace Gardens Terrace is on Winkworth’s books for £3,142 a month.

These rents count as supplementary income to the Sovereign Grant, but are a drop in the ocean compared with the £17.8 million spent in 2016-17 on maintenance of official royal residences. The State Rooms at Kensington Palace are run as a separate charity.

There will always be carping about royals living at the best address in London — known by Princess Diana as “KP” — but there are many positive lessons to learn from it.

This big old house has been in use by the same family since 1689. It has proved highly adaptable over the centuries and has now divided well into smaller housing units with shared gardens and parking.

We do not know what else the residents share. Shared facilities make sense — a communal laundry or heating system, maybe, like a cool co-housing project.

At a time when there is a lot of debate about loneliness in old age and lack of interaction between generations, let’s also hope younger royals enjoy mixing with their older housemates. Maybe they eat together, or share an Ocado drop.

There are other ways in which the set-up is very modern. Eugenie is now part of Generation Rent. Like Prince Michael, she can’t sell her house or treat it as a profit-making asset.

It is in effect a glorified form of public housing, and when the time comes it will be passed on to the next eligible resident.

For more information visit www.homesandproperty.co.uk

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