Kew Palace (Photo by Patricia Treble)

Nestled in the bucolic gardens of Kew is a beautiful royal residence that was nearly destroyed by time: Kew Palace. A royal retreat from the hustle and bustle of London, it is perhaps most famous as the palace where King George III went mad.

Origins of Kew Palace

It was built in 1631 by a wealthy French Huguenot merchant, Samuel Fortrey on the cellars of an old lodge. Its most famous features, elaborately shaped and curved gables and ochre colour, were so distinctively Dutch in their style that it was known as the “Dutch House” in the 19th century. While many of the original richly detailed interiors have been altered over the centuries, one plaster ceiling from Fortrey’s era remains in the Queen’s Bedroom.

A royal residence

Kew Palace’s life as a royal residence began in the most pedestrian fashion: In 1728, Queen Caroline, wife of the new king, George II, had run out of room at her nearby house, Richmond Lodge, and needed Kew as overflow accommodation. The next year, their eldest daughter, Anne, celebrated her 21st birthday in the gardens, which were decorated with a thousand lamps, according to the official history of the palace.

But Kew itself wasn’t big enough to handle the elaborate lifestyle, and huge staff, that came with royal life. So when Prince Frederick, George II’s heir, decided to move into Kew, it was the larger home next door, Kew House, that was the primary focus of his attention. Architect William Kent remodelled and expanded that house, now called the White House. (It was demolished in 1802 for another palace, which itself was later demolished.) Kew Palace was more of an afterthought, something which may have helped with its survival as a (relatively) small, beautiful building.

In 1751, Frederick caught pneumonia after working in Kew’s gardens and died. His love of Kew had been inherited by his son, the future King George III.

George III and Kew Palace

After King George III’s accession to the throne in 1760, his children began living at Kew for a very practical reason: he and Queen Charlotte were having children so fast that nearby Richmond Lodge was increasingly cramped. Soon a routine was established: the new baby would stay with the monarch and his wife at Richmond Lodge until his or her first birthday, when they would move into the houses at Kew under the careful supervision of the royal governess.

In 1772, George and Charlotte moved to Kew, where they lived more as country gentry than as royalty. They also spent time at other royal residences, including Windsor Castle.

The madness of King George

The disease that transformed the intelligent, inquisitive monarch into a raving, demanding patient, first showed itself in 1788. Courtiers reported that the monarch had a “bilious attack,” the first indication of porphyria, the likely cause of his health troubles. Alarmed at his mental deterioration–one son described it as a “total loss of all rationality”—his doctors moved him from the more public Windsor Castle to more private Kew.

There, as the official history states, “The King was given the ground-floor rooms [in the White House] fronting the gardens, where a bed and water closet had been installed, with a wing for his doctors and equerries. The rooms over the King’s apartments were kept locked up and unoccupied, so that nobody could disturb or overhear him.” His every-protective wife shared rooms with their daughter, Amelia. (When the attacks subsided, he would return to London and Windsor.)

His ever-returning illness didn’t stop his building plans. At the turn of the 19th century, George III commissioned James Wyatt to build a new residence at Kew, the Castellated Palace. The White House was abandoned. Yet, as George III’s health declined, the new building was never completed. By 1806, estimated cost soared beyond 500,000 pounds (more than 40 million pounds in today’s currency according to the Bank of England.) Construction was halted, and it was eventually demolished

The decline and neglect of Kew Palace

By 1818, Queen Charlotte’s health was failing, in large part due to the stress of caring for her ill husband). She died at Kew on Nov. 17. (Two years later, King George III, again in the thralls of porphyria, died at Windsor Castle.)

After Queen Charlotte’s death, Kew Palace was abandoned. A few servants remained and some refurbishments were undertaken, but it left largely untouched. A historian, John Heneage Jesse, recalled seeing “the private prayer book of George III. In the prayer used during the session of Parliament, the King with his own hand had obliterated the words ‘our most religious and gracious king’ and had substituted for them ‘a most miserable sinner.’ ” By the 1830s, furnishing were removed.

At the same time, Kew’s prized botanical gardens around the palace were opened to the public as it was transformed into a scientific institution. Though Kew Palace continued to be visited by members of the royal family, it was neglected during Queen Victoria’s long reign. By 1896, a survey of the dilapidated palace stated it was “totally unfit in its present state for a residence.” Victoria (George III’s granddaughter) opened it as a public museum in 1898.

Though repairs were undertaken over the decades, the need for drastic renovations was obvious by the 1990s. After large cracks appeared in the Queen’s Bedroom, it was closed for a renovation. It took 10 years to bring Kew Palace back to life. Every part of the palace was explored by archaeologists and historians, stabilized and restored to its appearance in 1804, when George III and Charlotte lived there.

Finally, in 2006, Kew Palace was opened again to the public. Queen Elizabeth II (George III’s great-great-great-granddaughter) celebrated its rebirth by holding her 80th birthday party there. It was the palace’s first dinner for a sovereign in 200 years. Today, as visitors explore Kew Palace, they can see one reminder of its most famous inhabitant: the bathtub used by King George III.