Charity Begins at Home: The Saga of Royal Rent and Monarchs As Landlords

Charity Begins at Home: The Saga of Royal Rent and Monarchs As Landlords

From reports that King Charles III will evict his disgraced brother Prince Andrew and his ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, from the 30-room Royal Lodge to the announcement that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were asked to vacate Frogmore Cottage (which Prince Andrew has reportedly been offered), talk of the royal real estate merry-go-round has never seemed juicier. 

Prince Harry’s tell-all Spare didn’t make things any better either. In the best-selling memoir, Harry complains that his brother was given a bigger room at Balmoral, the late queen’s beloved 50,000-acre estate in the Scottish Highlands. He also writes of the embarrassment he and Meghan, then living in the relatively small Nottingham Cottage, felt when they visited Prince William and Kate Middleton at their museum-like four-story apartment in Buckingham Palace.

“We congratulated them on the renovation without holding back the compliments,” he wrote, “while feeling embarrassed of our IKEA lamps and the secondhand sofa we’d recently bought on sale with Meg’s credit card on”

But quarrels over choice housing are nothing new. “Royal children have always squabbled over who has the best or biggest house; no royal seems to be able to live in a house with fewer than ten bedrooms, but it is certainly true that the more important the royal—the higher up the line of succession—the bigger the house,” writes historian Tom Quinn, author of Kensington Palace: An Intimate Memoir and Scandals of the Royal Palaces

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex were criticized for the £2.4 million in taxpayer money (which the couple repaid when they resigned as working royals) that they used to renovate Frogmore Cottage. Reportedly the revamp was led by Vicky Charles, the former design director of ritzy private-members club Soho House and the visionary behind its branch Soho Farmhouse, supposedly a favorite getaway of Harry and Meghan’s. 

“There has also always been an insane habit of each new royal resident insisting that their palace or house has to be completely refurbished, even rebuilt, before they can bring themselves to move in,” Quinn explains. “When Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon moved into their Kensington Palace apartment vast amounts of Georgian fittings were destroyed—Margaret insisted—according to one of her staff—that she had absolutely no intention of using a lavatory that had ever been used by anyone else!”

For centuries, monarchs have functioned as royal landlords, using their vast property holdings to punish and reward various members of their family, friends, and staff. Royal dwellings are often occupied for free or leased at a rate dramatically lower than market value, but this has not stopped royal tenants from consistently complaining about their designer digs, and sometimes they have had good reason to protest. 

Before modern conveniences, where the monarch sent you to live could be a matter of life and death. In 1533, King Henry VIII, having just divorced his first wife, Queen Katherine, to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, sent his defiant ex-wife to live in the rundown and remote palace of Buckden in Cambridgeshire. 

According to Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Katherine, suffering from a variety of ailments, begged the king to relocate her, claiming “her present lodging was hopelessly damp and cold, and her health was beginning to suffer.”

As an alternative, the cruel king (apparently spurred on by Anne) then ordered Katherine to move to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, an even more decrepit and unhealthy royal property. Katherine refused, aware that the conditions of the castle could hasten her death. Furious, Henry sent the Duke of Suffolk to deal with Katherine. 

“Suffolk told her he had come to escort her to Fotheringhay, at which—without further argument—she withdrew to her chamber and locked herself in,” Weir writes. “‘If you wish to take me with you, you will have to break down the door!’ she cried, and no threats or entreaties could persuade her to come out.”

Hearing of their beloved Katherine’s plight, locals gathered outside Buckden, waiting to attack if Suffolk forcibly removed her from the property. An exasperated Suffolk finally left, but Katherine was soon moved to Kimbolton Castle where she died in 1536.  

Royals and courtiers also found their real estate options dictated by their relationship with the current monarch. “How the king housed you in his palace was not just a matter of comfort and convenience. It also shouted to the world your position at court—how much royal favour you enjoyed, how important your court office was and so on,” says historian Tony Spawforth, author of Versailles: A Biography of a Palace.

In France, the official position of “mistress to the King” often complicated matters, with the king’s latest paramour typically winning the royal housing wars. 

“Mme. de Pompadour, Louis XV’s official mistress … and the king’s unmarried daughters were rivals for a ground-floor lodging in the central block beneath the king. This prestigious location was traditionally … reserved for royals,” Spawforth writes. “The mistress won out much to the annoyance of the daughters.”  

In England, the monarchs’ mistresses (although not officially recognized) could also negotiate for choice real estate. “Barbara, Lady Castlemaine, Charles II’s favorite mistress, pestered the king continually for a grand house to match her status,” Quinn writes. “Charles II eventually gave in and gave her Nonsuch Palace, in Surrey, one of the most beautiful, lavish palaces ever built, Nonsuch was almost immediately demolished by Villiers {Castlemaine} who sold every brick, every fireplace, wall hanging and floorboard to pay her enormous gambling debts.”

But the mistress’s position was precarious. “Loss of royal favor could result in demotion in the hierarchy of lodgings,” Spawforth notes.

According to Antonia Fraser’s Love and Louis XIV, the legendary Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the beautiful mistress to the Sun King, found herself relegated to what had once been her private baths on the ground floor of Versailles after he tired of her. To make what was essentially a spa habitable in colder months, the bath’s marble floors were replaced with parquet. 

Not everyone in the royal orbit accepted their lot as gracefully as Madame de Montespan. The sprawling family of King George III of England was constantly complaining about the housing they were offered, particularly the king’s son Edward, Duke of Kent. 

“Queen Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, was affronted that he was forced to live in Castle Hill Lodge in Ealing,” Quinn writes. “The house, which had 40 acres, was huge but it wasn’t a palace, and he was furious. To make up for the perceived slight he kept the drive to the house lit up day and night and insisted there were always six footmen standing at the front door when anyone called.”

The duke was equally embarrassed by his apartment in Kensington Palace. 

“He spent the last twenty years of his life spending vast sums on his apartment at Kensington Palace, work that was unfinished at his death,” Quinn says. “When criticized for running up debts on his houses he insisted that ‘the nation on the contrary is greatly my debtor.’ He was never going to become king––he was the fourth son of George IV but that made him hypersensitive to being given smaller houses and less money to rebuild them than his brothers.”

The Duke of Kent died in 1820. But his widowed wife, Victoria, Duchess of Kent, continued to be a thorn in her royal landlord’s side. According to Victoria: The Queen, by Julia Baird, the duchess petitioned King William IV that she and her daughter Victoria (the future queen) be moved from their downstairs apartments in Kensington Palace, away from “the underground sewers, where mushrooms grew on the ceilings and workers found corks, cats, dead seals, false teeth, and even corpses.”

The king, not fond of his dead brother or his widow, declined her request. So, he was shocked when on a visit to Kensington, he discovered that the Duchess of Kent had ignored his command and renovated 17 rooms upstairs for her personal use. At his birthday party at Windsor Castle that night, William IV made his displeasure known. Baird writes: 

He said loudly to the Duchess of Kent that he knew she had taken apartments at Kensington “not only without his consent, but contrary to his commands” and that he neither understood nor would endure conduct so disrespectful to him.” He walked away from her, vowing to stymie her vulgar grasping for power.

As it still does today, the accession of a new monarch also frequently dislodged royals and courtiers from their homes. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, her eldest son became King Edward VII. As Prince of Wales, Edward had longed lived at Marlborough House with his wife, Alexandra. Retiring and private, the new queen was loath to leave her beloved home for cold Buckingham Palace. She wrote her son in despair of “tearing oneself away from the old Home, here Marlborough House! that I feel will finish me!”

According to James Pope-Hennessy’s Queen Mary, Alexandra’s reluctance forced her exasperated husband to implore his wife’s friend the Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz to convince her to move. The Grand Duchess wrote: 

I met him on the Staircase … where he kissed my hand and later embraced me most warmly. He sat with me for an hour and a half, talking on all subjects, telling me all about the dear Queen and family matters, begging me as an English Pss (Princess) to tell Alix that it is a duty & necessity to live at the Palace, this he said twice over.

A month later, the Grand Duchess attempted to sell Queen Alexandra on Buckingham Palace, talking it up during a tour of the palace. “I tried to encourage her, assuring her, her pretty things would make it all look very nice,” she wrote. 

In 1902, the reluctant queen finally decamped to Buckingham Palace. Her annoyed daughter-in-law, the future Queen Mary, was finally able to begin renovations of Marlborough House. But she would find herself in a similar position as her mother-in-law in 1936 after the death of Mary’s husband King George V forced her to move from Buckingham Palace. She dragged her feet, taking 10 months to pack up her famous collections. “I felt very, very sad at leaving those lovely comfortable rooms which have been my happy home for 25 years,” she wrote to her son Edward VIII.

The plight of royal widows has continued. “In more recent times the late Queen Mother was aghast when she was told she had to move from Buckingham Palace to Clarence House after her daughter became queen in 1952,” Quinn says. “She declared the house was ‘rather pokey.’”

The near constant hassles over royal real estate have become increasingly fraught in recent decades with the press exposing the unfairness of “grace-and-favor residences” given to family members, loyal friends, and servants at the discretion of the monarch. 

“In the 1970s, there were more than 200 grace and favor apartments and houses––dozens at Hampton Court Palace and at Balmoral, at Sandringham, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace and Clarence House,” Quinn points out. Things came to a head in the 1990s when it was revealed that Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, who are non-working royals, were paying very little to live in Kensington Palace. 

To quell the furor, Queen Elizabeth II decided to raise the couple’s rent. “The Duke and Duchess of Kent found they suddenly had to go from paying a peppercorn rent for their grace and favor apartment at Kensington to paying market rent. From paying around £69 a week for their five bedroomed apartment they were forced to pay around £60,000 a year,” Quinn writes. “Fair enough perhaps given at the time—the 1990s—the duke was only 49th in line to the throne.”

According to Quinn, there are still more than 100 grace-and-favor residences controlled by King Charles III, but apparently, he won’t be as generous as his mother. “Charles has every intention of curbing the wild expenditure on royal houses that typified earlier generations of royals and a member of staff told me he is determined to reduce further the number of grace and favor apartments,” Quinn claims.

As his ultimatums to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and Prince Andrew attest, the king believes the family squabbles over royal property are out of control and bad for both public relations and the bottom line. There have also been reports that the king will eventually ask more royal family members to pay up or vacate their homes, and in turn, will rent them to people outside the family at market rates. 

“He wants members of the royal family to stop behaving with such an air of entitlement, especially when it comes to housing,” Quinn says. “One aide told me that even Charles can’t understand why each new generation has to strip out everything in their apartments before they are prepared to move in—whether at Kensington or Windsor—and start again from scratch at great expense.”

While much of the focus on outlandish spending has focused on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, they are far from the only culprits. “William and Kate are as guilty as anyone else when it comes to this sort of thing,” Quinn says. “Their Kensington apartment was virtually rebuilt when they moved in and now includes an underground bunker.” (Outlets report the apartment includes a panic room and escape tunnel.)

But the times are changing. “Charles is also keen to emphasize that each generation of royals is, as it were, merely a caretaker when it comes to housing—they are there to keep the houses and palaces in good order for the next generation and for the public,” Quinn explains. 

Now that King Charles is in charge, royals and courtiers alike will have to come to terms with the fact that there is a new landlord in town, who may be firm but at least isn’t as unfair as previous monarchs. 

“Prince Andrew is reportedly furious that his brother Charles will not pay for him to remain at his 30-bedroom mansion at Windsor. Andrew sees the offer of 10-bedroom Frogmore Cottage as a serious insult,” Quinn writes. “But Andrew is in a sense lucky —when the Prince Regent, later George IV, fell out with his wife Caroline of Brunswick, he was forced to let her live in an apartment at Kensington Palace, but he refused to pay for any repairs or refurbishment and by the time Caroline died the apartment was falling apart—there were broken windows and holes in the floor. As soon as she died, George had everything in the apartment associated with her removed and destroyed—even down to the fireplaces.”

Listen to Vanity Fair’s DYNASTY podcast now.