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A Royal Connection

As home to more castles than any other county, Kent boasts a history overflowing with royal connections, stories and characters. From medieval kings all the way through to Queen Elizabeth II, Kent has revelled in its unique and unfaltering relationship with royalty.

As 2022 celebrates the platinum jubilee commemorating Her Majesty’s 70 years of dedication and service to the country, insideKENT delves deep into the county’s links to monarchs past and present. As ever, Kent’s Garden of England status has undoubtedly secured a special place in many a royal’s heart over the centuries, and the county has welcomed hundreds of royal visits and grand openings. Originally it was Kent’s close proximity to Europe that made it a prime location for gallivanting kings and queens, as well as their need to build plenty of castles and fortresses upon its soil. Today, these grand country homes and turreted castles are an ever-imposing ode to monarchs of old and stand proudly today to welcome visitors from across the globe to marvel at their history and beauty.  

Perhaps Kent’s most obvious ‘royal’ link is Royal Tunbridge Wells, which was first granted its prefix in 1909 by King Edward VII to commemorate the fact that his mother Queen Victoria, now our second longest reigning monarch, had loved the town so much. However, the town’s long-standing history with the royal family goes back further than this, most famously when Queen Anne was unimpressed after her nine-year-old son, the Duke of Gloucester, tripped over the then unpaved ‘walks’. The fragile boy, who had the tendency to lose balance due to a brain abnormality, was particularly precious to his parents and this is why the family entrusted a cottager £100 to pave and level the walkway. In 1700, the ground was adorned with ‘pantiles’ and to appease Anne, a cluster of birch trees were planted in her honour, which can still be seen today and provide the pretty leafy shade the area is loved for. 

Royal Tunbridge Wells is surrounded by many of Kent’s famous castles. One of those however is not titled as such, but still comes in just as formidable a form as Penshurst Place. In 1519, Henry VIII, who is also said to have first coined the phrase ‘Garden of England’, visited Penshurst Place as the guest of then-owner Edward Stafford, the third Duke of Buckingham. In dire need to impress the demanding king, the duke spent an extortionate £2,500 on banquets and entertainment during Henry’s visit, which equates to over one million pounds in today’s money. Despite this excess, things didn’t fare well for Buckingham, and when Henry had him executed for treason in 1521, Penshurst Place became the king’s hunting lodge. Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, became the next monarch to frequent Penshurst Place and clearly had a great admiration for it, regularly holding audiences there during her reign. From Penshurst, Elizabeth could also get to know the place that her mother grew up in at nearby Hever. 

As the mother of Queen Elizabeth I and the second wife to King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn is one of Britain’s most famous queens, her tragic death now a poignant and grisly part of British history. Anne’s story began right here in Kent at her childhood home, Hever Castle where she was born in 1501 and spent her childhood. Hever Castle had belonged to her family since 1462 and now, in honour of this history, until early November, Hever Castle’s 2022 exhibition Becoming Anne: Connections, Culture, Court explores the factors that moulded Anne’s character and the rise of the Boleyn family. Not only can visitors look upon King Henry VIII’s bedchamber from their courting days, they can also see Anne’s personal prayer book which bears her signature. 

Alongside Henry VIII, almost all British monarchs have left their mark on UNESCO World Heritage Site Canterbury Cathedral. From King Ethelbert, the first British king to convert to Christianity, to tales of Elizabeth I’s lavish birthday celebrations and the wedding of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence, plenty of monarchs have frequented this holy place. Perhaps the most infamous royal link the cathedral has is that of Henry II’s dispute with Archbishop Thomas Becket, which resulted in one of the world’s most well-known martyrdoms and thousands of pilgrims treading the now well-travelled road to Canterbury. Today, the cathedral still welcomes pilgrims of all kinds, offering a special guided tour which tells stories of royals through the ages. Discover monarchs immortalised in stone, wood and stained glass which adorn the cathedral’s walls, including the special statues of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and HRH Prince Philip, which were unveiled in 2015.

This royal visit from Elizabeth II was one of her most recent where, with the Duke of Edinburgh at her side, she unveiled the pair of statues at Canterbury Cathedral to mark her diamond jubilee. It was sculptor Nina Bilbey who was given the prestigious task to create them as one of the first to be installed there during the queen’s reign. They complement existing statues by the cathedral’s west door of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria – the only other monarch to celebrate a diamond jubilee.

Although today, Queen Elizabeth does not have any official royal residences in Kent, perhaps the closest abode linked to the House of Windsor is Walmer Castle. A former home to the Duke of Wellington, namesake of the boot of which the castle still houses an original pair, the strongest royal connection is the Queen Mother Gardens at Walmer. With Walmer Castle being a former seaside fortress and as the Queen Mother was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports for 23 years, a contemporary garden was created in honour of her 95th birthday. The Queen Mother declared: “I have been given many presents before, but never a garden.” Featuring an elegant arched pavilion over still water and blooms throughout the season, this romantic and peaceful garden is one of Kent’s best, coming complete with a statue of a corgi sitting on a bench. The Queen Mother loved Walmer and came to stay for a short holiday in July of most years, often with one or more of the royal corgis.

Like many other royals, the Queen Mother travelled to Kent not just for holidays but for grand openings too. On 29th October 1953, she opened the National Fruit Show in Marden, now entering its 89th year and dedicated to showcasing British top and soft fruit, the National Fruit Show is a glittering gem in Kent’s Garden of England crown. The Queen Mother was also the royal to unveil the Battle of Britain memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, near Folkestone, on 9th July 1993. Her late majesty braved storm force wind and rain on the helicopter ride that brought her to the memorial’s clifftop home. The weather was so atrocious that the pilot bringing The Queen Mother to the unveiling asked if she wanted to turn back. She is said to have told him in no uncertain terms that ‘her boys’ had never turned back and that she wouldn’t do so either. In March 2015, her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, opened The Wing at the Battle of Britain museum, a £3.5 million visitor and education centre that’s home to an interactive experience which tells the story of the Battle of Britain. While there, Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh met some of the last surviving Battle of Britain airmen who helped repel Germany’s Luftwaffe during the Second World War. The monarch’s most recent royal visit to Kent however was in 2019 when she marked charity, the Royal British Legion Industries’ (RBLI) 100th anniversary. During the visit to Aylesford, Queen Elizabeth officially opened Appleton Lodge, RBLI’s new luxury care facility for veterans and their families. The building was named after First World War Sister Edith Appleton, OBE, who was born in Kent and awarded the Royal Red Cross for nursing on the front line during the Great War.

HRH The Princess Royal, Anne, attended Benenden School in Kent from 1963 to 1968, and earlier this year, she attended the launch of their bursary and partnerships campaign, Be the Change. The Princess Royal also officially opened Copper Rivet Distillery on the banks of the River Medway in 2017, and in February of this year her brother, The Prince of Wales, visited the distillery to celebrate the launch of the third whisky in Copper Rivet Distillery’s new trio of quintessentially English Masthouse whiskies. The future king, Prince Charles, and his wife the Duchess of Cornwall are the most recent royals to visit the county. On 2nd February this year the royal couple visited Sheppey Matters at Sheerness Healthy Living Centre and met community groups who help and promote the health of the local community. His Royal Highness and the duchess were shown some of the wellbeing groups and work done by the charity and visited the charity’s community radio station. During their visit the couple met staff at Sheppey 92.2 FM radio station where Prince Charles requested a track by Jools Holland and Ruby Turner. Charles laughed when he was asked by a radio presenter if he had brought his swimming costume to the seaside area! To end the visit, they were presented with a traditional Kentish dessert – gypsy tart.  

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