With the announcement that Frogmore Cottage will become the residence of The Duke and Duchess of Sussex at Windsor, it is perhaps interesting to briefly review Frogmore Cottage’s history. Contrary to popular imagination, it is not the first time that the building has served as a residence for royalty.
‘Bark writes that you offer me a Cottage at Windsor. Words fail me to express all I feel – I am touched beyond words & thank you from all my heart.’ (cit., John van der Kiste & Coryne Hall, Once a Grand Duchess, 171). With these words, the Grand Duchess Xenia, sister of Tsar Nicholas II, wrote to King George V in England, to express her thanks at being given Frogmore Cottage, in Windsor Great Park, as a grace and favour residence. Following the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, the Grand Duchess had finally acquiesced to leave her beloved Russian homeland and responded to the appeals of those relatives abroad who begged her to flee. Peter Bark had been appointed a financial adviser to the Grand Duchess and had formerly been the last to serve the late Tsar in the post of Minister of Finance, and it is to him that the Grand Duchess refers, in her letter to the King.
Frogmore shares a particularly close connection of course, with Queen Victoria, who is buried in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore with her husband, Prince Albert, as is her mother, the Duchess of Kent, in a small mausoleum in the gardens. Grand Duchess Xenia had received a telegram from Queen Victoria to congratulate her and her bridegroom, the Grand Duke Alexander Michaelovich on their wedding in 1894. By the time that the Grand Duchess came to live in British exile at Windsor, the near-lying Frogmore House had been re-arranged by Queen Mary as a “family” souvenir museum as well as – in the Queen’s own words – a ‘museum of “bygones” and of interesting odds and ends’. (cit., Royal Collection Enterprises, Frogmore House and the Royal Mausoleum, 9).
Frogmore Cottage is a white-painted building with a red brick chimney stack, similar to that at Frogmore House. When it was captured by the photographer Thomas Ingram in the 1860s, it also had a bay window and a herringbone-pattern gabled porch. It had used to be known as the Double Garden Cottage.
At the time of the Grand Duchess Xenia’s arrival, it comprised of around twenty-three rooms, which included a drawing room, dining room, study, pantry, housekeeper’s room, kitchen, scullery and several rooms for storage (Van der Kiste & Hall, 172). It was initially known as ‘Grace and Favour apartment No. 9’ and was formerly used to house staff of the Royal Household. An inventory of the cottage was made in 1867, to record its contents and a further inventory was made two years late when it was occupied by the Lord Chamberlain’s Department. The single convenience in the cottage seems to have been of a decidedly rustic design, because it was commented that it seemed like something out of the sixteenth century – a telling observation if we consider that the Frogmore estate first became royal in the mid-sixteenth century and one of Shakespeare’s scenes in The Merry Wives of Windsor, was set by the great playwright in a ‘field near Frogmore’ (cit., Royal Collection Enterprises, 5).
When the Grand Duchess moved into Frogmore Cottage, she discovered that the building lacked electric lighting and still had to be lit with oil lamps and candles (Van der Kiste & Hall, 172). The Grand Duchess’ arrival appears to have been very much a private affair, because the Ministry of Works was not informed of Xenia’s moving in, (Ibid, 172) although this later seems to have relaxed into known local fact, according to Sir Frederick Ponsonby, who declared that it was ‘well-known in the vicinity of Windsor’ (cit., Ibid, 172). The Ministry of Works inspected the Cottage in 1928 – some three years after the Grand Duchess’ arrival – and declared that it was in a ‘deplorable condition’ (cit., Ibid, 189).
Renovation work was undertaken as a matter of urgency, because of the state of the wallpaper, ceilings and worn away plaster and paintwork. It was also decided that gas lighting was needed for the cottage and that new staff bells were deemed necessary (Ibid, 189). The Ministry of Works also advised that oil lamps and candles were no longer thought safe, because of a possible fire hazard (Ibid, 189). King George V paid for a new lavatory basin to be installed some eighteen months later, as well as for a sink in the pantry. By 1932, the hot water system needed improvement, and a gas cooker was also sent down to Frogmore Cottage from surplus stock at Windsor Castle (Ibid, 190).
The Grand Duchess Xenia discovered two engravings of Russian coronation ceremonies hanging at Frogmore Cottage when she arrived at Windsor, (Ibid, 172) a poignant touch for a Russian Grand Duchess in far-distant British exile, to make the place that she would call the following year ‘my dear little house at Frogmore’ (cit., Ibid, 172), seem a little more like home. By this point, the cottage was becoming like a ‘Little Russia’ in Windsor Great Park, for visiting family and friends, so that the cottage was already too small to accommodate the Grand Duchess and her staff, which at that time included a butler, maid, secretary and cook (Ibid, 173). By 1934, some twenty-one people were recorded as living there (Ibid, 201).
Probably due – at least in part – to this overcrowding of Xenia’s miniature court in exile, King George V and Queen Mary agreed on plans for a new wing at Frogmore Cottage, which included three bedrooms and a bathroom on the ground floor, with three more bedrooms and a bathroom above. This proposed extension was to be located near where the coal had been stored (Ibid, 202). George V approved of the alterations but insisted that there was one condition concerning the gaslighting so that the fires should not be lit ‘until the heating is actually required’ (cit., Ibid, 202). Despite this concern, a small fire broke out at Frogmore Cottage in 1935; the King once more paid for the necessary repair work, as: ‘H.M has always expressed a wish that everything should be done to make the Grand Duchess comfortable at Frogmore Cottage…’ (cit., Ibid, 204).
Frogmore Cottage’s grounds back roughly onto the north part of Frogmore Gardens, which contain the so-called Indian Kiosk, a monument of white marble, which had been presented to Queen Victoria by Lord Canning in 1858, at the end of the Indian Mutiny (Royal Collection Enterprises, 39).
On the death of George V in 1936, Grand Duchess Xenia was informed that the new King [Edward VIII] wished to keep Frogmore Cottage as a private retreat for the Royal Family. Instead, the Grand Duchess was offered Wilderness House at Hampton Court as a grace and favour residence, which had formerly been the home of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown among others, after which it became the Master Gardener’s House and only grace and favour from 1881 onwards.
Queen Maud of Norway wrote to Queen Mary, in words that are appropriate to close this chapter on Xenia’s life: ‘Glad David [Edward VIII] has offered Xenia a house at H. Court… but fear she will be unhappy to leave Frogmore as she loved it…’ (cit., Ibid, 206).
For a short time in its long history, Frogmore Cottage in Windsor had become a little piece of Russia.