The Grade II* listed mansion of Bentley Priory in Stanmore, in the London Borough of Harrow, is best known for the vital role it played during the Battle of Britain when the building formed the setting for Headquarters Fighter Command. The Priory remained an RAF base until 2008, when the offices finally moved to RAF Northolt, after which plans began to transform the Priory into a Museum, a project which was ultimately realised in 2013, following eight years of preparation. It was officially opened by Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales – Patron of the Bentley Priory and the Battle of Britain Trust – and The Duchess of Cornwall on 12 September 2013. The fact that it was briefly a royal residence is less known.
Bentley Priory’s origins may be traced back to the medieval period, when the Priory – thought to have been founded in 1170 – was owned by Augustinian Friars until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, after which it belonged briefly to several different owners, including Henry VIII. Part of the building that forms the present Priory was built in the mid-1760’s, not far from the original site – the building was later sold to John James Hamilton, 9th Earl and later 1st Marquis of Abercorn in 1788. The 1st Marquis commissioned the great Neo-Classical architect Sir John Soane to refurbish and transform the Priory, adding among other features, its new and imposing Rotunda. In between the period that it belonged to the 1st Marquis and subsequently thereafter became a private home, hotel and later a girl’s school – being finally sold to the Air Ministry in 1926 – Bentley Priory was home to a British queen consort.
Queen Adelaide (1792-1849) was born a Princess of Saxe-Meiningen and married George III’s third son, William, Duke of Clarence, the future William IV in 1818, who was nearly thirty years her senior. The Duke of Clarence married Princess Adelaide at a time when all the bachelor sons of George III were seeking political marriages to soothe the urgent problem of the succession and in order to be the first to sire the next heir to the British throne. George III’s fourth son, the Duke of Kent famously saw an article on the subject, calling upon all the remaining royal dukes to marry, in the Morning Chronicle, whilst he breakfasted with his then mistress, Madame Julie de St Laurent – something which prompted his own search for a princess, who he eventually found in the form of Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Although the Princess Adelaide did indeed bear the Duke of Clarence two daughters, Princess Charlotte – who died on the day of her birth in 1819 – and the Princess Elizabeth of Clarence, who was born at St. James’s Palace on in December 1820 and died there aged three months old in 1821. Sadly, Adelaide did not bear any surviving children, having instead only a series of unsuccessful pregnancies. In her will of 1849, Queen Adelaide would later bequeath to Queen Victoria a recumbent statue of the baby Princess Elizabeth asleep, which she and William had commissioned from the Scottish sculptor William Scoular – asking it to be placed at Windsor. Today it is to be seen in the Entrance Hall of Frogmore House, in Windsor Great Park. Queen Adelaide wrote to the Duchess of Kent in a sad letter after the death of Princess Elizabeth “My children are dead, but yours lives and She is mine too”. This affection of Adelaide’s was genuine. Adelaide referred to the two-year-old Princess Victoria – born in 1819 – as “my dear little Heart”.
Queen Victoria was extremely fond of her aunt Queen Adelaide, showing especial sensitivity to the Queen after her widowhood when the young Victoria ascended to the throne on the death of her uncle, William IV. Victoria wrote a letter of condolence to Adelaide at Windsor Castle, addressing it to “Her Majesty the Queen” – when reproved of this, Victoria confidently maintained that she had addressed the missive correctly, saying that instead of writing to the “Queen Dowager”, that she was “quite aware of Her Majesty’s altered status, but I would rather not be the first person to remind her of it”. The affection that the young Queen had for her aunt remained marked, something which was all the more apparent during the early years of her reign when contrasted with the difficult relationship with her mother, the Duchess of Kent. Queen Victoria allowed Queen Adelaide to reside at Windsor Castle for as long as she wished after her widowhood. An act passed in 1831 by William IV meant that Queen Adelaide was guaranteed the use of Marlborough House on the Mall for life, which she retained until her death. She was also granted the use of Bushy House in Bushy Park, near Hampton Court, because of William IV’s having conferred the title of Ranger upon Adelaide, shortly after he became King in 1830. (William had lived at Bushy House with his former mistress, the actress Dorothea Jordan.) Adelaide also was leased Witley Court in Worcestershire between 1843-1846 and then Cassiobury House near Watford, Hertfordshire (demolished in 1927) from 1846-1848, after which time she came to Bentley Priory.
Queen Adelaide spent the last year of her life at the Priory, between 1848-1849. In increasing ill health, she occupied rooms on the ground floor of the house. Today, a splendid room known as the “Queen Adelaide” room can still be visited, with a spectacular ceiling, which was restored when the Priory was being transformed into a Museum. Hung with chandeliers, the room is decorated in deep red wallpaper. The “Queen Adelaide” room contains an engraving by S W Reynolds of her portrait by Sir William Beechey. Queen Adelaide died at the Priory on 2 December 1849, almost certainly in the room which was her Bedchamber, today to be visited off of the main entrance hall. Two memorial views of Bentley Priory were made in the year after Queen Adelaide’s death by the artist James Stephanoff and are today kept within The Royal Collection, one showing the Queen’s dressing room and the other her bedroom, with a view of the bed in which Queen Adelaide died; copies of these hang in the ‘Queen Adelaide Room’, which also contains a cabinet with a crown-shaped perfume bottle which belonged to Queen Adelaide, its top is shaped in the form of the Maltese Cross, which had personal meaning for the Queen, who visited Malta in 1838. Queen Adelaide was buried in the Royal Vault at St. George’s Chapel, alongside her husband, King William IV, who predeceased her in 1837.
Queen Adelaide is, however, far from being a forgotten queen. Whilst Bentley Priory is one of the few places where a sense of Queen Adelaide is preserved, it is her face among others, which greets the many hundreds of thousands of visitors that visit Buckingham Palace each summer. It is her portrait, painted in 1836 by Sir Martin Archer Shee, showing her with a feathered hat in crimson velvet and ermine, which hangs above John Nash’s great theatrical Grand Staircase, which visitors ascend to reach the magnificent State Rooms. Queen Adelaide’s portrait has hung in its present position since the 1840s and is joined by members of Queen Victoria’s family, notably The Duke and Duchess of Kent, by George Dawe and Sir George Hayter respectively, as well as of course, King William IV by Sir Thomas Lawrence, together with King George III and Queen Charlotte, both painted by Sir William Beechey.