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Eastwell Park and royalty

The country estate of Eastwell Park, in the parish of Eastwell, near Boughton Lees, Ashford in Kent, is not perhaps a name which immediately comes to mind when thinking of a one-time royal residence. It was, however, the Kent home of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and his family, when they were not at their official London residence at Clarence House. The fact that the sons of Queen Victoria each had their respective homes on country estates is itself not unusual of course, Sandringham in Norfolk being that of the Prince and Princess of Wales, in addition to Marlborough House, in London. Bagshot Park was the primary residence of Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn from 1880 onwards; Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, was given the great 18th-century Palladian mansion of Claremont, near Esher by Queen Victoria, as the result of his marriage to Princess Helena of Waldeck-Pyrmont, in 1882.

Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh married Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna, daughter of Tsar Alexander II and his wife, the Empress Marie Alexandrovna, in St. Petersburg in 1874. That same year, he acquired the lease of Eastwell Park, which he would occupy until 1893, when he inherited the dukedom of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, on the death of his uncle, Duke Ernest II.

The main house of Eastwell Manor was constructed in the Neo-Elizabethan style from 1793-99; it was rebuilt by the British politician George Finch-Hatton, Member of Parliament for Rochester. (An earlier Hatton, Sir Christopher Hatton, was a prominent figure at the Elizabethan court as a leading politician and Lord Chancellor of England and had his own great country house at Holdenby, Northamptonshire, with 123 windows, of costly glass). The original house at Eastwell had, in fact, been built in the 1540s by Sir Thomas Moyle, but Finch-Hatton – who also succeeded to the estate of the Elizabethan Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire, once also owned by Sir Christopher Hatton – commissioned Robert Adam to make new designs for the house’s improvement, in 1774. Adam’s draughtsman, Joseph Bonomi, made drawings for its rebuilding, which feature in the first volume of George Richardson’s New Vitruvius Britannicus, the results of which are preserved amongst the Robert and James Adam office drawings, held in the collections of the antiquarian Sir John Soane.

The estate, house and furnishings were leased first to the Duke of Abercorn in 1868 for five years under the terms of the Winchelsea Estate Act (1865) and then to Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1874. The Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh finally arrived at Eastwell on 25 November 1874 and were given a warm reception in Ashford. A notable visitor would have been Duke Ernest II of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who Queen Victoria described as wanting to break his return journey to Germany at Eastwell, having visited her at Osborne House in 1875. Prince Alfred’s sister, Helena, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, also visited the house.

Princess Marie of Edinburgh – the future, legendary Queen Marie of Romania – was born at Eastwell Park on 29 October 1875; her birth was celebrated with the firing of the guns in the park and the towers on the estate. The birth took place in the presence of Prince Alfred, as well asMr. Secretary Hardy, as recorded in the London Gazette (30.10.1875, Issue 24261). The future Queen Marie of Romania would later refer to her early years at Eastwell with affection, in her memoirs. Another daughter (forever known as “Baby Bee” in the Queen’s family) was also born to the Duke and Duchess at Eastwell, Princess Beatrice, on 20 April 1884 and baptised at Eastwell by the Rev. William Lloyd, Chaplain to the Duke of Edinburgh. One of her godmothers who was actually present was her namesake, Queen Victoria’s fifth daughter; Princess Beatrice, who went to Eastwell with Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, accompanied by the Queen’s granddaughter, Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, the future Grand Duchess Sergei of Russia, who was visiting Windsor in May 1884 with her father, Ludwig IV of Hesse. Princesses Beatrice and Elisabeth stayed for the Christening, which was performed in the Drawing Room at Eastwell.

Queen Victoria appears to have visited Eastwell on several occasions, although she makes no journal entry from there and describes the estate a mere ten times directly. The parish of Eastwell claims that there are photographs of the Queen skating on the lake at Eastwell. If these photographs do show Queen Victoria – and there appears to be no copy of them in the Royal Collection, although this does not mean that the photographs were not made – then this pastime would have been entirely possible for the Queen, who enjoyed being on the ice. Prince Albert had been an accomplished skater, who pushed her in a sledge chair over the ice of the lake at Frogmore, Windsor; Queen Victoria was apparently taught to skate by a tutor from Eton.

Eastwell Manor was severely damaged by a fire in the 1920s and splendidly rebuilt from 1926-28. Today, the house again stands in Neo-Elizabethan style, on the site of the original and is a luxury country hotel. The history of its royal links, however, is significant.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.