LIKE MANY OF my peers, I’ve binge-watched The Crown on Netflix and avidly awaited installments of PBS’ Victoria. But only recently did I realize how easy it is to immerse oneself in royal alliances where they actually happened. While an invitation to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s May 19 wedding may not be in the cards, a stay in one of London’s well-situated hotels can bring centuries of regal lives into dazzling close-up.
PUT YOUR DUKES UP
In the 1660s, King Charles II gave his mistress Barbara Villiers the title of Duchess of Cleveland and granted the title of duke to all three of their sons. For the last 110 years, the nearly hidden courtyard of her former home in St. James’s Place has been the site of elegant Dukes London (from $435).
Princes and publishing stars such as Ian Fleming have been known to drop by intimate Dukes Bar for expertly made martinis; James Bond’s dictum “shaken, not stirred” is said to have originated here. An air of sophisticated discretion likewise permeates the newly renovated drawing room, where afternoon tea may include a seductive infusion of gin, and the new GBR (Great British Restaurant), which offers chef Nigel Mendham’s exquisite versions of classic British fare, including fish and chips.
The 90 guest rooms have been recently updated with new beds and decor, while retaining a posh Old World vibe. I opted for the “duchess setup,” which among other features includes fresh flowers, a makeup removal washcloth and lifestyle magazines; only women staff are allowed to bring room service or clean these rooms.
WHERE ROYALS RESIDE
After a duchess-worthy massage in the hotel’s spa, I was ready for a short cab ride to the site where Harry and Meghan announced their engagement: the Gardens of Kensington Palace, where Harry and William grew up with Charles and Diana. The brothers and their respective partners also live there today, albeit in separate quarters out of the public eye. A revolving exhibition of Diana’s pre- and post-divorce dresses, many sold before her death to raise money for charity, routinely draws crowds to the palace, but the State Apartments are also well worth the price of admission (about $22) for what you can learn about much earlier royal marriages, which all too often had poignant ends.
In what might sound familiar to modern couples, King George II and Queen Caroline argued about her taking over his closets and rearranging their impressive art collection (note the Holbein sketches), according to displays in the King’s State Apartments. Yet after her death at age 54 in 1737, he refused to allow anything to be changed in her room, including the wood in the fireplace.
In another wing, King William ignored doctors’ advice and slept on a camp bed next to his cousin and wife, Queen Mary II, in the week leading up to her death from smallpox at age 32 in 1694. The sister who eventually succeeded her to the throne and residency here, Queen Anne, became pregnant 18 times while married to Prince George of Denmark, but only one child survived — and he died at age 11, apparently of hydrocephalus.
Queen Victoria, who was born and raised at Kensington Palace, had an easier time with childbearing, although she was devastated by the untimely death of the father of her nine children, Prince Albert, at age 42. The intriguing exhibits in another set of rooms focus on Victoria’s falling in love with her German cousin (including doting notes from her diary), their family life, and her becoming queen as a surprisingly unfazed 18-year-old.
A LOVE FOR THE FINER THINGS
Some of the most enduring royal relationships have nothing to do with romance. In St. James’s and neighboring Piccadilly, numerous stores boast royal warrants, a kind of seal of approval from Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh or the Prince of Wales (or sometimes all three); a merchant is required to sell to the royal household for at least five years before applying for the imprimatur.
London’s oldest bookseller, Hatchards, claims Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, as one of its earliest customers, as well as the triple crown of current royal warrants. Looking around at its overflowing shelves of signed first editions, art books and historical reprints, among other literary treasures, I was struck by the thought that a shared love of reading — or at least the power of books to distract spouses from each other’s foibles — might be one reason Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s marriage has lasted more than 70 years.
Founded in 1707, Fortnum & Mason offers six spectacular floors of food halls, gifts, restaurants and bars in its complex between Piccadilly and Jermyn Street. Prince Charles’ warrant applies specifically to its teas, including some 130 loose-leaf varieties in a rainbow of pastelcolored tins lining apothecary shelves; clerks measure the tea carefully using vintage metal scales before sealing them in an airtight bag. I sniffed several samples at a display that includes Wedding Breakfast, a Kenyan tea blend created in 2011 to celebrate the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton, after his proposal to her in Kenya.
Fortnum & Mason has also formulated teas in Queen Elizabeth’s honor, including the “smoky, delicate” 2012 Jubilee and the “brisk, refreshing” 2016 Queen’s Blend, but I was curious about her favorites in the store’s vast confectionary cases, covered by her royal warrant for groceries and provisions. Apparently the queen delights in the store’s chocolate-covered rose and violet creams, according to a helpful clerk, who allowed me to sample one of the flowery bonbons just before noting that most people don’t share the sovereign’s taste.
I also appreciate rose more as a fragrance than a flavor, but fortunately there was plenty of the former to enjoy at Floris, which also holds royal warrants from the queen and her eldest son. Dukes London can arrange a behind-the-scenes tour of the perfume shop, founded by Spaniard Juan Famenias Floris and his wife Elizabeth in 1730, or set up a custom fragrance-making session, both led by Italian perfumer Nicola Pozzani.
Pozzani donned special gloves to show me the fragile vintage ledger, including a page for the account of the last royal to marry an American divorcee, with the headings “The Prince of Wales” and “The King” dutifully crossed out and replaced by “The Duke of Windsor.” He also shared samples from the Ledger Collection, re-creations of scents favored by renowned and occasionally ill-fated former clientele such as Marilyn Monroe (Rose Geranium) and Oscar Wilde (the carnation and cinnamon Malmaison Encore). Happily, a whiff of Bouquet de la Reine (“The Queen’s Bouquet”) ended the session on a romantic note: Floris created it for Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert, then adapted it for Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.
FROM TUDORS TO TODAY
The St. James’s neighborhood has too many royal associations to be explored in a single day. One morning, I took a fascinating guided walk that passed its eponymous dark brick palace, built by Henry VIII as a refuge from the intrigue at Whitehall Palace. Today it’s home to Clarence House, where Charles and second wife Camilla now live. If the prince’s standard is flying above it, rather than the Union Jack, he’s at home, explains British Tours guide Jonathan Pinkness, adding that the queen’s standard implies the same at nearby Buckingham Palace.
Pinkness also relayed the story of why Green Park has no flower beds: Catherine of Braganza, the long-suffering wife of Charles II, allegedly had all the blooming plants pulled up after she learned he had been picking flowers for a mistress there.
On my last morning at the hotel, I popped around the corner to Spencer House, a palatial town house commissioned in 1755 as the London home of Princess Diana’s ancestor John Spencer. In addition to working with celebrated architects, the first Earl Spencer partnered with his wife, Georgiana, in choosing artworks that celebrated their love and marriage.
Financial problems forced the family to begin renting out the home in 1926; since 1985 it has been leased by the Rothschild family, who initiated a painstaking restoration of its neoclassical splendor. Now open to the public only on Sundays, for one-hour guided tours (about $22), Spencer House serves as a stately reminder that while it’s important to marry for love, a little money doesn’t hurt, either.
TYING THE KNOT
To explore even more royal history, take the train an hour outside of London to Windsor Castle. Begun by William the Conqueror in 1070, this 13-acre hilltop compound is where Queen Elizabeth now spends most of her time. Areas open to the public (for about $30 admission) include the lavishly appointed State Apartments, which prove you really can have too much armor or wedding china, and St. George’s Chapel, the soaring Gothic church where Harry and Meghan will tie the knot before 800 guests.
The last prince to get married here — Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son, Prince Edward, who wed Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999 — has stayed married, which could be a good sign for the newest union. Still, I couldn’t help noticing a dark slab between the choir stalls that marks the burial vault of a rather less faithful husband, King Henry VIII. He lies next to the favorite of his six wives, Jane Seymour; a stillborn child of Queen Anne; and Charles I, who was beheaded in 1649.
Still somber but more inspiring monuments to marriage and monarchy include a marble tomb bearing the slim effigies of Queen Elizabeth’s grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary, and a newer, low-lit chapel holding the remains of her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Another corner holds a touching sculpture of “my dear Charlotte,” as Queen Victoria’s Uncle Leopold refers to his late wife on Victoria, depicted as she ascends to heaven after her death in childbirth.
If You Go
• Norwegian Air offers nonstop flights from Oakland to London Gatwick from $450 for economy, with exceptionally comfortable premium economy service from $1,400, including lounge access, meals and checked baggage.
• Dukes London’s “Royal Wedding Package,” from $887 per night April 27–June 3 (three-night minimum) includes accommodations and a Windsor Castle tour with picnic breakfast, walking tour of Westminster Abbey, full English breakfast, afternoon tea in the Drawing Room and dinner at GBR for two.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “The Royal Treatment“.