Kensington Palace: Home to Princess Diana and 300 Years of British Royalty

PHOTO: Seen here is Princess Dianna taping her secret interview with then-BBC journalist Martin Bashir in Kennsington Palace.PlayABC News
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Most remember the mountains of flowers and notes and cards that blanketed the lawn of Kensington Palace in the days after Princess Diana's death. Fourteen years later, the scene is not yet totally erased.

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But before that, Kensington Palace was the residence of the world's most famous single mother and more than 300 years of British royalty. In addition to Princess Diana, Prince Harry and the future king Prince William, Queen Victoria and Queen's late sister, Princess Margaret, all called Kensington Palace home. Neighbors included the cousins of the queen, Prince Michael of Kent and his wife.

For Diana, it was the one safe haven from the rest of the world.

"Of course Princess Diana had her own interpretation of what it meant to be royal -- she could be very royal," said Patrick Jephson, Princess Diana's private secretary. "But she was also a modern and emotionally articulate woman."

She fiercely guarded her children. In one famous piece of video, the princess shielded her children from cameras while skiing. "I have to protect my children's space," she said, covering a lens with her hands.

But at Kensington, Diana could keep her children away from the public eye. They lived here both during her marriage to Prince Charles and after their divorce. The so-called palace is actually a series of attached town houses.

Diana opened her home to ABC News' Barbara Walters, inviting her over for lunch in 1996.

"The living room in Diana's apartment was painted yellow. When we lunched in the adjoining dining room, she told me that her in-laws were saying she was unstable," Walters said of the visit. "Not long after that, she and Prince Charles were divorced. So the palace has a happy and unhappy history."

The late princess was often spotted in restaurants and shops nearby with the princes, even taking them to McDonald's.

"They went to the public places," said Jephson. "They went shopping, and they went to the grocery store."

While raising the boys, Diana also took them to meet the homeless and people afflicted with disease.

Jephson said that to his knowledge her husband did not object. "To be fair, the princess did this in a sensitive way. There was no idea here she was exposing them to things she didn't think they could cope with," he said. "It was an occasional bit of real-life experience she wanted them to have."

Diana's real-life experiences were different. She would sometimes leave the palace to meet reporters.

"She'd meet them in cars to pour out her heart to them," said royal historian Robert Lacey, "and then it was in the papers the next day."

The drama of her life and crumbling marriage would then be splashed into newsprint all over the world.

It was also at Kensington Palace that Diana secretly recorded her famous television interview with Martin Bashir, then of the BBC, in 1995. For the first time the world heard her secrets in her own voice, from her own home.

"I desperately wanted it to work," Diana told Bashir. "I desperately loved my husband, and I wanted to share everything together and I thought that we were a very good team."

The taping was done privately; the camera crew was snuck in through a back door.

"It took a long time to understand why people were so interested in me, but I assume because my husband had done a lot of wonderful work leading up to our marriage and our relationship," said Diana. "But then during the years you see yourself as a good product that sits on a shelf and sells well."

Interview Leads to Divorce

Not long after that interview, Charles and Diana would officially divorce. Walters said the queen insisted on the divorce after that interview.

Walters said she had lunch with Diana after the interview with Bashir was taped but before it had aired. She said Diana did not mention it.

The next year, the princess sent Walters a Christmas card with a picture of her two boys and their cousins Eugenie and Beatrice. Just a card like any regular mother would send, Walters said.

Kensington's Long Royal History

Kensington Palace has been home to royalty since it was built more than three centuries ago.

Monarchs were born and bred at Kensington. Members of the royal family still live here, including the prince and princess of Kent, the duke and duchess of Kent and the duke and duchess of Gloucester.

Undergoing renovations, the building will be what officials call an "enchanted palace theme."

It was at Kensington that Queen Victoria was born, christened and became queen. When Victoria was 18 years old, she went to bed one night a princess and woke up the next morning a queen. Her reign from 1837 to 1901 was the longest in British history. Today on display in her bedroom is a William Tempest dress and several marionettes.

Visitors to the state apartments would enter through the king's staircase. "I always love this place because it's a bit like walking onto an opera set," said Alexandra Ken, curator of historic royal palaces. The walls above the stairs are painted with a huge mural depicting King George I and his royal court; the floor is black-and-white tile.

The palace also includes a throne, or the presence room. Visitors were required to bow or curtsy to the throne, even if it was vacant when they entered.

The palace has its share of oddities: Inside the King's Quarters are several paintings and statues of bare-breasted women. And like many members of the royal family, Queen Mary II, who ruled in the 17th century, loved dogs. In her quarters she kept for her canine friends a series of little dog baskets, all lined in red velvet.

Princess Margaret, sister of the reigning Queen Elizabeth II, also lived in Kensington Palace for more than 40 years. She lived in various apartments until her death in 2002.

India Hicks, a bridesmaid at Diana's 1981 wedding, said she spent the night before that wedding at Kensington on Princess Margaret's insistence. Hicks said she was separated from her mother after the royal fireworks, a tradition on the night before the heir to the throne is wed.

"Late I heard a knock on the door and Princess Maragaret came in with her toothbrush. She said, 'Here my dear, use my toothbrush,'" Hicks said. "I didn't want to say no thank you, the idea of borrowing her toothbrush was intimidating, but I accepted the gesture."

"Can you tell us if William and Kate are going to be living here?" ABC News' Nick Watt asked an official. "I'm afraid I can't," he said. When asked if she knew, Ken said with a laugh, "No, I'm afraid I really don't know."

ABC News' Andrew Springer contributed to this report.