15 Facts About Leif Erikson

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Leif Erikson's foray into North America began over a thousand years ago—long before Columbus's 1492 journey. Read on to find out more about the intrepid explorer.

1. LEIF ERIKSON’S STORY IS CHRONICLED IN THE ICELANDIC SAGAS.

Written in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Icelandic Sagas were a set of around 40 historical narratives about the bygone Age of Vikings. Nobody knows who authored them; it’s likely that the stories came from Iceland’s rich oral tradition, passed along verbally from one generation to the next until someone committed them to paper. Like Homer’s The Iliad, the sagas seem to mix fiction and fact. However, there is archaeological evidence to back up some of the historic claims they make. Two sagas—titled The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders—retell the adventures of a Viking named Leif Erikson. Both works agree that he traveled west of Greenland around 1000 CE. Then, he reportedly founded a settlement in present-day North America. The two accounts diverge on specifics, but both agree that Leif Erikson was one of the first Europeans—if not the first European—to ever tread on the continent.

2. AMERICANS HAVE AN ODD WAY OF PRONOUNCING HIS NAME.

In Iceland and Scandinavia, the name Leif is usually pronounced “Layf” and rhymes with the English word safe (or like “life,” depending on the region). Yet, in America, people often say “Leef” instead. If you grew up with Nicktoons, you might remember Spongebob Squarepants raving about “Leef” Erikson Day in a season two episode.

The spelling of Leif's name is also all over the place. In the Old Norse Language, “Leif Erikson” is spelled Leifr Eiríksson. But in Nynorsk—a younger version of Norwegian writing—it’s spelled Leiv Eiriksson. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. To complicate things even further, some writers favor alternate spellings like Ericson, Eriksson, and Erikson. In the U.S., the most widely-used version is Leif Erikson, so we’ll just go with that.

3. AN IRISH MONK MIGHT’VE BEATEN LEIF TO AMERICA BY A FEW HUNDRED YEARS.

Saint Brendan the Navigator was a well-traveled Irish abbot who died around 577 CE. Tales of his deeds remained popular after he died, and in the 9th century, his legend was bolstered by a Latin-language biography called The Voyage of St. Brendan.

Some portions of the book seem a bit far-fetched. According to The Voyage of St. Brendan, Brendan and a small crew took a leather-bound wooden sailboat and launched it from the Dingle Peninsula. They went westward in search of the Garden of Eden—and, according to the book at least, he found it: Brendan landed on a beautiful island, stayed for a time, and then left when an angel told him to go back home. The story is probably just a religious folktale, but there are those who think it’s based on a real, transatlantic voyage Brendan made (it's been suggested that the paradise he found was either a Bahaman Island or North America’s eastern seaboard).

In 1976, adventurer Tim Severin decided to test whether or not the Irish abbot could have actually made the journey. Using historical records, he built a 36-foot duplicate of the type of ship Brendan would have used, and on May 17, he and his four-man crew went to the Dingle Peninsula and set sail. Following a long pit stop in Iceland, they made it to Newfoundland on June 26, 1977. This seemingly proves that 6th-century Irishmen did have the technology to cross the Atlantic, but it doesn’t mean Brendan—or any of his contemporaries—actually made the trip.

4. LEIF’S DAD WAS GREENLAND’S ORIGINAL COLONIZER.

Erik Thorvaldson, better known as Erik the Red, had crimson hair and a rough childhood. He was born in Norway, but when his father committed manslaughter there, the family was banished to Iceland, where Erik would go on to marry a rich woman and have four children—including a son he named Leif. Unfortunately, Erik killed a neighbor in a skirmish and was temporarily exiled. Instead of going back to Norway, Erik went west, settling in a huge, uninhabited region that another explorer had sighted a few years earlier. Once his banishment was lifted in the year 985 CE, Erik decided to try and establish a new colony on the island he’d found. Luckily, he was a PR genius. To entice others into moving there, he gave the place an appealing name: Greenland. The strategy worked.

5. HE WAS A CHRISTIAN MISSIONARY.

The sagas have little to say about Leif’s upbringing, but he was probably born in Iceland sometime between 970 and 980 CE and grew up in Greenland. In 999 CE, Erik sent Leif to Norway so that he could work for King Olaf Tryggvason as a royal bodyguard. Tryggvason vigorously promoted the Christian religion, and he found an eager convert in Leif.

In 1000 or 1001 CE, the monarch handed his bodyguard a special mission: Preach Christianity in Greenland. Upon returning to his father’s island, Leif spread the gospel—with some difficulty. His mother, Thjodhild, was quick to embrace the new faith. She also insisted that a chapel be built near her Greenland home. On the other hand, Erik the Red refused to give up his Pagan beliefs. So in retaliation, Thjodhild stopped sleeping with him, which—according to one saga—“was a great trial to his temper.”

6. LEIF HAD TWO SONS (THAT WE KNOW OF).

On his voyage to join Olaf Tryggvason, Leif’s crew got a bit lost and landed on the Hebrides near Scotland. Terrible weather forced the men to remain there for a month, and Leif got a lord’s daughter pregnant, then went to Norway and left her behind. But when she gave birth to a son—a boy christened Thorgills Leifson—Leif agreed to raise him. Thorgills’s mother sent him away to live with Leif in Greenland. At some point, Leif had another male child who was called Thorkel.

7. THERE ARE CONFLICTING STORIES ABOUT HOW HE “FOUND” NORTH AMERICA.

In The Saga of Erik the Red, Leif parts ways with King Olaf and then discovers the American continent while journeying back to Greenland. (Apparently, he veered off-course.) The Saga of the Greenlanders tells it differently. This text maintains that, one day, a trader named Bjarni Herjólfsson caught sight of the landmass from his ship but didn’t go ashore. Bjarni began telling tales about this strange new place, and Leif, fascinated by the story, bought Bjarni’s vessel and set out to locate the mysterious land with a 35-man crew. Over the course of an adventurous summer, he did just that. And unlike Bjarni, Leif explored the place on foot.

8. BEFORE LEIF REACHED THE MAINLAND, HE PROBABLY STOPPED AT BAFFIN ISLAND.

Baffin, Canada’s biggest island, is 932 miles long and home to lemmings, caribou, and polar bears (and people). It might also be one of the three North American areas that the Icelandic Sagas reference.

When Leif’s men begin their westward journey in The Saga of the Greenlanders, they soon discover an icy countryside filled with large, flat rocks. “Now I will give the land a name, and call it Helluland,” Leif says in the text. Translated from Old Norse, the moniker means “stone-slab land.” Based on the descriptions in the sagas of the Greenlanders and Erik the Red, most historians think Helluland was really Baffin Island. Some Norse artifacts have been found there.

9. LEIF AND THE VIKINGS LEFT A GEOGRAPHIC PUZZLE BEHIND.

After leaving Helluland, the Vikings went south. Their next stop was a timber-filled expanse which received the name Markland, or “land of wood.” The sagas report that Markland was south of Helluland but north of a third area that the Nordics named Vinland. Generally, Markland is thought to have been a portion of Canada’s Labrador coast. Wherever it was, we know that Greenlanders continued to visit the place well into the 1300s. That’s because one document from 1347 mentions a ship that had recently stopped in Markland—though there are no specific details about its location.

The location of Vinland is a total mystery. In the sagas, it’s described as a vast area with a prized commodity: grape vines. Salmon, game animals, and wild grasses were also said to be present. In Vinland, Leif’s party built a settlement, where they spent the winter before journeying back to Greenland. Subsequent Viking forays into Vinland are mentioned in the Icelandic sagas. Other texts reveal that the Bishop of Greenland traveled there in 1121 CE.

But at some point, Nordics stopped going to Vinland. Today’s historians argue about where the place once stood, but in 1960, archaeologists found what turned out to be a Viking-made settlement in Newfoundland. The site is named L’Anse aux Meadows—and according to radiometric dating, it was built between 990 and 1030 CE and was occupied for around 10 years. That lines up neatly with the timeline of events in Leif’s story from the Icelandic Sagas.

Is L’Anse aux Meadows the long-lost settlement of Vinland? Maybe. Some experts argue that it was just an offshoot of that legendary colony and would have served as a waystation for seafaring travelers. Others think the site might be Markland rather than any part of Vinland.

10. HE SUCCEEDED HIS FATHER AS GREENLAND’S CHIEFTAIN.

Erik the Red didn’t accompany his son to North America, and he died shortly after Leif returned to Greenland. By then, the island’s population had exploded to around 2400 people. When he became chieftain, Leif put his voyaging years behind him. We don’t know when he died, but it was probably before 1025 CE, when Leif’s son Thorkel succeeded him as chieftain.

11. LEIF HAD A MURDEROUS HALF-SISTER.

In The Saga of the Greenlanders, we’re treated to a disturbing tale about Erik the Red’s daughter, Freydis (who The Saga of Erik the Red tells us was illegitimate). While Leif was presiding as Greenland’s chieftain, she and her husband Thorvard undertook a voyage to the New World with two brothers named Helgi and Finnbogi. For a few months, the couple lived in Vinland, and it was not a pleasant time. One day, Freydis told Thorvard that Helgi and Finnbogi had beaten her (which the saga says was a lie), and demanded that he kill the men.

Helgi and Finnbogi were living at a separate campsite along with several other Vikings. Thorvard, Freydis, and many of their neighbors headed to the camp, where all the men there were slain. But that didn’t satisfy Freydis, who grabbed an axe and proceeded to massacre the camp’s unarmed women. Upon her return to Greenland, Leif heard about this atrocity but couldn’t bring himself to punish his half-sibling.

Rather bizarrely, The Saga of Erik the Red treats Freydis as a hero for fighting off an attack by native North Americans and never mentions her as a murderer. It’s unknown which saga is closer to the truth.

12. TENSIONS FLARED BETWEEN NATIVE NORTH AMERICANS AND LEIF’S BRETHREN.

In the Arctic Circle, Norse artifacts are sometimes found at Inuit archaeological sites—and vice versa. We know from the sagas that the Vikings didn’t always interact with indigenous residents peacefully. The Vinland settlement was occasionally attacked during their stay by a group of natives—whom the Nordics called “Skraelings.” One one occasion, the indigenous people terrorized the Vikings with catapults and other advanced weapons—but they were ultimately driven off (perhaps thanks partly to Freydis). On another occasion, Leif’s brother Thorvald was killed near the Vinland encampment by an indigenous warrior.

13. THE “COLUMBUS VS. ERIKSON” CULTURE WAR STARTED IN THE LATE 19TH CENTURY.

Christopher Columbus drawing
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Christopher Columbus didn’t become a household name until Washington Irving published a wildly inaccurate biography of the explorer in 1828. Misleading as the book was, the idea of celebrating Columbus really appealed to Italian immigrants. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison publicly encouraged his fellow Americans to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. At the urging of Italian residents, Colorado adopted Columbus Day as an official state holiday in 1907. Presidents began issuing Columbus Day proclamations in the 1930s, although it wouldn’t become a true federal holiday until 1968.

Not all Americans approved of that version of history. Forty-six years after Irving published his biography of Columbus, Wisconsinite Rasmus Bjorn Anderson published a book called America Not Discovered By Columbus, which pointed out that Leif Erikson was traversing North America 500 years before the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria crossed the Atlantic. Anderson decided that Erik the Red’s famous son needed his own holiday to offset Columbus’s, and settled on October 9 as the perfect date for it: On that day in 1825, a group of Norwegian immigrants landed in New York City, an event that is generally credited as starting organized Scandinavian migration to the United States. At Anderson’s urging, Wisconsin became the first state to recognize Leif Erikson Day in 1929.

14. AMERICAN PRESIDENTS NOW MAKE YEARLY LEIF ERIKSON DAY PROCLAMATIONS.

America Not Discovered By Columbus—and other books like it—gave Leif Erikson a rabid U.S. fanbase. Early on, though, it became clear that some admirers didn’t just like him because he was a great explorer: They liked him because he wasn’t Catholic. The surge of immigrants from places like Poland and Italy led to an anti-Catholic backlash in the States. To many Anglo-Saxon Protestants, honoring Christopher Columbus—an Italian who practiced Catholicism—seemed odious. From their perspective, Leif Erikson looked way more appealing.

Nevertheless, Columbus Day emerged as a federal holiday, and Leif Erikson Day has yet to achieve that distinction. It is, however, customary for the sitting U.S. president to honor Scandinavian-Americans every year on October 9 by way of a proclamation, a tradition that started in 1964.

15. YOU CAN FIND LEIF ERIKSON STATUES ALL OVER THE WORLD.

Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral and the statue of the Viking explorer Leif Eriksson
Marcel Mochet, AFP/Getty Images

A Harvard chemist with a passion for Viking lore saw to it that Boston erected one in 1887. In the next few years, Milwaukee and Chicago had set up their own Leif Erikson statues. Others preside over Norway, Newfoundland, and Iceland. Speaking of Leif’s birthplace, the statue of him in Reykjavík (above) once had its own bodyguards. This sculpture—which weighs a full metric ton—was a gift from the United States. After it went up in 1931, city officials started to worry that drunk pedestrians might try to urinate on it. Night watchmen were stationed by Leif’s metal feet in 1935. The statue continued to receive guarding services until the outbreak of World War II.

8 Hilarious Historical Feuds

Mark Twain was no fan of the postal service.
Mark Twain was no fan of the postal service.
popovaphoto (Twain), yellowdesign (Background)/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Some feuds make—and change!—history. The Hatfields and McCoys. Edison versus Tesla. Coke and Pepsi. Here are eight tales of petty jealousy and downright spite that were made for the history books. (And we’ve determined the winners!)

1. Hate Mail // Mark Twain vs. the Postal Service

Mark Twain hated basically everything to do with the post office. Stamps? “When England in 1848 invented stamps, my feelings were decidedly anti-English.” The cost of sending mail overseas? “Downright robbery.” The requirement to write a full address on envelopes? “[W]ords utterly wasted; and, mind you, when a man is paid by the word … this sort of thing hurts.”

Twain’s hatred was long-running. When he was young, he lived in Nevada and held a job ask a clerk for Senator William Stewart. He had this to say when a constituent wrote asking the government to build a new post office: “What the mischief do … you want with a post office? … If any letters came there, you couldn’t read them. … No, don’t bother about a post office … What you want is a nice jail.”

When, in 1879, the private secretary to the Postmaster General tried to respond to some of Twain’s criticism, the novelist shot back: “You are not the Post Office Department, but only an irresponsible, inexpensive, and unnecessary appendage to it.”

The post office responded by merely doing its job—sometimes under impossible circumstances. One time, when Twain forgot the address of a friend, he wrote on the envelope: “To MR. C.M. UNDERHILL, who is in the coal business in one of those streets there, and is very respectably connected, both by marriage & general descent, and is a tall man & old but without any gray hair & used to be handsome. BUFFALO N.Y. from MARK TWAIN P.S. A little bald on the top of his head.”

The post office successfully delivered the letter.

Winner: All the couriers swiftly completing their appointed rounds.

2. Vulturegate // John James Audubon vs. Charles Waterton

In the 1820s, John James Audubon—the American ornithologist and future author of the world’s most expensive book, The Birds of America—was obsessed with vultures. He was particularly fascinated by the bird’s eating habits: Audubon believed the scavengers didn’t find rotting meals with their sense of smell, as commonly believed, but rather used their eyesight.

When Audubon lectured on his theory in 1826, he made the British conservationist, Charles Waterton, deeply upset. Waterton had written extensively about the turkey vulture’s ostensibly excellent sense of smell in one of his books and was so offended by the new theory that he suggested that Audubon “ought to be whipped.” Waterton’s pro-smell cronies encamped in a group called “Nosarians” and tried to smear Audubon’s credibility, making pointed attacks at his abilities as a writer: “Its grammar is bad; its composition poor; and its statements are so unsatisfactory.” According to zoologist Lucy Cooke in her book The Truth About Animals, Waterton kept at his crusade for years:

“Over the course of five years, Waterton wrote no less than nineteen letters to the Magazine of Natural History attacking Audubon and anyone in his orbit. When the journal finally stopped publishing his letters, he reportedly continued to print and distribute them himself. His efforts were futile. His impenetrable, rambling diatribes, punctuated with sardonic ad hominems and obscure Latin phrases, won him few allies. ... The louder Waterton shouted, the more he was ignored. In the end, he was forced to give up.”

Experiments would later support Audubon’s position, and today, it’s generally agreed that all vultures use sight. But in the 1960s, new research found turkey vultures do actually use smell [PDF]. So while Audubon was right about most vultures, he was wrong to call out turkey vultures for not being able to smell (he likely confused them with the non-smelling black vultures). Nowadays even the Audubon Society says the turkey vulture “has a well-developed sense of smell.” That’s got to sting.

Winner: Charles Waterton and turkey vultures.

3. The Race to the North Pole // Frederick A. Cook vs. Robert E. Peary

In 1908, Frederick A. Cook and Robert E. Peary were in a bitter race to the top of the world. Cook would insist he had reached the pole first, but an act of possible sabotage would damage his claim.

On his return trip, Cook had stopped in Annoatok, Greenland, and ran into an American hunter named Harry Whitney. Looking to offload some weight for the next leg of his journey, Cook entrusted Whitney with his supplies—including his navigational records and sextant—under the impression that Whitney would safely take them to New York City. They would meet later.

Months later, Robert Peary—fresh from his own expedition north—would appear in Annoatok with a boat. Whitney was thirsty to leave Greenland, and Peary agreed to help take Whitney home under one condition: That he leave all of Cook’s supplies behind. Whitney accepted. Cook, with his equipment lost somewhere in Greenland, would never be able to defend his claim. The New York Times, which had helped sponsor Peary’s trip, would say that Cook's claim was “The most astonishing imposture since the human race came on earth.”

Seventy-nine years later, in 1988, the newspaper would issue a correction. It remains unclear if either man actually reached the pole.

Winner: The tourism office in Annoatok, Greenland.

4. Gravity Grievances // Robert Hooke vs. Isaac Newton

In 1665, Robert Hooke looked through a microscope at a piece of cork and was immediately reminded of a monastery. Believing the latticework of small structures he saw resembled a monk’s chamber, he decided to give them a familiar name: Cellula, or cells.

The discovery of the cell is just one of Robert Hooke’s many accomplishments. He did “pioneering work in optics, gravitation, paleontology, architecture, and more,” according to Alasdair Wilkins at io9. He was also an influence on Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity—he wrote to Newton about the idea around 1680—and was convinced that Newton would have never cooked up with theory without his help. So why isn’t Hooke a household name?

Newton might be at fault. For years, the two scientists quibbled over credit for a slew of discoveries, and it irked Newton. In one letter, Newton wrote to Hooke, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” As Wilkins explains, this may not have been a compliment. Hooke was short and hunchbacked, and it’s possible that Newton was taking a swipe at the scientist: Your influence is as small as your stature. When Hooke died and Newton became the president of the Royal Society, Newton’s acolytes wrote off Hooke as a footnote. In fact, under Newton’s leadership, the only painting of Hooke in existence went missing. Some argue, without evidence, that Newton had it burned.

Winner: Isaac Newton, conspiracy theorists, fans of mitochondria.

5. The Bone Wars // Othniel Charles Marsh vs. Edward Drinker Cope

Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope would discover around 130 dinosaur species in the mid- to late-19th century, introducing the world to big names such as Triceratops and Stegosaurus. You’d think that these two heavyweight paleontologists, with all of their shared interests, would have worked well together, right?

At first, they did. But in 1868, everything changed. For years, Cope had been classifying fossils discovered in the marl quarries near Haddonfield, New Jersey. When Marsh visited Cope to take a tour of the pits, he secretly made an agreement with the quarry owners stipulating that he was entitled to the fossils they found. Cope was furious. Later, Marsh discovered that Cope had reconstructed one of his dinosaur skeletons backward, mistaking the animal’s tail for its neck. The information went public and deeply embarrassed Cope. A toxic rivalry was born.

For the next three decades, the two men spread toxic smears as they raced to collect the most fossils—what is now known as the Bone Wars. According to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, “Cope’s rushed work was plagued by careless errors. Marsh often resorted to bribery and bullying in the pursuit of specimens.” The ruthless feud would transform both men into legends of paleontology—and would lead them to financial ruin.

Winner: Michael Crichton's bank account.

6. The Astor Riots // William Macready vs. Edwin Forrest

If you think the Oscar fight for “Best Actor” is fraught today, it was much worse in 1849. Back then, the race for the best Shakespearean actor fell to two men: William Macready, a British critical darling, and Edwin Forrest, one of America’s first great homegrown stars. For years, the British and American press debated who was the better actor, and the two men attracted a loyal—and occasionally belligerent—following. (Once, Forrest went to one of Macready’s performances and hissed from the seats.)

But the rivalry became more symbolic in the 1840s, as America’s sentiment for the British soured. (An influx of Irish immigrants, who despised all things British, amped up the vitriol.) So, in May 1849, when Macready appeared in the role of Macbeth at the Astor Opera House in New York City, he was greeted with boos and volleys of garbage.

Macready continued his performances at the urging of the New York literati, prompting political opportunists at Tammany Hall to paste posters across the city asking WORKING MEN, SHALL AMERICA OR ENGLAND RULE IN THIS CITY? Soon, the question of who was the better actor took on a larger meeting. Thousands of protestors congregated outside the theater, the militia was called, and a riot broke out. At least 22 people died, making it, according to JSTOR Daily, “the deadliest civic insurrection in American history up to that time.”

Winner: Nobody.

7. Life After Death // Arthur Conan Doyle vs. Harry Houdini

Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were fascinated by spiritualism, albeit for different reasons. Houdini was a professional illusionist who made a living fooling people. Before he was a household name, he earned a small income by hosting séances and pretending to speak to the dead. As badly as he wanted to believe in the afterlife, he was skeptical of anybody who claimed to have the power to communicate with the other side.

Houdini’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle, however, sincerely believed that he could access the afterlife. In fact, his wife Jean moonlighted as a medium. One day, she claimed to summon Houdini’s dead mother and received a 15-page message from beyond the grave. There was one problem: The ghost wrote in impeccable English. Houdini’s mother was Hungarian, and spoke almost no English at all.

For Houdini, it was a breaking point. The two men never reconciled their differences. Houdini would go on to describe mediums as “human leeches,” charlatans who exploited people’s grief, and would dedicate great energy to exposing fraudulent mediums. His crusade to debunk these con artists was so great that some have theorized that Houdini may have been poisoned by angry psychics.

Winner: Rationalism and sucker punches to the gut.

8. A Puzzling Philosophical Problem // Dr. Karl Popper vs. Ludwig Wittgenstein

At Cambridge University, it was tradition to hold a weekly discussion for the university’s philosophers and their students. On one such evening, in 1946, the guest was Dr. Karl Popper with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein in attendance. It would be the first—and last—time all three philosophers were in the same room together.

Popper presented a paper called “Are There Philosophical Problems?”, a jab at Wittgenstein, who argued there were no such problems—only linguistic puzzles. Wittgenstein grew so impassioned as he argued with Popper that he picked up a red hot fireplace poker and began waving it around for emphasis. When Russell demanded that Wittgenstein put the poker down, Wittgenstein stormed out of the room.

At least, that’s one version of events. Some say Wittgenstein was physically threatening Popper. Others suggest Popper was ready to take a literal stab at Wittgenstein himself. Whatever the case, it’s fitting that nobody has been able to verify what, exactly, occurred: Popper’s most famous contribution to philosophy was, after all, a critique of verificationism.

WINNER: Uncertainty.

12 Splendid Facts About Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace
Baloncici/iStock via Getty Images

Kensington Palace might not be quite as famous as Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II’s primary residence and the longstanding center of the British monarchy, but its history is every bit as important—and intriguing. From William and Mary’s original occupancy in 1689 to William and Kate’s more recent one, the opulent estate has teemed with royals of every station (and possibly even a few ghosts) for more than three centuries. Read on to find out 12 fascinating facts about the palace that Edward VIII once called the “aunt heap.”

1. King William III and Queen Mary II relocated to Kensington Palace because of William’s asthma.

In 1689, King William III and Queen Mary II kicked off their coregency at Whitehall Palace, the longstanding home of the crown along the Thames River in central London. But the dirty, damp air aggravated William’s asthma, so the couple immediately began searching for a more suburban location. They found it in Nottingham House, a modest villa just a couple of miles from the city, and commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to expand the estate. The rulers moved in shortly before Christmas that same year, and the newly-christened Kensington Palace soon became the heart of the monarchy.

2. Kensington Palace was the location of Queen Anne’s final argument with childhood friend Sarah Churchill.

queen anne
A portrait of Queen Anne.
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

Queen Anne, the eccentric, gout-ridden ruler played by Oscar-winner Olivia Colman in 2018’s The Favourite, split her time between Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace, overseeing renovations in both places. It was at Kensington that she financed the redecoration of Lady Abigail Masham’s apartments, an extravagant show of favoritism that further deteriorated the Queen's relationship with close childhood friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Kensington was also the setting for their final, friendship-ending argument in 1711, after which Anne stripped Sarah and her husband of their rankings and banished them from court.

3. Queen Victoria was born and raised in Kensington Palace.

queen victoria statue at kensington palace
A statue of Queen Victoria, sculpted by her daughter, Louise, outside Kensington Palace.
marcin_libera/iStock via Getty Images

In June 1837, less than a month after her 18th birthday, Princess Victoria was informed that her uncle, King William IV, had died, and she would soon be crowned queen. She had lived at Kensington Palace for her whole life, and many expected her to rule from there or relocate to St. James’s Palace, her uncle’s primary residence. Instead, she set up shop in Buckingham Palace, which has been the official home of Britain’s sovereign ever since.

4. The Duke of Windsor nicknamed Kensington Palace the “Aunt Heap.”

Starting with Queen Victoria’s daughters Beatrice and Louise, Kensington Palace became the go-to place for monarchs to house various—often peripheral—members of the royal family. This tradition continued through the early 20th century, prompting the Duke of Windsor (Queen Elizabeth II’s throne-abdicating uncle Edward) to dub it the “aunt heap.”

5. Kensington Palace is said to be haunted.

Unsurprisingly, the rumors of ghosts roaming the halls of Kensington Palace are largely unsubstantiated. That said, there are quite a few of them: King George II supposedly looms over the King’s Gallery uttering his alleged last words, “Why won’t they come?” and Princess Margaret’s housekeeper saw an unknown “woman in Regency dress” in the doorway of the drawing room. Caroline of Brunswick, Caroline of Ansbach, and Princess Sophia have all been seen hanging around the palace, too—and the nursery in William and Kate’s wing of the estate is reportedly a hotbed for paranormal activity.

6. J.M. Barrie installed a statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens without permission.

peter pan statue at kensington gardens
Sir George Frampton's sculpture of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.
icenando/iStock via Getty Images

Among J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan works was Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, a 1906 novel in which Peter leaves his London home and takes up residence in Kensington Gardens, cavorting with fairies and sailing around in a bird’s nest. In 1912, Barrie commissioned Sir George Frampton to create a bronze statue of Peter and secretly installed it in the gardens without asking permission. His newspaper announcement about the statue explained that it was meant to be a surprise “May-day gift” for children.

7. Kensington Palace was damaged during a World War II bombing.

Between 1940 and 1941, the Luftwaffe—Germany’s air force—targeted London with a relentless, catastrophic series of bombings that came to be known as the Blitz (the German word for lightning). Kensington Palace didn’t emerge totally unscathed: Bombs damaged the northern side of the palace and the queen’s drawing room.

8. The Kensington Palace grounds were flooded with around 60 million flowers after Princess Diana’s death.

kensington palace lawn covered in flowers after princess diana's death
An aerial view of the flowers on the Kensington Palace lawn during the week after Princess Diana's death.
David Brauchli/Getty Images

After their marriage in 1981, Princess Diana and Prince Charles moved into Apartment 8 at Kensington Palace and eventually raised their sons, William and Harry, there. Following Diana’s fatal car crash in 1997, mourners covered the palace grounds with an estimated 60 million flowers, as well as stuffed animals, flags, photos, and notes. Some bouquets were later used to compost the surrounding gardens, while others were donated to hospitals and nursing homes.

9. Nicky Hilton was married in Kensington Palace’s Orangery.

kensington palace orangery
The Kensington Palace Orangery.
Tony Hisgett, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Queen Anne’s largest contribution to Kensington Palace was the construction of the Orangery, an expansive greenhouse built in 1704 with enough room for her to house exotic plants and also host lavish summer parties. It’s used for similarly extravagant events today—Nicky Hilton got married there in 2015.

10. Prince William and Kate Middleton live at Kensington Palace with their family—and several other royals.

william, kate, harry, and the obamas at kensington palace
Prince William and Kate Middleton host Michelle and Barack Obama in the drawing room of Apartment 1A in 2016.
Dominic Lipinski, WPA Pool/Getty Images

William and Kate live in Kensington Palace’s expansive 20-room Apartment 1A with their three children, but they’re not the only royals currently posted up in various corners of the estate. Princess Eugenie and her husband, Jack Brooksbank, live in Ivy Cottage; the Queen’s cousin Prince Michael of Kent and his wife, Marie Christine von Reibnitz, occupy Apartment 10; and Michael’s older brother, the Duke of Kent, lives with his wife in Wren House.

11. Kensington Palace is staging its first theater production in 2020.

Throughout February and March of this year, acclaimed theater group Les Enfants Terribles is performing an immersive show called “United Queendom,” which explores the relationship between King George II’s wife, Queen Caroline, and his mistress, Henrietta Howard, in 1734. It’s Kensington Palace’s very first theatrical event to date, and it promises “political intrigue, court games, high drama, scandalous gossip, and smiling through gritted teeth.”

12. The design of Billy Porter’s 2020 Oscars gown was inspired by Kensington Palace.

billy porter oscars 2020 dress
Billy Porter stunts in his Kensington Palace-inspired gown at the 92nd Oscars ceremony on February 9, 2020.
Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Inspired by a tour of Kensington Palace, Billy Porter’s stylist, Sam Ratelle, enlisted British fashion designer Giles Deacon—perhaps best known for designing Pippa Middleton’s wedding dress—to craft an Oscar gown for Porter using design elements from the royal estate. The final product featured a high-necked, gold-leaf bodice and a full, billowing skirt bearing images of Roman statues from Kensington’s Cupola Room.

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