Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Matters of truth

On Thursday this week I was asked a very pertinent question. It referred to the 40 or so people portrayed in William Kent’s mural that winds up the side of the King’s Grand Staircase in Kensington Palace. ‘But these are historical people,’ my questioner said. ‘How can we make up stories about them?’

Storytelling at Kensington Palace

At the time, we were standing at the top of the staircase as a class of schoolchildren rushed noisily down it and I was telling my group of adults something of what is known and not known about the characters in the mural. This was all part of the first of six sessions of a Storytelling course I’ve been employed to lead at the Palace – a course which is in turn part of the considerable Outreach work regularly carried out by the Palace with schoolchildren, parents and others.

The Storytelling course has two aims. One is to get the participants telling stories and learning and enjoying the techniques. On the other side is the challenge to create some new stories suitable for telling to quite young children. The stories to be made up will relate to the Palace and the idea is to take as a starting-point one or other of the characters in William Kent’s mural. All were real historical people in the court of King George I and they include such known persons as Mrs Tempest, Queen Caroline’s milliner, who is shown in the mural in a seductive black hood. Also there are Mustapha and Mohammed, the two Turkish servants who were closest to the king. It was their job to dress him and manage his bedchamber. As such, they were the cause of considerable envy and rumour among other courtiers.

The children in William Kent’s mural

Also in the mural are several children. One who is apparently very popular with tourists is identifiable as Peter the Wild Boy, a strange child without language who was reputed to have lived alone in German forests and who was brought to London from Hanover in 1726. All kinds of fantastical tales circulated about him and he was written about with varying degrees of compassion and satire by some of England’s greatest writers including Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe. It so happens that – thanks to a hitherto unpublished book of mine – I know a good deal about him.

But several children in the mural remain unknown or only uncertainly identified. One is a little turbaned black boy, probably bought as a slave-boy, who appears to be climbing over one of the trompe l’oeil banisters that serve to make the scene in the mural look so real. Another has indeed climbed over the banister and is hanging over the stairwell, looking down. What are these children up to? Who were they? Were they mischievous or keen to escape, stifled by the life of the palace or full of enjoyment of it?


It’s such questions that, I hope, might provide possible starting places for some made-up stories that could link children of today to those mysterious little courtiers of the 18th century Palace.

So my reply to the parent who wondered how we could make up stories about historical people had to be a bit of a fudge: ‘Well, we’ll see next week.’

For of course her question raises significant issues about history and story and what is truth. We will need time to discuss them.

We’ll also have to see if we can find a way to begin a story something like this: ‘There’s a wonderful painting in Kensington Palace and in the painting there’s a little boy. And I’ve got a story about him.’

My photos

This week’s photos were taken on Thursday on my way to Kensington Palace through the park from Queensway tube.

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