If Walls Could Talk: The History of Hampton Court




If walls could talk the red bricks of Hampton Court would have a fair few stories to tell. Whether it’s crying queens or warring sons, the Thames-side palace has never been far from drama. It’s served as a palace, a prison and played homes to kings and politicians alike but what is it about Hampton Court that has been so endearing to the Brits? What is it about this mess of Renaissance and Baroque architecture that captures the imagination like no other? Well, let’s find out.

Despite what people may think Hampton Court did not start life out as the shag-pad of Henry VIII, in fact, its background is religious. The original site of the palace belonged to the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem who rather unchristianly sold it in 1514. The buyer? England’s first career politician (yes I know I said that was Robert Walpole http://wp.me/p3WmQN-9U) and would-be-Pope, Cardinal Wolsey. Yep, that’s right, England’s iconic palace was not built for a king but a cardinal. Wolsey spent seven years redoing the site, turning it into what he believed resembled a Renaissance cardinal’s palace (see the Borgias http://wp.me/p3WmQN-2y actually please don’t). Although Wolsey’s memory is not the first thing you’ll think of when you walk through what remains of the Tudor gates, the old dog did leave a few clues to the palace’s original builder. If you look, you’ll find a stained glass in the Great Hall (one of the last remaining Tudor rooms) with all of Wolsey’s extensive titles engraved at the base. This is an example of Wolsey shrewdly leaving his mark on Hampton Palace without having to make a song and dance about unlike the Palace’s next owner.

The Palace’s most infamous owner

In 1525, Henry VIII travelled to Hampton Court to stay in the royal lodgings and state apartments as Wolsey’s guest. It was at this point that the once close bond between Henry and Thomas was beginning to crumble. Henry’s divorce with Catherine of Aragon and subsequent remarriage to the flawless Anne Boleyn were both looking unlikely, and Wolsey was blamed for the Pope’s refusal to annul what Henry claimed was a sham marriage. Worse still Henry’s noble mates and fellow aristos were not fond of Wolsey who they deemed a social climber and unfavourably referred to as a butcher’s son. With things looking decidedly dicey between Henry and Wolsey it’s no wonder that the latter offered Henry Hampton Court as something of a gift/bribe/peace treaty in 1528. By giving Henry England’s grandest palace, Wolsey was trying to save his neck…it didn’t work. In 1530, on the way to The Tower of London, Thomas Wolsey died.

When Hampton Court fell into Henry’s hands he was already the proud honour of 60 royal residences none of which were big enough to hold his court of 1000+ people. Not content with owning the grand Hampton Court, Henry embarked on a series of expensive building works to expand the palace further. Although Henry would go  on to trump Hampton Court with the now-lost vanity project known as Nonesuch Palace, it served as principle residence. To the already sprawling palace Henry added a Great Hall (this would be the last of the medieval tradition) and the Anne Boleyn Gate which was still being built after her execution. How’s that for irony? As Henry’s preferred pad Hampton Court has seen a lot of Tudor scandal. Edward VI, Henry’s favourite child, was born in the palace in 1537 and his mother Jane Seymour died there not long after. Years later during a mass Catherine Howard/Wife number 5’s infidelity was revealed to a furious Henry who would then have her imprisoned there. Catherine’s grisly execution was forever immortalised in the palace’s history after she ran down what we now called ‘The Haunted Gallery’ pleading with Henry for her life.I don’t want to spoil anything but there’s a reason Catherine’s ghost is just one of the many claimed to haunt Hampton Court (more ghoulish readers may want to read this http://wp.me/p3WmQN-96 or this http://wp.me/p3WmQN-3L ).

An entirely accurate representation of Queen Kitty…

The palace’s tragic Tudor history doesn’t end there, as professional despot Mary I aka Bloody Mary, chose to live there during one of her phantom pregnancies. It’s usually at this point in a Tudor post that I begin to wax lyrically about the magnificent and inspirational Elizabeth I, however, regarding Hampton Court, Lizzie Regina didn’t do much, merely adding the large kitchen that now serves as a dining hall for visitors.

Fast forward to 1625 and the English Civil War and you’ll find the soon-to-be deposed Charles I imprisoned in luxury. The Stuart relationship with Hampton Court is as equally lengthy as the Tudor’s but less dramatic. During the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II Hampton Court gained a reputation as stuffy and outdated. During the English Civil War Charlie II had been in hiding at the French Court under the protection of the French monarchy, famous Stuart sympathisers. There, Charles lived among the grand French courts, treated like a prince in exile. He would later move to The Hague (where he’d meet his future brother-in-law William of Orange), but Charles’s love affair with French baroque and the finer things did not deplete. William of Orange and his wife Mary Stuart would be the next to embark on extensive refurbishments of the palace. The Royal duo had lived extensively in Europe and had seen the construction of the baroque eyesore referred to as the Palace of Versailles. Built mainly by Louis XIV, the Parisian abode nearly bankrupted the French -its 50 fountains and extensive gardens depriving peasants of drinking water- and was seen as the greatest palace in the Western world. On arrival to England, the Dutch William was greatly disappointed by its dirty capital and outdated palaces. Due to William’s sickly nature, the King and Queen fled London and pitched up at the unfashionable Hampton Court.

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Versailles: One of the fountains that starved a nation

With architectural whiz Christopher Wren on board William and Mary set about a grand re-design.  The initial plan had been for Wren to mimic the design of Versailles and demolish the outdated Tudor buildings with a baroque nightmare fit for a king. Wren set about designing the latest in a long line of royal vanity projects but the initial design was vetoed because it was “too modest…” Well, it’s not like the Stuarts are known for their subtly right? Sadly the redesign in part went through, and the original Tudor state apartments were demolished and replaced with the ones we can still visit today. Although I’m not a fan of baroque architecture or the Stuart period, William and Mary’s designs bring out the romantic in me. To show that they were equal sovereign, the royal couple commissioned matching state apartments and a surprisingly nice double staircase. Much like Wolsey’s cardinal palace, William and Mary’s double act design was a political statement and, one that seemed to work well.

The drama doesn’t end there and the early Hanoverian kings would play out their family strife in the palace’s long hallways. As I’ve mentioned before  the relationship between Hanoverian fathers and sons is naturally fractious. One historian compared the German family to pigs who trample on their young. The first example we see of in-fighting at Hampton Court is between George I and the Prince of Wales (George II). George I was famously conservative in his politics and style of rule. However, his sex life was anything but conservative, the King flaunting his German mistresses and bastard children in the English Courts. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t sit well with George II who had been forbidden from seeing his mother since childhood, due to her affair with a European aristocrat. Couple this simmering resentment with George I’s unwillingness to give his son any power and you’ve got a family war on your hands. Sick of his father’s boorish Hanoverian Court, George and his popular wife Caroline of Ansbach set up home at Hampton Court with their young, liberal nobles. Furious that his son had pilfered the royal palace for his own, George also to Hampton Court with his own group of the friends to hold a rival court. Father and son would play out their petty squabbles in different apartments with George I only leaving to return to his native Hanover from time to time. Sadly, this would be the last time a royal would adopt Hampton Court as a full-time home. After the death of George II, the then relatively sane George III refused to move into Hampton Court as he associated it with his unhappy childhood and violent family rows.

Not quite Versailles: The Stuart extension to Hampton Court.

The palace would not see any further refurbishments until the Victorian period when Queen Vicky decided to restore Henry’s Great Hall to its former glory. The move served as a canny PR move and effort on Victoria’s effort to distance herself from her unpopular Hanoverian roots.

So there you have it, Hampton Court in a nutshell. While I’m not (currently) on the Historic Royal Palace payroll, I urge you to save your pennies and pay the palace a visit. Finally, an apology- if needed- for my lengthy absence. Unfortunately, life, career moves and general madness got in the way of my creative endeavours, but I’m back now and ready to rant about whatever I feel like (as long as it’s over 100 years old!)

Over and out!



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