This may be a surprise but I’ve never been to Hampton Court Palace before despite growing up in Essex and spending a lot of my childhood in London, where my history obsessed grandmother, who raised me, came from. I didn’t know what to expect to be honest – it’s such an iconic building after all and the backdrop to so much Tudor drama and shenanigins.
It made my jaw drop to be honest as I walked up the drive towards the palace with its russet brick towers, decorative chimneys and sun warmed higgledy piggledy array of Tudor buildings. Absolutely stunning. And to imagine the history that it had witnessed was almost overwhelming. This was after all home to Wolsey, Henry VIII and his wives, Charles I, Cromwell, Charles II and his lady friends and on and on.
As I walked through the courtyards to the Queen’s apartments where the exhibition was being held, I found my gaze drawn up at the towers, the gleaming mullioned windows, the occasional glimpse of an elaborate brocade curtain and those twisted ornamental chimney stacks. In that moment, I lost my heart completely to Hampton Court. I still love Versailles, of course I do, but my word, it has some stiff competition here in England!
After I’d spent the morning perusing the sleepy eyed beauties of the Stuart court, I left and bumped into a large man dressed as Henry VIII and surrounded by several dozen wide eyed children. It was my intention at this point to get a drink and have a think about what I’d just seen but instead I couldn’t resist following a sign directing me to the Chapel Royal.
The chapel is the only part of Hampton Court where photography isn’t allowed but suffice to say that I was overwhelmed and deeply moved by it. I’d seen pictures before, of course, of the Grinling Gibbons woodwork behind the altar and the wonderful gilded ceiling with its painted azure sky and profusion of gold stars but no mere photograph can do it justice.
Next door there is the lovely Tudor garden with its pretty statues and overwhelming scent of herbs. It’s a truly peaceful spot.
After this I took refuge in a little courtyard opposite and admired the Tudor buildings overhead. I spent the rest of the day wandering about the palace rather aimlessly but enjoying every second as I discovered all sorts of courtyards, alleyways, staircases and seemingly forgotten little nooks and crannies. Hampton Court is SUCH a fun place to visit – you know that millions of people have trooped through all the same places but it feels like such a secret place, so full of intimate charm and romance. It really feels like you are discovering it all for yourself and that, I think, is really quite remarkable.
I also got hopelessly lost on more than one occasion and was occasionally flummoxed by the way that indoor parts of the palace, such as the corridor of the Chapel Royal looked like outdoor parts and so on. It was a nice place to be lost though as it definitely lends itself to a bit of confused meandering.
I began with the Georgian private apartments, a really lovely light filled suite of rooms beside the Queen’s state of apartments. They are simply decorated but there’s some wonderful paintings here including a series of works in the bedchamber by, I think, Honthorst and also the portrait of the Duke of Buckingham ‘Steenie’ with his wife and children. I’m quite interested in his daughter, Mary as she was apparently the love of Prince Rupert’s life, despite being married to one of his best friends.
After this I visited William III’s apartments, which are reached via a most majestic and beautiful painted staircase. These rooms are really quite wonderful and give a really evocative idea of how royal life must have been in the palace during the late Stuart period. William and Mary much preferred Hampton Court to Whitehall which was at that point the main royal residence in London, and so they began a series of lavish improvements there designed by Wren himself. Terrifyingly, his original plan involved demolishing the original Tudor palace and completely replacing it but luckily they ran out of money so it never happened. I think that the resulting mixture of ramshackle red brick Tudor palace and more pleasingly symmetrical Stuart grandeur is very becoming. I bet it annoyed the hell out of the thwarted Wren, not to mention his royal patrons though…
I’d like to know where and how Charles II lived when he was in residence at Hampton Court – did the Stuart court reside in style in the older parts of the palace that had once been inhabited by Henry VIII and his family? I know that Charles I was kept as a prisoner here before his execution after which Cromwell took it on as a residence while Lord Protector of the country. It’s said that his wife, Elizabeth, had a series of hidden passageways and doors constructed behind the state rooms so that she could leap out upon unsuspecting servants who might be slacking off. How she must have grumbled about the amount of housekeeping such an elderly palace entailed. Or maybe she relished it?
The Stuart and Georgian rooms of the palace are very quiet and I enjoyed a lovely peaceful stroll through them, along deserted galleries, down staircases and through bright vestibules. There’s even a little rest room on the ground floor of the King’s apartments, set aside for the weary visitor and overlooking the pretty Chocolate Court, on the other side of which William III’s chef Mr Nice used to prepare his hot chocolate. Crikey, it’s good to be king.
After this I joined most of the visitors and headed up an impressive staircase to the former Tudor apartments, the first room of which was an immense great hall where Henry VIII would once have presided over feasts and peculiarly costumed masques. As the Tudors are, for most, the real draw of Hampton Court, there’s a greater emphasis on education in these rooms with portraits and information enticingly displayed in all of the rooms. I was particularly taken with the famous long gallery, which is said to be haunted by the unfortunate Catherine Howard. It’s hung with lavish silk wall hangings now and has a very un-creepy atmosphere.
The best bit though was when we step out onto the King’s balcony overlooking the Chapel Royal and it was here that for the very first time I actually felt close to what and who Henry VIII must have been. It’s hard to explain but looking at his prie dieu, arranged with massive comfy cushion to kneel on and prayer book spread out for that day’s devotions, all beneath that glorious star spangled ceiling that looks like heaven itself and completely distant from the mere mortals gathered in the chapel below, I found myself thinking ‘So this is what it was like to be Henry VIII’. A remote and God like being. No wonder he went so off the rails.
I wasn’t actually hunting for Tudors while I was there though. I’m still in thrall to Wolf Hall and was keen to see somewhere that, oh be still my beating heart, Thomas Cromwell would have known. I didn’t really get much sense of that though as unlike the Stuart rooms, I didn’t really get a sense of ‘this is a bedroom’, ‘this is where the King had meetings’ and so on. It was only in the Young Henry VIII exhibition that I came across a remnant of Wolsey – a bricked up doorway, which apparently led to the long gallery in his day.
Poor old Wolsey – he creates this wondrous palace by the Thames and gets all forgotten.
After all this excitement, I headed off to the gardens for a bit of a stroll in the rain. I walked a little way along an avenue then turned back to see this behind me. Glorious.
I finished my visit with a trip to Henry VIII’s cellars, which obligingly smelt of herbs, old meat and spice and then his kitchens which are reached via a series of courtyards and alleyways called things like Fish Street and so on. My interests are really in the high life but I do like to visit below stairs once in a while and Henry VIII’s kitchens really are fascinating if you have any interest in the workings of a Tudor household. They appeared to eat a LOT of pie and herbs, eggs and onions were apparently all major components of any royal menu. I really loved all the earthenware pottery that was out on display. I was rather less keen on the tub of MYSTERY MEAT that was bubbling away in a side room, destined for the aforementioned pies.
I can’t believe that it took me so long to pay my first visit to Hampton Court but this was most assuredly not my last! If I ever become rich, I’m going to have the most AMAZING party there.
I think that my next royal visit should be to the Banqueting House as Whitehall comes up ALL the time in my research and yet I’ve never managed to visit even this one remaining part of it, which is a bit unfortunate of me, don’t you think?