Hampton Court Palace, April 2013

29 April 2013

We’ve had a really busy week with the Seven Year Old turning eight and all manner of fuss and iniquity. It was topped off by a most excellent weekend though, which involved NEW KITTENS and a trip to Hampton Court Palace on Saturday, which was very exciting as I have been wanting to take my family there ever since I went last Spring.

We picked a perfect day for it – sunny with occasional light spring showers to freshen the air. It was lovely. Although the rain was possibly rather less alluring when experienced while lost in the famous maze!

The main reason for visiting was to see the new Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber exhibition in Mary II’s former apartments, which is an absolutely superb suite of rooms. Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber is a fascinating look at the importance of the royal bedchamber as the heart of the seventeenth and eighteenth century courts and has at its heart six amazing state beds, including the infamous one at the centre of the ‘baby in the warming pan’ incident that (along with a whole bunch of other things) contributed to the downfall of James II.

I wasn’t there on a press jaunt this time (although I was sent tickets by the Press Office so that I could take a look) so alas there are no photos, which is a shame as there were some amazing things to be seen, including the wonderful pile of several silk mattresses beneath Queen Anne’s state bed, which reminded me of illustrations of the Princess and the Pea and also the gorgeous embroidery on the hangings of Queen Charlotte’s state bed. Neither bed was slept in by its intended owner incidentally, which is a great shame.

When you first enter the exhibition you immediately find yourself in a large dark room with big mattresses all over the floor so that you can flop down and watch the introductory animated film projected on to the ceiling. The effect is a bit peculiar but rather enchanting and makes a great starting point to the treasures that you are about to see.

My favourite exhibits, I think, were Charles II’s personal belongings such as his embroidered linen nightcap (I couldn’t help thinking though that it was at odds with his Lothario reputation to wear a cap in bed), beautifully embroidered silk nightshirt case and the exquisitely engraved lidded bowl that he ate his morning broth from.

Ultimately it was a wonderful exhibition, very imaginative and immersive and rather romantically creepy in its own way. It was definitely a treat to see the royal beds all together as well.

After we had viewed the exhibition, it was time to explore the rest of the palace, starting with the Tudor rooms, which are a magnet for most visitors to Hampton Court. Here you can see some of the main state rooms used by Henry VIII and his successors, such as the Great Watching Chamber where Catherine Howard’s household were gathered together after her arrest and summarily dismissed, the fabulous Great Hall where the Tudor court gathered for their dinner, the so called ‘haunted gallery’ said to be haunted by Catherine Howard’s poor little terrified spectre and, best of all, the beautiful jewel like chapel with its gold star studded azure blue ceiling where you can really get a sense of what it was like to be Henry VIII, aloof and almost God like above his courtiers.

Equally fascinating is a trip to the Tudor kitchens, a warren of corridors, courtyards and rooms where the enormous meals required by the court were prepared by dozens of servants.

After this, we visited the Georgian private apartments which were, as usual, very quiet which I always think is such a shame as they are a lovely suite of rooms and have some really great paintings such as a whole plethora of court beauties by Lely and Honthorst’s wonderful posthumous portrait of the assassinated Duke of Buckingham with his family.

We then popped across the courtyard to William III’s apartments, which are reached via the amazing painted staircase, a truly majestic piece of work that wouldn’t look out of place at Versailles. William III’s state rooms are magnificent with opulently dressed windows, gorgeous painted ceilings and rich furnishings but then gradually, once you are past the amazing state bedchamber, they become smaller, more intimate and cosier as you move away from the King’s official presence and into the private rooms beyond and below.

My favourite room, unsurprisingly is the King’s private dining room, which is decorated with Kneller’s paintings of court beauties, all doe eyed and languorously smiling in their beautifully draped and fanciful gowns.

I’m still in a Minette frame of mind so I naturally had to pay my respects to Van Dyck’s lovely portrait of her sister Princess Mary as a little girl, which hangs in the rooms that would one day belong to her son, William III. This portrait was one of Charles I’s favourites and was eventually smuggled out of England by the ever resourceful Lady d’Aubigny, who hid it beneath her voluminous skirts. It’s great to see it back at Hampton Court again.

There’s loads to poke around inside the palace but I’d really like to see more of the earlier Stuarts who were all really fond of Hampton Court – in fact both Charles I and his son Charles II spent their honeymoons there and, less happily, the former also spent some time imprisoned in the palace before managing a short lived escape. There’s no trace either of the Cromwells, who both resided here during the Protectorate, although they are among the least popular former residents so I can see why Elizabeth Cromwell and her draconian housekeeping methods don’t get much of a mention!

Detail from a painting of Henry VII, Elizabeth of York and their children, which is on display in the brilliant Young Henry exhibit in the palace.

After this we went for a walk in the gardens, which are an absolute delight. It was fun to revisit them again after writing about them in Minette. I couldn’t help smiling as I recalled the bittersweet scene with Minette and Prince Rupert, which takes place in the gardens at Hampton Court. Oh sigh.

Last time I visited Hampton Court (note the difference in quality between the photographs on that post and those on this! That’s what happens when I have to try and take photographs while holding on to an adventurous, curious and very strong willed four year old boy!), I was still bubbling over with Wolf Hall Fever and keen to see places that Thomas Cromwell had known. This time, however, I was keen to find something of my own heroine, Princess Henrietta-Anne but sadly no trace of her remains at Hampton Court, although I suppose that’s to be expected as she only visited once and then very briefly.

To most people, Hampton Court Palace is simply the home of Henry VIII but it’s actually so much more than that, offering a tantalising glimpse into the equally arcane, often bizarre and very opulent worlds of the Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs that followed him on to the throne.

The Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber exhibition is on at Hampton Court Palace until the 3rd of November 2013 and is definitely well worth a visit!

(Many thanks to Tim from the Historic Royal Palaces press office for the tickets!)

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