Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Secrets of Hampton Court Palace


Like many other fans of British history I am thoroughly enjoying Gareth Russell's The Palace: From the Tudors to the Windsors, 500 Years of British History at Hampton Court and will write my own review soon. Here is an interview with Gareth by author Dan Jones:

DJ: Hampton Court is one of the most extraordinary buildings in England… maybe even in the world. For anyone who has never been there can you give a flavour of what it’s like to walk through those great gates for the first time?

GR: You’re right – that’s the perfect word for it: extraordinary. You get a sense of that, right away, when you walk through those gates, passing the huge royal coat of arms on either side of you. They set the tone for the marriage of fantasy and history that’s baked into the Hampton Court bricks.

As you walk from the gates towards the palace, the first thing that impresses you is the sheer size of Hampton Court and that continues as you cross the bridge – passing by more stone unicorns and dragons, clutching the heraldry of the great families who have held sway there, like the Tudors, the Stuarts, the Seymours, and even the Beauforts.

Everything in the architecture is designed to overawe you, but as you walk through and under that first gateway into the courtyard you are also overawed by the history because you are walking the same path, and seeing much the same view, as Anne of Cleves, Edward VI, William Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, and Xenia Romanov.

It has this rather amazing origin story, doesn’t it - Cardinal Wolsey builds it when he is the most powerful man in Henry VIII’s England, and then the king nicks it! Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Yes, poor old Wolsey is the man who turns it into a palace. For centuries, there had been a manor on the site that belonged to the warrior-monks of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller. They ran it as a glorified ecclesiastical Airbnb and started renting it out to courtiers who wanted a country house that was close to the royals’ palaces at Byfleet, Sheen and, later, Richmond. In 1515, Wolsey becomes the latest tenant but, in true Wolsey style, he does nothing by halves and persuades the Order to give him a ninety-nine year lease, which means he can treat it like his property.

Wolsey has a vast income as the King’s chief minister and, as a clergyman, he can have no legitimate heirs, so he’s not worried about building a fortune for future generations. He can spend it on what he likes. He recruits the best and brightest artists in northern Europe to come to England to work for him between 1515 and 1522 as he transforms Hampton Court from a comfortable mansion into one of the most admired palaces in Europe.

By the time he’s finished, one visitor thought that Hampton Court outshone the palaces of the Habsburg emperors. But, when Wolsey falls from favour in 1529 – as punishment for failing to persuade Pope Clement VII to dissolve Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon – Henry takes the lease off him.

In 1531, Henry ‘persuades’ the Order to accept a property swap, whereby the deeds for Hampton Court will pass to the Crown in return for the Priory of Saint Mary Magdalene in Essex. Which, as property swaps go, is about as fair as somebody saying that in return for your first-class seat on British Airways, they’ll give you a tricycle. So, that’s how Hampton Court went from Church to Crown via an impressive but unlucky cardinal. (Read more.)


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