Most Royal residences change through time. Their appearance transitions with the style and temperament of the Monarch who resides within them. In some cases, you can see this evolution through the numerous paintings and drawings recorded throughout Britain’s rich archives. But what if you could physically see these changes, literally step through the pages of a history book? There is a place which embodies this physical notion – Hampton Court Palace.
This iconic and historic royal residence has been described as two palaces in one, and it is easy to see why. Mixing both the Tudor home of Henry VIII and the Georgian splendours of Kings and Queens, Hampton Court is a unique antiquity of Britain’s past. It is also one of the UK’s most famous, and the red brick exterior of the Tudor-era West Front is arguably one of the country’s most recognisable edifices.
But Hampton Court’s reverence within society stemmed long before the likes of Henry VIII walked through its hallways. Originally built for the Knights Hospitallers of St John around 1338, the first known house was the centre of a large farming estate. Created to provide funds for crusaders in the Holy Land, the estate would eventually pass to Giles Daubeney in 1494. He would subsequently lease Hampton Court and thus we would begin to see the earliest parts of the palace begin to form.
Throughout this time Hampton Court would be a place of high society, though in 1514 the palace would become a key setting for the rule of its most famous inhabitant – Henry VIII.
The most dominant churchman and politician in the land, Thomas Wolsey, acquired Hampton Court and quickly began to convert a “humble” manor house into a formidable palace. Wolsey’s architectural plan was to both impress and entertain a fiery king, but also vividly announce his own power to the Crown and country. This resulted in the construction of a new entrance courtyard, a long gallery looking out over freshly landscaped gardens, and he adorned the palace with several hundred opulent tapestries. One admirer noted that these changed every week leaving them mightily impressed.
With such flare for design and grandeur, and in an effort to impress his beloved king, Wolsey would eventually stir a different emotion, one which became synonymous with Henry VIII – jealousy.
Henry felt that Hampton Court was beginning to outshine his own royal residence, St James Palace – the official home of the Monarch. The King hated being second best, so eventually in 1525 Wolsey was persuaded to formally present his cherished home to Henry. And though he no longer owned the palace he did continue to add to the building.
Being a cardinal, he constructed a new chapel with a cloister for state processions. This would be the beginning of the end for the once powerful churchman. A visit in 1527 by the French formed part of the negotiations of a permanent peace treaty. The cloister and grandeur of the newly formed chapel made the perfect location for such a deal, one which would support Henry’s desperate attempts to divorce his first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey was attested as a key part of this support network, though his failure to persuade the Pope to annul the royal marriage outraged the king, and he was eventually removed from Hampton Court once and for all.
As subsequent years passed, Henry became enamoured with his stately home. Great sums of money were spent on luxury beyond imagination. A new chamber for the King’s Council – the centre of government – as well as vastly enlarged kitchens were constructed to ensure service to Henry’s grandest addition to the palace, the Great Hall. He was also a keen sportsman, building himself a tennis court and two bowling alleys.
Though Henry strived to make Hampton Court a palace which none could contend with, his ambition was fuelled by another desire, one which would form in the shape of Anne Boleyn. The king would build new queen’s lodgings, complete with hot and cold running water, something which was unheard of at the time. Queen Anne would never use her apartment, instead she would fall from grace and be executed in 1536 after being convicted of adultery and incest within the walls of Hampton Court.
Soon afterward, Henry married Jane Seymour, who provided him with his only male heir – Edward VI. She would tragically die in childbirth and Henry would marry Anne of Cleves, though only for a short period of time, before falling for the much younger and promiscuous Catherine Howard.
Hampton Court would come to play a dramatic setting at this time, as it was here where courtiers would inform the King of his wife’s infidelity. Sentenced to death by beheading, Catherine would beg for her life, screaming for forgiveness through the corridors of the famed palace. It is stated that many have continued to hear Catherine’s ghostly cries even today.
Henry would marry Kateryn Parr at Hampton Court in 1543 and four years later, old and ill he would die, thus ending the king’s hold on his beloved palace.
With the reign of Henry VIII at an end, Hampton Court continued its integral significance to the monarchy and its changing face. From Queen Elizabeth I, who held little affection for the palace after being forced to stay there following suspicions of involvement in a rebellion against her half-sister, Queen Mary I; to King James I who used Hampton Court to entertain guests with his private theatre company, the ‘King’s Men’, which included an unknown William Shakespeare.
It was under James’ reign whereby the most religious and far-reaching legacies of Hampton Court was established. In 1604 a religious debate resulted in King James releasing his own translation of the Bible.
As time moved on, building work stagnated. With the ascension of Charles I, his contribution would be artistic, though not through expressive architecture. Charles became a keen collector of artwork by the Italian Masters, paving the way for centuries of Monarchs to invest in the art world. It is thanks to Charles I that Hampton Court Palace boasts such an astonishing collection.
Unfortunately for Charles, whilst his collection in art increased, he eventually lost something of much more importance – his head. After the civil war had ended and the Monarchy was removed with the forming of a Republic nation, Oliver Cromwell – leader of the Parliamentary army – curiously kept Hampton Court Palace untouched. Living like a king, Cromwell became addicted to the splendour of the palace, besotted with its grandeur and his former enemy’s impressive art collection.
In 1660 the Monarchy was restored with Charles II taking the throne. Continuing with the tradition of his former monarchs, Hampton Court continued as a place for royalty and dignitaries to retreat.
The years would continue to pass by, and Hampton Court Palace would quickly face its greatest transformation. It would lead to the palace becoming a unique passage through time, with two differing architectural styles competing for precedence. Mary II and William of Orange took the Tudor palace into a style they felt befitted royalty – Baroque.
Turning to architect Sir Christopher Wren, together they envisioned an ambitious new Hampton Court, which would completely wipe-out all remnants of Henry VIII’s beloved home. Inspired by the palaces of France the eventual costs resulted in the new build only half completed. Through the successive monarchs, and their growing lack of interest in Hampton Court, the palace eventually fell out of all consciousness with the Monarchy. With George III’s confirmation of a formalised system of granting unused apartments to courtiers who were deserving of royal ‘grace and favour’, Hampton Court’s once devoted relationship with royalty ended.
But there was still life left in this enduring palace, and in 1839 Queen Victoria would take the first steps into reinstating Hampton Court Palace back into the public consciousness once again. Opening its historic doors to the public allowed the nation to quickly value Hampton Court’s place in history and begin a close relationship between palace and the people which has endured ever since.
Much tragedy, intrigue and drama has occurred within those famous walls of the palace, though in 1986 Hampton Court became more than just a setting for such devastation. A ferocious fire severely damaged the King’s Apartments causing much of the roof to collapse. The priceless furnishings within the state rooms were badly damaged and the occupant, Lady Gale, sadly perished in the blaze.
Yet Hampton Court would rise from the ashes of misfortune and blossom with a new lease of life. Millions have since walked through the corridors and grand halls the palace has to offer, and each visitor has been captivated by its historic wonderment and story.
And that element is the unique-selling-point which envelops Hampton Court. It has a story unlike any other, one which you can physically see. You can mirror the footsteps of Britain’s most famous and controversial King. You can see the Great Hall where William Shakespeare showcased his theatrical skills. You may even catch the attention of one of the numerous ghosts said to haunt Hampton Court. This palace is an experience, a trek through history that has come to shape our very United Kingdom. You can see it, you can feel and most importantly, you can revel in it.
Hampton Court Palace has been integral to our heritage and cultural evolution. It is two palaces in one, stitched together with the passage of time. It is, quite simply history made visible for all to see.
Thanks to Historic Royal Palaces and the staff at Hampton Court Palace for their wonderful help!