Hampton Court 500: 1515-2015
This year Hampton Court celebrates its 500th anniversary. Hampton Court is probably most famous for being the residence of Tudor tyrant, Henry VIII (1491-1547), but it was also home to English kings and queens after him: Mary I (1516-1558), Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Charles I (1600-1649) and Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), Charles II (1630-1685), James II (1633-1701), William of Orange (1650-1702) and Mary II (1662-1694), George I (1660-1727) and George II (1683-1760).
The grounds are sprawling and boast stunning gardens, a maze, massive kitchens, the royal chapel, a fountain court, a royal tennis court and an endless number of rooms. It is also an eclectic mix of two very distinct styles: Tudor and Baroque. Tudor after Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530) and Henry VIII’s efforts, and a half finished Baroque palace after William III and Mary II began renovating it but failed to finish after Mary died of smallpox, and William fell from his horse on the grounds only to succumb to his injuries at Kensington Palace.
The Chapel Royal: An Active Chapel with a Tudor Past
This beautiful chapel is where Henry VIII held his wedding to his sixth, and final wife, Catherine Parr (1512-1548) on July 28, 1543. It was originally built in the 1520s by Cardinal Wolsey on the same site as a chapel built in 1236 by the Knights Hospitaller. Henry had a private pew, the Holy Day Closet overlooking the church, along with a full view of the dazzling ceiling; a blue and gold mix of stars along with the royal motto: “Mon Dieu et Mon Droit”, “My God and My Right”. The starred ceiling has been impeccably preserved and was built in 1535 for Henry. It has remained much in the way Henry would have seen it 500 years ago. The chapel is still in active use today and has 400 regular parishioners.
Feasting and Tapestries: Henry VIII’s Great Hall
The Great Hall was built by Henry VIII between 1532 and 1535 and is part of the Tudor royal apartments. It is considered the last medieval great hall built in England. The Great Hall was was one of the most important rooms in the palace; it was where the king would dine with his courtiers, and it was regularly used by his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I during her reign. The Great Hall is 106 ft. long and 40 ft. wide. While the hall is impressive, the most striking thing about it are the tapestries. The Abraham tapestries in the Great Hall are over 500 years old. Made of silk, wool and gilt metal threads, they were woven in Brussels in the workshop of Willem de Kempeneer. Only two other sets of these tapestries survive; one in Vienna and one in Madrid. Henry used the tapestries as a form of propaganda; he tried to link himself to the patriarchs of the Old Testament, like Abraham, to show his power as the head of the newly formed Church of England. The tapestries recently underwent an extensive seven year conservation project, in collaboration with the University of Manchester, to try and restore them to their original colours.
The Oldest Maze in the UK!
While it’s certainly not the biggest maze, it is the oldest maze in the UK. I traipsed around in it thinking it was easy to solve but ended up wandering around lost, while little kids outwitted me! The maze was planted in about 1689 at the behest of William III and Mary II by gardener George London (1640-1714) and his apprentice, Henry Wise (1653-1738). If the weather is nice, try your best to get to the centre of the maze before the kids beat you to it!
Dinner For 1,000?: The Kitchens of Henry VIII
No microwaves, no high powered mixers, and no blenders, yet Henry VIII’s kitchens were once able to feed over 1,000 people. Today, the kitchens are maintained to look just as they did 500 years ago and in the spring and summer months, there are daily live roasts and Tudor cook offs. Henry’s Court dined twice a day; according to the palace, a Tudor courtier could consume as much as 5,000 calories per day! Dinner was washed down with 600,000 gallons of beer over the course of a year!
Calling All Chocoholics!: The Chocolate Kitchens
Georgians sure loved their chocolate! Hampton Court boasts the only surviving chocolate kitchen in England. It is extremely well preserved after 300 years and contains many original Georgian pieces. Chocolate was introduced to England in the middle of the 17th century and enjoyed as a drink. William III started the trend at Hampton Court in 1689 by importing chocolate from The Netherlands. It didn’t come in the solid form we’re familiar with today until the 19th century. Chocolate was a luxury item, because it was expensive so it was enjoyed only by the wealthy. It was often served in gold or silver pots and sipped out of porcelain cups. If you had money, you could enjoy a drink in a chocolate house or potentially, build a chocolate kitchen of your own. The tradition continued at Hampton Court under King George I (and II), who hired Thomas Tosier as the official chocolatier for the royal household.
The Other Henry VIII…
This is a curious, rather hidden section that attempts to rehabilitate Henry VIII’s villainous persona. It examines his 20 year marriage to Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) from 1510 to 1530, the early days of his reign, and the tragic circumstances surrounding the loss of their children who were either stillborn or died shortly after birth. It paints a different picture of the king we think we know, and tries to challenge the typical assumptions of a gluttonous, tyrannical, rapacious, man. This section is rather sparse but does contain a few lovely paintings, like the one shown above, “The Embarkation at Dover”, 1545, by an unknown artist. This painting depicts Henry VIII’s trip from Dover castle to France with Catherine of Aragon, and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey on May 31st, 1520. They were setting sail to meet King Francis I of France (1494-1547).
In the Lap of Luxury: William III and Mary II’s State and Private Apartments
Lavish furnishings, a dining room set as it would have been in 1700, rooms of paintings, and the spectacular velvet toilet pictured here, were part of the apartments on the Baroque side of Hampton Court belonging to William III and Mary II.The king had commissioned famed architect, Christopher Wren (1632-1723) to rebuild Hampton Court in the new Baroque style. William intended to have the entire palace demolished except for the Great Hall but he didn’t have the money to complete the task. Mary died in 1694 and work on the palace stopped. William began work on the palace again in 1698 but didn’t live to see it finished after he died from a fall off his horse in 1702. His lavish quarters ended up costing £113,000!
And Then There Were the Georgians….
In 2014, Hampton Court celebrated the 300th anniversary of the beginning Georgian rule in England with a series of events, re-enactments and entertainment. You can see the Georgian influence on Hampton Court when you visit the palace as George I and II both took up residence here. These lovely Georgian outfits on display at Hampton Court were made entirely of paper!
Playing the Part: Live Historical Interpretation at Hampton Court
It’s one thing to walk around a historical site just looking at architecture and objects, but it’s even better when you can add to your visit with storytelling. Hampton Court has plenty of historical interpreters to help tell the palace’s stories, re-enact important scenes from the past, engage with children, and become famous characters.
Quiet Time for a King: The Privy Garden
The Privy Garden was built by Henry VIII between 1530-1538. Private Gardens for the king were common during the 16th century as a place where the king could go and escape affairs of state and court life. The garden was rebuilt twice since Henry’s time; once between 1599-1659, and again in 1689. After the garden fell out of fashion, it became overgrown until 1995 when a restoration project returned it to the way it looked in 1702 during William III’s reign. Sadly, William didn’t get to see the garden as he died shortly before it was completed.
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