Hampton Court Palace was the home of England’s most famous king from 1529 until his death in 1547. With sixty acres of gardens and 750 acres of parkland, it was King Henry VIII’s weekend and summer retreat from London. The palace was occupied by monarch’s of the Stuart and Hanoverian Royal Houses up until 1737.
The house was originally built by England’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1515. Around fifteen years later, he was dismissed by Henry VIII and the King acquired Hampton Court for his personal use. Henry brought all his Queens here (except Catherine of Aragon), Jane Seymour gave birth their son (Edward VI) at Hampton Court and Henry married Catherine Parr in the Royal Chapel.
There are three distinct parts to Hampton Court Palace, representing Henry’s Tudor apartments, the Court of William and Mary and the Georgian story (King George I and King George II).
We’ll start with the apartments of King William and Queen Mary II, who reigned from 1689 to 1702. They favoured Hampton Court for the clean air that was beneficial to the King’s asthma. (Eventually they were forced to spend more time in London to be near the government and people). Entering their apartments, as a courtier, official or diplomat, we ascend the King’s staircase and pass through a series of rooms taking us closer to the Kings private apartments – and the closer we’re permitted, the more favoured we are, ultimately seeing the King rise in the morning and get dressed – known as the Levee. The apartments are richly decorated with fabrics, ancestral portraits and wood carvings by the King’s fellow Dutchman; Grinling Gibbons.
On the lower floor, the Orangery was for used socialising in summertime and for storing the King and Queen’s collection of exotic plants and Orange trees in winter. The Queen died in 1694 and the King withdrew from public life – and sadly became disliked by some in his later years.
Over to King Henry’s apartments and we enter the Great Hall. Dating from 1530’s this was built to commemorate Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn (ask a member of staff to point out the last remaining H&A wood carving in one of the corners). This room has been recreated in so many films and TV series, re-creating the Tudor Royal Court’s many banquets and balls. The ceiling is a hammer beam construction and is breath taking – notice the ‘eaves-droppers’ listening out for anything seditious!
The Great Watching Chamber, was the entrance to Henry’s private rooms. A door leading to them is in the corner – but sadly they were demolished by William and Mary to make space for their new rooms. Notice the ceiling bosses; the Tudor Rose, Jane Seymour’s crest and Henry’s grandmother’s crest – the portcullis of Westminster.
Continue through the Haunted Gallery (so called because this is where Catherine Howard escaped to seek Henry’s forgiveness for her dalliances, to no avail).
The magnificent Royal Chapel has been a continuous place of worship since it was built in 1530. Legend has it that Jane Seymour’s heart is buried beneath the Altar (her body is buried at Windsor Castle).
The final section is the Georgian story. King George I became monarch in 1714 but was only present in England for around half his time – understandable since he didn’t speak English. Consequently, during his lifetime, his son and daughter-in-law eclipsed him for social attention in London. Hampton Court Palace became ‘party-central’ for the Prince and Princess, much to the King’s disapproval. The princess became Queen Caroline and the tour takes you through her richly decorated apartments displaying her furniture, portraits and delftware.
Don’t miss the nearby Cumberland Art Gallery and be sure to see art-works from the Royal Collection, including the only contemporary portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein. Exit into the palace gardens and spend time walking about the Great Fountain, Privy Garden and sunken gardens – and visit the largest vine in the world, the Great Vine, planted in 1768.
Finally, head over to the Tudor Kitchens – actually the oldest rooms at Hampton Court Palace. Tudor’s relied on a meat and vegetable diet – with plenty of bread, ale and wine. Often a roast pig is cooking on the spit, which will build your appetite for lunch at the on-site restaurant.