Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived. When we think of Henry VIII‘s reign, a lot of us may feel we are so far removed from that time period that we can’t truly conceptualize how big of an impact this late-in-life obese, larger than life tyrant played in British or world history. I have always been intrigued by British history, and most especially Tudor history having read one too many Philippa Gregory books as well as inhaled Antonia Fraser’s biographies of the Tudor Monarchs at possibly too tender an age. I first wanted to see Hampton Court Palace after realizing some of the most dramatic episodes played out in The Tudors would have in fact occurred here, and I was eager to explore it.
Visiting Hampton Court Palace was the last historic attraction that I made on my trip to the United Kingdom in March. It also wound up being on Mother’s Day in Great Britain, so it was filled with families equally eager to explore the gardens if not the beautiful buildings within its walls. I was lucky enough to link up with a pen pal I had had over the years and never before had met in person named Lydia. I had suggested Hampton Court as an alternative to the countless museums that she had seen a multitude of times before, and this was something neither of us had seen. As I will delve into – despite having slightly different interests – she and I both enjoyed discovering this palace where so much history had happened. There was something intriguing about the palace that had served the most infamous of the Tudor, Stuart, and Hanoverian monarchs.
Hampton Court Palace is one of only two surviving palaces from Henry VIII‘s reign. The other is St James Palace in London which is not open to the general public. It is also a palace allegedly full of restless spirits – including supposed haunts by two of his six wives – Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard, the first having died there while giving birth to the longed-for son, and the latter having found out there about her impending death sentence after alleged adultery. When wandering into its courtyard, I was astonished to recognize that Hampton Court isn’t merely a single palace such as Kensington or even Holyroodhouse, but it is really like two inside one- a distantly Tudor red-bricked entrance ( The Great Gatehouse) and palace separated from its Baroque, Georgian exterior facing the trove of gardens. It was easy to pretend to be a time traveler, eavesdropping on some of the moments in history that had some of the biggest ramifications in English history. The sheer magnificence makes a bystander understand why Thomas Wolsey whom had built it for himself “gifted it” to Henry realizing too late that it appeared he was himself playing a king by living there.
The Baroque-style half of the palace today would have eventually been the entirety of what we would have today should William III and architect Sir Christopher Wren have completed their intended architectural plan of modernizing the state apartments and palace. William III had a bittersweet history at the palace and would abandon those plans after his wife died, and later on he himself died after falling off a horse at Hampton Court adding to the irony. What we have at Hampton today welcoming visitors and tourists is an intriguing mesh of Tudor and Hanoverian history. I am hear to tell you Hampton Court is a refreshing alternative to the hustle and bustle of central London, and birthplace to a lot of Britain’s most sordid history.
How to buy tickets?
One of the best things about this palace is that Hampton Court, for tourists, can be one of the included attractions of the London Pass or the Royal Palace Pass which also includes Kensington, Hampton, and the Tower of London for one price. Alternatively, if you do pay full price admission at the door, you can elect to contribute a 10 percent donation for the Historic Royal Palaces’ non-profit fund. The ticket price also includes admission to the beautiful gardens and the 17th century Hedge Maze, any historical reenactments that day, a multi-language audio guided tour, and children’s activities. You can also buy tickets online directly through Hampton Court’s website to avoid waiting in queue. I would suggest at minimum allocating 3-4 hours to enjoy most of the palace and exhibits in addition to walking through the gardens. Add another hour should you wish to do the Hedge Maze, as likely you will also wait in queue there. Also keep in mind the season in which you are visiting; in Britain, winter is considered the non-peak season, so the hours are far more limited.
How to get there from London?
Hampton Court is located in Greater London around 12 miles southeast of the center of London in East Molesey. The easiest way of getting there, and this is what I did, is to take the tube/ London Underground to Waterloo, where you can take the above ground train to Hampton Court station directly. There is not an underground station in Hampton, but the above ground train station is only about a 5-minute walk from the palace gates and entrance. The train typically runs at least once an hour each way, and often times during busier periods, two or three times.
Where to start? Henry VIII’s Great Hall, Audience Chambers
Hampton Court Gardens are 60 acres alone, and the palace itself is massive. The best thing that I did and would recommend anyone to do: Take advantage of the free audiovisual guide that is provided and sheds insight on different parts of palace, and the many stories hidden within its walls. If you are a Tudor fan, I would suggest to do as I did and start with the Henry VIII apartments and the Great Hall, and then weave through the receiving rooms and the Haunted Gallery.
Something mildly ironic that one of the curators had told me is that the poor artist who had just finished completion of the stained glass and coat of arms for Henry VIII’s redesign of the Great Hall (in tribute to his second wife Anne Boleyn) when he was informed that it all had to be redone to replace the Boleyn coat of arms and her initials with third wife Jane Seymour’s when that marriage dissolved. There is merely one piece of woodwork remaining of Henry and Anne’s initials entwined. Also, be sure to look up in the Great Hall; there are little wooden figurines carved into the top to serve as a warning that everything in court could be eavesdropped upon – everything was heard.
The best advice I have for the visitor is even though you will see a lot of faded brick, wooden paneling, and worn tapestries today – take yourself back in time. Try to imagine how voluminous and colorful it would have been hundreds of years ago as a courtier or better yet, a foreign diplomat having his first impression of England’s wealth. The tapestries that decorate the chambers were woven with gold so they would have been illustrious, and the paint that originally coated the Great Hall with bold colors in addition to the wood has worn thin. Keep that in mind also as you navigate the palace interior and exterior.
The Royal Chapel
Do check out one of the few locations where photography isn’t allowed – the Royal Chapel -which is just as illustrious, colorful, and as magnificent as it would have been during the episode in which Henry VIII found out about his fifth’s wife (Catherine Howard) alleged adultery in that very same chapel in the private box reserved for the monarch. I tried to imagine the anger of a tyrant feeling cuckolded by his teenage bride having an affair with a courtier. It was only shortly after discovering the accusations at the church that he signed her death warrant. Ironically enough – just a couple years later the room adjacent to the Royal Chapel would be where he would wed his sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr. Despite the sordid history this chapel still actively holds Anglican church services and has an organist. The public is welcome to attend Sunday services.
Let’s Talk About…. Food
Alternatively, folks interested in the Upstairs/Downstairs dynamic or food history will enjoy the Henry VIII Kitchens that were recently utilized in the filming of the Academy Award nominated movie The Favourite. (2018).** It would have been the good life working in the kitchens for the King because, as I found out from the audio guide, the kitchen workers not only had unlimited beer but also lodging and a stipend far exceeding what normal citizens would have made. These workers would have had the responsibility of feeding a king (Henry) that went from wearing a 32 inch waisted suit of armor to a 52 inch girth in just a matter of years. A curator told me he ate 8,000 calories a day so imagining what it must have been like to work in nothing short of grueling despite the unlimited beer.
The wine cellar is something to behold, and the kitchens as you weave in and out resemble a small village. Wine was a thing of luxury in Tudor England, while beer was the drink of choice for average folks. Wine was expensive and had to be imported during this time from continental Europe, so it was a status symbol to have this massive amount on hand. There are also Chocolate Kitchens close to the Henry VIII kitchens where George I and II would have copious amounts of their favorite beverage, hot chocolate, concocted.
My favorite “quirky” thing that I noticed close by to the kitchens was a statue of a drunken man with his head against the wall. There is also a fountain designed after the one portrayed in the famous painting of the Field of Cloth where Henry VIII met Francis I of France. Instead of drinking water, it reportedly flowed of wine. This is the reason for the aforementioned statue.
** For a list of films that have been shot at Hampton Court Palace, click here
The Room Where It Happened
One of the most exciting rooms to me was the Council Room. They even have a “throne” chair that you can sit on, as I did, and pretend you are surrounded by your Privy Council. I certainly did this and practiced my death stare. This would have been likely where Henry VIII had made his decision to leave the Catholic church after Wolsey failed to provide him the papal annulment for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It also likely would have been where James I would have held the Hampton Court Conference with the Puritans which ended not with a Puritan agreement, but the commissioning of the English King James Bible. Cue the Hamilton reference, but this would have been the room where it happened. It was not just Tudor Kings and Queens who utilized Hampton Court. Hampton Court remained a primary house of residence for the Stuarts, and then the Hanoverians and William III had grander ideas of reconstructing it in the style of Versailles in France. Thus, the competition between the English and French monarchies was constant.
Other Hampton Highlights
For fans of Pirates of the Caribbean, one of the most stunning parts of Hampton takes place in the section of William III’s apartments that is accessed by a magnificent staircase. It is easy for one to imagine himself as a debutante or a courtier walking up or down the stairs waiting for an audience or a viewing of the monarch. To experience those rooms was truly something else, and the grandeur of all of the beautiful artwork encapsulating the entry rooms was most especially immaculate. Fascinating too were the Queen’s Apartments adjacent to William’s that were designed just as the King’s in grandeur to indicate that Mary was equal parts crowned monarch and of the same authority as William. One thing I noticed as I made my way from the public chambers into the privy and “inner” chambers of both parts of the palace was that they become noticeably smaller. The processional or informal rooms start big, and as you walk through a precession of elaborate rooms encased with oak paneling, beautiful windows, and extraordinary woodwork, you notice the rooms get smaller. The day I was there, all of William’s apartments were filled with beautiful flowers as part of the Mother’s Day Flowermania event. The visit may have been hard on the allergies, but it was soft on the eyes.
Another site worth checking out is the dimly lit exhibit featuring nine tapestry-sized canvases depicting the Triumphs of Caesar (Andrea Mantegna) in the Lower Orangery. I stumbled upon this exhibit when looking for the corridor leading to the Great Vine, which is believed to be the oldest and largest grapevine in the world. It was planted at the bequest of George III, although he never stayed at Hampton Court. When you exit the Palace, take note of the King’s Beasts that are the symbolic representation of the Tudors and Seymours. (Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to the longed-for son.)
For Further Insight
Hampton Court Palace is frequently featured on Historic Royal Palaces’ YouTube channel. I would encourage anyone who has enjoyed the photos or my experience to check out their Hampton introduction video. It offers a behind-the-scenes look and discusses snippets of its history. Keep in mind that if you want to enjoy the gardens and Hedge Maze, there are acres upon acres, so you may want to make a return visit to fully appreciate them.