Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Hampton Court: Base Court

Last year when I passed through the main gatehouse of Hampton Court into the first courtyard known as Base Court, it immediately struck me that something was amiss. I then realised with a start that the verdant lawns I had only ever known there had been ripped up and replaced by granite cobbles.  My initial thought was one of displeasure, preferring the lawns to the dusty cobbles which were none too forgiving on my weary feet. One of the warders agreed and said the palace authorities had spent a fortune restoring the surface of Base Court to how it looked in Henry’s time. as part of the celebrations to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his accession to the throne.
“If they wanted authenticity they ought to have spent the money on restoring the main gatehouse to how it looked in Henry VIII’s time,” I grumbled to my fellow conspirator.

One of the most iconic images of the palace today must be the Gatehouse on the west front. Yet is had been significantly altered since Henry’s time. In the 1911 edition of “A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2” the authors explain that Henry’s gateway:
“was largely rebuilt in 1773, losing greatly in dignity and interest thereby. The old gatehouse, of which several drawings exist, the most accurate being some measured drawings by Kent made about forty years before its rebuilding, was of five stories, and much taller than the present building. Instead of a single arch in the middle it had two arches, a large one for carriages and a small one for foot passengers, opening into the gate hall, and the large arch was in consequence not on the centre line of the gatehouse.”

By contrast to the 18th century vandals “A History” notes with satisfaction the more pleasing changes made in the early 20th century: 
“In the past two years the appearance of the entrance front of the palace has been immensely improved by the clearing out of the wide moat between the wings at either end of the front, which had been filled in about 1690, and the  uncovering and repair of the stone bridge crossing it. This bridge was built in 1536 by Henry VIII, replacing a bridge probably of wood, built by Wolsey, and from the full details remaining in the building accounts it has been possible to reproduce the lost portions, that is, the parapets, pinnacles, and shield-bearing beasts set thereon, with a high degree of certainty.”

When I visited Hampton Court this December they had recently put on display one of the actual shield bearing beasts fashioned from stone that had graced Henry’s bridge. It had been found languishing in the grounds of an unnamed pub and was on loan from that same hostelry.

On a dusty June day in 2009 I did not appreciate the cobbles of Base Court. However, when I plonked myself down on a wooden bench at 9.30 pm, the better to watch the commemorative fireworks being let off in the Privy Gardens, I had to admit that the cobbles did look more evocative at night than the lawn. The latter it transpired was a Victorian conceit anyway. I was even more intrigued to discover than in the course of resurfacing Base Court, archaeologists had found the foundations of a massive building dating to the 1350s, when the land was owned by the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem. They were an order of military monks set up in the 11th century to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. They were substantial landowners in their own right and owned a farm and agricultural land on what is now the site of Hampton Court Palace. In 1353 King Edward III came a-calling with his court and ended up burning the place down. Edward had the grace to pay for the resulting reconstruction work and send along his own master carpenter to help out.  It was the Knights Hospitaller who leased the land to Cardinal Wolsey, allowing him to demolish their buildings and build a completely new palace for himself. 100 years ago in the “A history of Middlesex Volume 2” the authors were lamenting that  the Knights’  “hall with a parlour, kitchen, buttery, and stable, and a chapel which had a tower containing two bells….. have long ceased to exist, leaving no trace behind them.” Thanks to the fortuitous decision to dig up the lawn in Base Court that is no longer the case.

Digging up Base Court also revealed the brick foundation for Wolsey’s drinking fountain with the 500 year old lead pipe which fed spring water into it still extant.  In April this year, again as part of the Henrican celebrations, a Tudor wine fountain was installed in Base Court. It is a replica of the wine fountain depicted in front of Henry’s temporary palace at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In Henry’s time such a fountain would have run with free wine on special occasions. Nowadays, in the warmer months, visitors are able, in exchange for a modest sum, to drink glasses of red or white wine from the fountain. The fact that the drinkers in the Tudor oil painting are shown totally inebriated, brawling, being sick and urinating in public shows that some things have changed very little in the English psyche even after the passage of 500 years.

During an era when even children were given weak beer to drink, ordinary water being regarded as unhealthy, Henry needed a suitably regal wine cellar to accommodate the needs of his entourage. Consequently, the vaulted wine cellars at Hampton Court are on a suitably majestic scale and once held 300 casks of wine. Ale was held in a separate cellar elsewhere. It seems Henry's retinue could get through 600,000 gallons of ale  every year. I am sure today's publicans, who own the stone beast, would happily raise their glasses to cheer that extraordinary feat.


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