One of my great pleasures in life is to pop over to Hampton Court Palace, a mere 20 minutes away by train. Work on the site was first begun in around 1515 at the command of Thomas Wolsey, who was said to be the most powerful man in England after King Henry VIII. Like his protégé Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey was a self made man from a humble background who rose to become Henry’s chief minister, much to the chagrin of Henry’s aristocratic councillors, aggrieved to be outranked by someone they deemed to be of inferior birth.
When Wolsey, by now a Cardinal, fell from royal favour in the late 1520s, having failed in his efforts to secure Henry a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, he was desperate to save his own neck from the executioner’s axe. Perhaps Wolsey knew the ecclesiastical history of Eltham Palace and its relevance to his own perilous situation. In an earlier reign, the Bishop of Durham, Anthony Bek, had made over Eltham Palace as a gift to the King’s eldest son after having fallen foul of the monarch himself. A grovelling Cardinal Wolsey adopted the same ploy to placate an enraged Henry VIII but alas, without similar success. First, he agreed to grant Hampton Court to Henry in 1525 in exchange for the palace of Richmond. A few years later Wolsey was forced to up the ante and surrender the remainder of his worldly goods, including his equally sumptuous residence, York Place, later transformed into the Palace of Whitehall. Before recent security scares put a sad stop to such visits, I was fortunate to view, within the modern Whitehall office complex, the impressive remains of the turreted chapel Henry had turned into tennis courts for his new palace.
Just as he was to demonstrate at Knole, having swiped that from off his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII was always keen to set his personal stamp upon those places he most coveted. So successful was Henry in his endeavours at Hampton Court that it has taken historians and archaeologists decades to try and piece together a realistic impression of what Wolsey’s original palace might have looked like. Likewise, it is difficult to gauge the polychromatic impact of Wolsey’s designs if based on the current interior alone.
For example, the extant dark brown Tudor linenfold panelling found in some parts of the palace gives little hint that it would once have been painted in vivid colours, judging by the contemporary evidence at Sir Ralph Sadlier’s Tudor mansion, Sutton House, in Hackney. Very modest it might be compared to Hampton Court, but Sir Ralph, who first made his mark in court circles whilst serving under Thomas Cromwell, would have been anxious to ensure that Sutton House emulated the most up to date fashions of the time as far as his purse would allow.
Wolsey arranged a detailed inventory to be drawn up at York Place, immediately prior to his relinquishing it to Henry. This inventory describes the kind of extravagant lifestyle Wolsey liked to indulge in, his Church aspirations not withstanding. There is no reason to suppose he would not have been any less lavish in his spending at Hampton Court. George Cavendish, Wolsey’s former gentleman ushe,r wrote a biography of the late master he so admired in life, called “Thomas Wolsey, Late Cardinall, his Lyffe and Deathe. Having survived Wolsey's downfall, George thought it wise to retire from court life altogether and lived out the remainder of his relatively long life in peaceful obscurity. He also thought it prudent not to publish his biography during his lifetime whilst a Tudor monarch sat on the throne. This is his suitably awed eye-witness account of York Place on the day the great inventory was carried out :
“And in his (Wolsey's) gallery there was set divers tables, whereupon a great number of rich stuff of silk, in whole pieces, of all colours, as velvet, satin, damask, caffa, taffeta, grograine, sarcenet, and of other not in my remembrance; also there lay a thousand pieces of fine holland cloth … Furthermore there was also all the walls of the gallery hanged with cloths of gold and tissue of divers makings, and cloths of silver likewise on both sides; and rich cloths of baudkin of divers colours. There hung also the richest suits of copes of his own provision, which he caused to be made for his colleges of Oxford and Ipswich, that ever I saw in England. Then had he two chambers adjoining to the gallery, the one called the gilt-chamber, and the other called, most commonly, the council-chamber, wherein were set in each two broad and long tables upon tressels, whereupon was set such a number of plate of all sorts, as were almost incredible. In the gilt-chamber was set out upon the tables nothing but all gilt plate; and a cupboard standing under a window was garnished wholly with plate of clean gold, whereof some was set with pearl and rich stones. And in the council-chamber was set all white plate and parcel-gilt; and under the tables in both the chambers, were set baskets with old plate, which was not esteemed but for broken plate and old … and books counting the value and weight of every parcel laid by them ready to be seen.”
Over the gateway to Clock Court is one of the few visible reminders that Hampton Court had ever belonged to Thomas Wolsey. A terracotta plaque depicts his Cardinal’s hat and coat of arms. It seems a tad odd that it should have survived up there.
But then Henry VIII similarly failed to erase all memory of his second queen, Anne Boleyn, from the palace. In the vaulted roof of the gateway now named after her, Henry’s initials are shown entwined with hers to form "HA": in view of how their marriage turned out this was not the most propitious of juxtapositions. Anne’s personal emblem of a crowned falcon can also be seen in the roof, although it is less obvious to the naked eye than the initials. Somehow, it too escaped the wide-scale destruction of all visible references to Anne Boleyn which Henry ordered after her trial and execution in May 1536. Even if Henry VIII had chosen to glance upwards and see this rare reminder of a discarded queen, he might well have reasoned that the pace he was getting through wives it would cost a fortune to comprehensively erase all memory of the majority who sooner or later fell victim to his malign displeasure.
Hampton Court proved to be setting for many dramas in Henry VIII’s life, including the christening of his only surviving legitimate male heir Edward VI, the death of his son’s mother Jane Seymour and the doomed attempt of his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, to reach him to implore mercy when her past sexual entanglements were exposed. The next high drama at the palace occurred during the English Civil War when in 1647 the Stuart king, Charles I, was able to briefly escape from his captivity there at the hands of the victorious Parliamentarians. When William and Mary came to the throne they commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to pull down the Tudor palace and erect a new one to rival Versailles. Fortunately for posterity, the whole of the old Tudor palace was not torn down before work on the new began. Following Mary untimely death from smallpox at the age of 32 in 1694, all building work came to a sudden halt. Although the building work was eventually resumed, Wren’s vision for Hampton Court was never fully realised. Thus, today Hampton Court resembles a Tudor palace from one elevation and a Stuart palace from another.
Usually, whenever I describe a palace or stately home I imagine walking through it again in my mind’s eye, wandering from room to room and keen to record as many impressions as possible. A very different approach is needed for somewhere as vast as Hampton Court. Consequently, I intend to offer vignettes of those parts of the palace that particularly interest me, which is why I have entitled this occasional series: The Brimstone Butterfly’s Hampton Court