Monday, 20 December 2010

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Hampton Court: Fossils (Revised January 2011)

On the ground floor of the King William II’s apartments at Hampton Court is a gallery containing the usual suspects of Roman and Grecian sculptures including a statue of a naked Cleopatra being bitten by a snake.

But neither the statutes nor the view over William’s recreated privy gardens intrigue me as much as the red and white marble flooring.

For a number of years I was fascinated at the thought that they contained fossils which would have been seen by William and his entourage if they had bothered to look down. Had they done so, what would they have made of fossils in a pre-Darwinian era when the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, James Ussher, could confidently assert that the Earth had been created on eve of Sunday, 23 October 4004 BC. I have included a portrait of the Archbishop by the court painter Sir Peter Lely. The latter was also commissioned by the Duchess of York to produce a series of paintings commemorating the celebrated beauties of Charles II’s court. A portrait of the archbishop was not included in this collection.

My original enthusiasm has alas been dampened by the sober realisation that the gallery floor is probably not original to William’s time. On Easter Monday, 1986, that part of the palace, namely the wing added by Sir Christopher Wren, was subject to a major fire. It later transpired that an elderly resident of one of the grace and favour apartments had inadvertently set the place alight with her naked candle. Sadly the woman died in the fire. It took four years and a major project of renovation before William’s apartments could be restored to their former splendour. Consequently, I now sorrowfully believe that William’s marble floor might not have survived the conflagration. When I visit the palace again over the next few weeks, I shall be sure to ask the warders whether or not the current marble floor was laid down in the 17th century. I shall be greatly disappointed if the answer is a resounding no.

On the 2nd January 2011 I returned to Hampton Court. To my great delight one of the warders assured me that the red and white marble flooring in King William’s private apartments had escaped the effects of the conflagration of the 1980s unscathed and consequently were not replaced. Thus, I reiterate my point: what impression did the fossilised remains of sea creatures beneath their feet make on those people of the late 17th and early 18th century. Did they not wonder how a substance as hard as marble could have impressed upon it so many perfect images of shells? The warder said that there are even more impressive examples of fossils to be seen in the Mantegna Gallery. I had not time to see them on Sunday, but you can be sure I will be eagerly searching them out the next time I pop over to Hampton Court.

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Hampton Court: The Kitchens Part One

Like the Queen’s House at Greenwich, Hampton Court palace used to be filled with grace and favour apartments doled out to the great and the good (and the not so good when it came to royal mistresses) by the reigning monarch.

The celebrated Regency dandy, Beau Brummell, spent his childhood at Hampton Court in grace and favour lodgings within Fountain Court. In recent years the grace and favour apartments have reverted back to the palace upon their occupant’s death as will all in the fullness of time. I was told by a warder that only 4 such apartments now remain tenanted by residents, who have the added benefit of being able to live in such august surroundings rent free. Their loss is our gain. It means more and more of Hampton Court can be opened up to the general public. One of the chief beneficiaries has been the Tudor kitchens.

In the 18th century, the kitchens had been divided up both vertically and horizontally (the latter by the addition of a new floor level) to increase the number of grace and favour apartments available. Fortunately, it was possible in the latter half of the 20th century to remove the 18th century renovations and begin the process of restoring the kitchens into how they might have looked in Henry VIII’s time, when legend has it he once popped downstairs for a game of cards with the cooks. Legend does not relate whether or not the king won, but the pragmatic would have reasoned better to lose at a hand of cards than lose your head in every sense of the word.

Some reminders of the kitchens 18th century past have been retained in the Tudor kitchens. Thus an iron range has been incorporated into a Tudor fireplace. Nearby is the cavernous brick oven used for roasting meats on spits, indicating how the other oven would have looked without the 18th century additions.In this same part of the kitchens can be seen the remnants of the joists used to allow another to be built in the 18th century between the Tudor ceiling and original floor.
Tudor kitchen staff were predominantly male although Henry did have one woman on his payroll that made “subtleties.” These exotic edible creations, fashioned out of marzipan and often gilded with gold and silver leaf, would form dramatic centrepieces for the table. They were sculptured into a variety of forms including animals and ships. I saw an example of a part-gilded galleon made out of marzipan in the kitchens when I visited the palace a few weeks ago.

In the flesh larder the meat was prepared so it could be used in the kitchens. An actual whole deer and a brace of equally lifeless birds ready to be butchered used to be on display. Perhaps to appease the more squeamish, it has been altered to show animal joints and part of a wild boar’s carcass hanging from the wall instead. Given the (stage) blood stains on the wall, the floors looked suspiciously clean. I wonder if the butchers would have placed straw on the floor to mop up the blood just as contemporary executioners resorted to at beheadings.

Another room had a display of various graters and other kitchen utensils along with a table full of pies. Whether they had been cooked or were standing ready to be baked I cannot say as they, like most of the foodstuffs were, of necessity, made of plastic.

Off from the room containing the pies and the graters was a huge vat, which was being used to boil what looked to be cubes of meat to form a broth. The vat would be heated from fires lit below. By the vat and hanging from the wall were traditional wooden candle boxes. The Partridge gave me a similar box one birthday and it is now takes pride of place on the walls of the Grand Salon at Brimstone Butterfly Towers.

Unless they were close to rivers or the sea the average Tudor would only have eaten salted fish. By contrast, I imagine the barrels of plaice in the wet larder at Hampton Court would have been fresh rather than salted. In Catholic England, when eating flesh was banned by the Church on Fridays, the masses were obliged to consume fish instead. As is often the case, those of a religious bent proved to be quite ingenious when it came to interpreting the rules as they applied to themselves. Thus, in the medieval period it was decided that beaver was a fish and therefore could be eaten with a clear conscience on Fridays.

In a side room flagons of ale, baked fish and pies were set out on pewter plates waiting to be sent up the stairs to the Great Hall, which served as a glorified staff canteen for most of the time. Another chamber had three dressed peacocks on platters ready waiting to be carried to a feast.