Monday, 22 August 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Hampton Court: Further secrets of the palace

The last time the Brimstone Butterfly set out from Kingston-Upon-Thames to Hampton Court Palace a semi-naked couple rolled across the towpath in the throes of passion. Thankfully on Wednesday the passer-bys showed a little less flesh and a great deal more decorum. 

As I strolled pass the privy gardens a couple of sturdy shire horses were pulling visitors along behind them in two open carriages.

Further along, a young man was engaged in carefully cleaning the magnificent gilded wrought iron gates made by the French Huguenot Jean Tijou for William and Mary. Tijou also made elaborate ironwork balustrade for the King's Staircase within the palace.. One gate lacked any gilding whatsoever. I ought to have asked the young man if he knew why but as it was starting to rain I decided to hurry into the palace instead. As I did so I passed by the early 17th century Little Banqueting House. In all my years of going to Hampton Court I have never had the chance to venture inside the latter as it is now more often than not hired out for private events.

When I finally arrived at the palace I was a little out of breath and resolved to make my way to the members’ room. I had never availed myself of this singular perk of membership before and I was curious to see what the room looked like, having frequently passed by its locked door. I prevailed upon a guide called Susan to let me in. I had fondly imagined that she would be opening the door into a small room furnished with a few chairs, a table and a kettle. To my surprise and delight, I was shown into a former grace and favour apartment. The hallway had a small sofa under the stairs, which led to what would have been the bedrooms on the upper floor. Susan later told me they were now used for meetings. I heroically resisted the temptation to slip upstairs as I did not wish to suffer the ignominy of being drummed out of the palace and told never to darken its doors again. So I meekly stepped into the drawing room instead

 The panelling dates from the 18th century or later. The original Tudor casement windows had been replaced with sash windows by the Georgians. In their turn, the Victorians reinstated casement windows. Looking through them I could see across Clock Court to Henry VIII’s great astronomical clock, which twice struck the hour as I lay on the sofa. Henry had commissioned the Bavarian Nicolas Kratzer to design the clock and it was installed around 1540. He has worked alongside the French Huguenot clockmaker Nicholas Oursian to create their joint masterpiece. According to the official guide, the clock was intended to show “the time, month, day of the month, position of the sun in the zodiac, the phase and age of the moon”. It also enabled the high tide to be calculated for courtiers wishing to be rowed along the Thames to Westminster and beyond.

The set of large windows beneath the astronomical clock are thought to have once belonged to Anne Boleyn’s bedchamber. The gatehouse is now named after this tragic Tudor queen. I had been green with envy when the Historia cooks had told me about a New Year’s Eve they had spent in these apartments. From their description it seems little trace remains of the Tudor interior as Anne might have known it. 

Beneath Anne’s windows is a terracotta plaque bearing Cardinal Wolsey’s coat of arms. He had given Hampton Court Palace to Henry and his implacable enemy Anne Boleyn in a desperate bid to cling on to the king’s favour. His extravagant gesture did not prevent his political fall. Were it not for his sudden death from natural causes at Leicester en-route to the Tower of London, he would doubtless have faced a traitor’s death.  

Also set into the walls of Anne Boleyn’s gatehouse are two 16th century busts of the Emperors’ Vitellius and Augustus. These form part of a set of eight terracotta roundels of Roman emperors created for Cardinal Wolsey by the Florentine sculptor Giovanni Di Maiano. On the day I was at Hampton Court scaffolding had been erected around other roundels to determine the level of conservation work required.

The panelled Dining Room is furnished with a dining table, wooden chairs and armchairs. A needlework sampler on one wall depicted Henry VIII and his wives.The Dining Room also overlooks Clock Court and the pump, used by former residents of the Grace and Favour apartments to obtain fresh water. Immediately adjacent to the Dining Room is one wall of the Great Hall. The different perspective made me realise that I must be looking at the lighted windows of the Undercroft. Later, I went to explore the Undercroft, thinking it must be somewhere I had never been before. It quickly dawned on me that it used to house an elaborate and highly informative model showing the full extent of the kitchens in Henry VIII’s time. I asked Maggie, the guide on duty, what had happened to it and she explained that it had been dismantled, which I declared to be a great shame. But the Undercroft, like the Little Banqueting House, is often hired out for events making it impractical to dismantle and then reassemble such a large scale model on a regular basis.

Of the kitchen, only the tap and sink and a coffee machine were available to be used by members. Fittingly, the kitchen in the members’ room overlooks Round Kitchen Court and the circular 17th century kitchen, which was turned into a urinal in the 18th century by the celebrated architect William Kent. The latter’s more salubrious commissions at Hampton Court included refurbishing the Queen’s Staircase and the Cumberland Suite. He also worked with the third Earl of Burlington to create Chiswick House.

Delightful as it was to while away an hour or two reclining on the sofa in the Drawing Room listening to the Astronomical Clock striking the hours and the quarters, I eventually roused myself. I was about to open the front door just as a new acolyte was being ushered in.

I met up with Susan, my original guide, in Clock Court. She it was who explained that the floor above the members’ room had once formed part of Henry VIII’s Privy Chambers. His queens had had their apartments on the second floor. This meant that Henry VIII would have passed through the Great Watching Chamber and along the floor directly above the Members’ rooms. In short, he would have passed along what was once the bedroom floor of the former Grace and Favour apartment. It explained why the doorway to the Privy Chambers had since been bricked up: to enable a self contained apartment to be built.

Susan suggested I ask the guide in the Cumberland Suite to show me the secret Tudor staircase used by Henry’s pages to fetch him his clothes from the royal wardrobe on the ground floor. The flight of stairs to the Georgian Rooms also leads to the Silver Stick Gallery. Jane Seymour’s ghost is said to ascend the stairs to what would have been her apartments on the second floor where she died as well as making its way across Clock Court in search of her son. Perhaps her spirit is troubled by the fact that she stepped into a dead queen’s shoes, becoming betrothed to Henry VIII the day after Anne Boleyn was beheaded on Tower Green. If so, serves the whey faced little Miss right.     

The guide in the Georgian Rooms obligingly opened up the small door behind which was the spiral Tudor staircase. I was allowed to take some photographs but because I didn’t want to take up too much of the guide’s time I quickly snapped away with no thought as to composition.

I then popped into the Wolsey Closet, a Tudor room which retains its ornate ceiling, linenfold panelling and 16th century paintings on panels depicting the Passions of Christ. From here I passed through to the Communication Gallery, with its bevy of Restoration court beauties painted by Sir Peter Lely and then onto the Cartoon gallery where I spoke to Laura and another guide. They were intrigued to discover that I had seen other copies of Raphael’s sequence of Cartoons at Knole and at Trinity House, within the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich.

For my last secret of the day I discovered that the Privy Kitchens restaurant, in which I had partook of coffee and cake on many an occasion, was built for Queen Elizabeth I in the 1560s. Like her father, she had her own private chefs and kitchens away from the Great Kitchens, which serviced the court in general. Unlike her mother, Queen Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth disliked the fact that her kitchens were located below her lodgings, believing that the smell permeated her own apartments. Hence, the construction of new kitchens.

Having been told that two sets of windows by the Colonnade in Clock Court were thought to have been part of Anne Boleyn’s apartments when she was the King’s mistress as opposed to his wife, I dashed into the Young Henry Exhibition so I could view them from within, or at least the lower storey. The exhibition itself passes through a number of rooms possessed of  extant Tudor fireplaces, linenfold panelling and ceilings. There are two blocked off doorways, which would once have led to Cardinal Wolsey’s long demolished private gallery.

With only minutes to spare before the palace closed for the day, I took more photos of the wine fountain in Clock Court, noting for the first time that its pinnacle depicted a drunken naked man swigging from a flagon of ale whilst sitting astride a barrel. I also photographed the life size wooden sculpture of a Tudor man in Base Court, which like the other wooden images and the wine fountain itself, had been inspired by the painting “The Field of the Cloth of Gold”. The latter can be seen on display in the Young Henry exhibition. Thought not quite disposed to shed all my garments and mount the nearest barrel of wine in celebration, I felt more than a little happy with the various discoveries I had made in a single and on a singular afternoon.


  1. If/when I get a chance to visit Hampton Court again, I can imagine no better guide than you! You seem to know every nook of the place.

    I'm particularly fascinated by the Grace & Favour period, so thanks very much for a peek inside.

  2. My pleasure Petrea. I shall be writing more about the grace and favour apartment in the members' room, including a clandestine trip to one of the rooms on the second floor, as well as an official tour around one of the largest of the grace and favour apartments, which is now the CEO’s offices and so rarely ever open to the general public. The latter apartment is so big it has its own resident ghost who is still seen by staff today.


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