Monday, 7 November 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly's Hampton Court: The Georgian Rooms

Last month the laws of succession were changed enabling the first born of the British monarch to inherit the throne, regardless of sex. How very different the course of English history might have been if these rules had been in place in the 16th and 17th centuries. Mary Tudor would have come to the throne before her brother, Prince Edward, and might have been young enough to have given birth to a healthy child instead of having two phantom pregnancies. With a Catholic heir she would have crushed the fledgling Protestant Reformation in England completely. In this parallel universe, if the Tudor children had still failed to have issue of their own then the throne would have passed to James I of England. His eldest son, Prince Henry predeceased his father. His second child, Elizabeth of Bohemia would have succeeded to the throne instead of her younger brother Charles. As it was, by a quirk of fate, Elizabeth of Bohemia’s youngest daughter Sophia found herself heir to the English throne in extreme old age but she died only a matter of weeks before the last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne. Consequently, it was Sophia’s son George who became king in 1717. Of Sophia herself, I shall always remember her description of her first encounter with her aunt Henrietta-Maria, wife of the ill-fated Charles I. Sophia was shocked at how different Henrietta looked in real life compared to her exceedingly flattering portraits. Far from being the beauty the official paintings suggested, Henrietta-Maria was, according to Sophia, "a little woman with long, lean arms, crooked shoulders, and teeth protruding from her mouth like guns from a fort."

When it came to dysfunctional royal families the Tudors set the standard in the 16th century with Henry VIII beheading wives and threatening dire consequences for his eldest daughter Mary if she continued to refuse to accept her parents’ divorce and the break with the Church of Rome. After Henry VIII’s death, matters were far from cordial between Henry’s children. The Stuart queens, Mary and Anne, helped depose their father King James II in the late 17th century and subsequently quarrelled bitterly amongst themselves.
Sophia Dorothea of Celle
The Hanoverians were at each other’s throats throughout the following century. It started with George I. Like Henry VIII his behaviour as a husband left a lot to be desired. He married the hapless Sophia Dorothea of Celle for her fortune. George showed neither affection nor respect for his wife. Once Sophia Dorothea had produced a son and daughter, her husband sought a mistress whom he publicly flaunted in Sophia Dorothea’s face. She responded by taking a lover of her own with horrific consequences. Her lover was brutally murdered on her husband’s orders. George then divorced Sophia Dorothea on the grounds that she had abandoned him. With the connivance of her father, George had his former wife placed under house arrest in a remote castle where she remained until her death, over 3 decades later. She never saw her family or her children again. Unluckily for her, she died a few weeks before her former husband. Had she lived longer it seems highly likely that her eldest son, now King of England in his own right, would have freed her from her lonely exile.

When George I succeeded to the British throne, he took his by now adult son, also called George and his daughter-in-law, Caroline of Ansbach, with him to their new country. But George major never really took to England and spent a great deal of his reign back in his native Hanover, eventually dying there on one such visit. His son took the opportunity to make political capital from his father’s prolonged absences. The ill will between them had not been helped by King George’s callous treatment of Sophia Dorothea back in Germany. Matters were exacerbated by an open quarrel which led to the younger George being banished from court along with his wife, whilst their children remained under the control of the king. The King’s Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole whose portrait can be seen in the Duke of Cumberland Suite, strove to reconcile father and son. With rebellions being raised on behalf of the exiled Stuart son of James II, it was not the time for the Hanoverians to be feuding amongst themselves.

History repeated itself with George II and his eldest son Frederick to the extent that whilst his younger brother, Prince William the Duke of Cumberland, was furnished with a superb suite of rooms at Hampton Court Palace, Frederick was eventually banished from court altogether. Unlike his father, Frederick was at least spared being separated from his own children. Frederick died before becoming king leaving his son George as the presumptive heir. When George III became king the Hanoverian tradition of feuding monarch and eldest son continued on for yet another generation.   

The Georgian Rooms at Hampton Court Palace were refurbished in the mid 1990s and have been staged as they might have been when George II and his queen, Caroline of Ansbach, were last living there in 1737. It was a tumultuous year for the Royal Family and a significant one for the palace. Frederick had rowed with his father after he left the court with his pregnant wife so that she could give birth elsewhere, a serious breach of protocol King George never forgave. The Queen died several months later without being reconciled with her son.  For both these reasons, King George became less enamoured with Hampton Court and thereafter only returned to the palace with a much reduced entourage. His grandson, George III, never developed a taste for Hampton Court Palace and eschewed living there in favour of other royal residences such as Windsor Castle and Kew Palace. As a result Hampton Court Palace became home to a multitude of grace and favour apartments and ceased to serve as a royal court.

To reach Queen Caroline’s apartments you must pass from the Communication Gallery with its bevy of Windsor Beauties through a small ante chamber displaying three large scale paintings: two were of Hampton Court during the early 18th century and one of Louis XIV’s troops crossing a river on their way to a battle against the Dutch.


The Cartoon Gallery is a somewhat austere room designed to house the sequence of Raphael Cartoons installed in here in 1698. The Cartoons were part of an original set of 10 commissioned by Pope Leo X from Raphael as designs for tapestries to be hung in the Sistine Chapel. King Charles I had later bought the Cartoons with the idea of having his own tapestries made from them at the works he had established at Mortlake. Fortunately for England Oliver Cromwell decided not to flog them off with the rest of the executed King Charles’ extensive art collection. Today the Cartoons at Hampton Court are 17th century copies. I saw other copies at Knole and at Trinity College Greenwich. The original Raphael Cartoons were loaned to the Victoria and Albert museum by Queen Victoria in 1865 and are still on display there today. I can’t say I am too fond of religious paintings as a genre but these cartoons are growing on me, probably because I have seen them quite a few times over the past year or so at different locations.

In contrast to the Raphael Cartoons the marble fireplace has a very pagan theme of Venus being pulled along in her chariot by swans and putti. Decorating the sides of the Cartoon immediately above the fireplace are carvings by Grinling Gibbons. Surrounded by such imposing paintings, King William III used this gallery for meetings of his Privy Council. Perhaps it was fortunate that his Cartoons were later replaced by copies. A warder on duty showed me a photograph of the terrible devastation that had wrought in this chamber alone by the fire of 1986.
At the far end of the Cartoon Gallery is a small closet with a fireplace. It has a high stool enabling the warders on duty to keep a beady eye on goings-on in the Gallery whilst not actually being in it. I imagine the Cartoon Gallery gets very cold in the winter even when the warders have exchanged their lightweight summer coats for a thick woollen red coat.

The Queen’s Private Drawing Room has been staged as if Queen Caroline and her friends are about to be served tea, coffee or chocolate. Three card tables, with scooped out hollows to hold counters and coins, have been set out. Above the grey marble fireplace are three rows of blue and white china vases displayed on shelves in the chimney piece. Various paintings have been arranged against the red figured silk wall hangings.

The next room in sequence is the royal bedroom. It has a special mechanism on the door to enable it to be locked from the bedside by the royal couple should the need arise to afford them some precious privacy. The stunning Flying Tester or Angel Bed of around 1730 originally came from Raynham Hall in Norfolk. It underwent a comprehensive renovation and restoration of the woodwork and upholstery before being placed in the Georgian Rooms. George III’s own far plainer red damask travelling bed, now in the Duke of Cumberland’s Suite, used to be displayed in here instead. The other remarkable feature about this room is the tapestries. I don’t know whether Queen Caroline was overly fond of sailors but she certainly had a strong partiality for the depiction of sea battles. The tapestries on display were all chosen by her.

Caroline’s bathroom is hidden behind a reconstruction of the early 18th century wooden partition which once stood here. It provided a screen for the modest queen, as the windows overlook Fountain Court. The queen would bathe in her wooden bathtub dressed in a muslin gown and sitting on a special seat. Hot water could be fetched from the kitchens and coldwater from a water tank nearby and brought into the bathroom by the doors at the back of the room. In front of the partition is a dressing table with a silver gilt toilet set. To remove temptation the toilet set is under glass. Every time I come into the bathroom I detect a distinctly old fashioned perfume which is said to be Caroline’s.  When I spoke to two female warders on duty recently one had come across the perfume and the other, to her evident relief, had never encountered it. To date there has been no logical explanation for the mysterious aroma, said to follow people around, a phenomenon I can also attest to personally.
Next to the bathroom is a rather charming closet, where the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting could repair to until summoned by their royal mistress.  One of these ladies-in-waiting, Henrietta Howard, not only assiduously served Caroline but was also the personal body servant so to speak of Caroline’s husband being his acknowledged mistress. Caroline was well aware that the English born Henrietta first became George’s mistress back in Hanover. Far from being appalled Caroline encouraged the relationship to the extent that she did her best to try and dissuade Henrietta from retiring from the English court in the 1720s. Caroline knew that royal kings and princes were almost obliged to keep a mistress, even when their hearts weren't really in it, as was the case with the Dutch King William III. Furthermore, Caroline found Henrietta more amenable than most, the more so since she had little interest in meddling in politics. But Henrietta was adamant. George had pensioned her off leaving her sufficient money to build herself the elegant Marble Hill House where she could be mistress of her own household.

In the Queen’s Private Dining Room Caroline once again gave expression to her love of sea battles through her choice of 6 paintings by the Flemish artist Willem van de Velde. His name sounded familiar and I realised I had first came across his work at the Queen’s House in Greenwich where he had once been granted a studio by royal command.

The little Sideboard Room next to the dining room has a marble sink in which glasses could be washed.  As I sat on a window seat listening to the ticking of the clock, Del the warder recognised me from earlier visits. As we chatted he said I knew so much about Hampton Court I should train the warders in the history of the palace. I replied that a lot of what I knew had been gleaned from staff like him. It was he, for example, who had explained that the warders first started dressing in their red coats in April 2009, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne. Del also explained how they had a red winter and a red summer weight coat. Before the introduction of the latter they had worn dark coats and top hats. It seems a special hat, rather like a Beefeater’s, had been designed to be worn with Henry’s red coats, but had been quietly dropped for looking faintly ridiculous.

The final room in the sequence is the Queen’s Oratory or prayer room, the dome of which was designed for Queen Mary II by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century.  

A rather steep flight of stone stairs leads out into the arcade around Fountain Court. The flights of stairs and the skylight are extremely elegant but must have proved a nightmare for the likes of the elderly Mrs Baily in her grace and favour apartment to negotiate.

The Georgian Rooms are fascinating in their own right, but for me, the characters that inhabited them lack the drama and passion of their Tudor counterparts. Perhaps the realisation that they could never really compete with the memory of the flamboyant Tudors was the real reason why the Hanoverians quietly packed their bags and left Hampton Court Palace for ever. Their loss is our gain. By turning Hampton Court into grace and favour apartments, the structural integrity of the palace was maintained, allowing it to be transformed back into a royal court centuries later, to the great delight of the multitude flocking there today and above all to the eternal delight of the Brimstone Butterfly herself. . 


  1. Thank you for your pictures and commentary, Caro. When I visited in 1999 (so long ago!) I knew a good deal about the Tudors but next to nothing about the Hanoverians, and I took almost no photos.

  2. Hello Petrea,
    I had heard of the tragic story of Sophia Dorothea as a child but otherwise knew very little about the first two Georges and what I had originally gleaned about George II and Caroline of Ansbach arose from the fact Henrietta Howard, of Marble Hill House fame, had been his mistress in Hanover. I first learned about Frederick, Prince of Wales, from his supposed bedroom at Southside House Wimbledon and from going along to Kew Palace. From George III onwards I am on more familiar territory. But even I didn't realise, until I went to Marlborough House in September, that King George V was a younger brother. Or more likely I had forgotten all about Prince Albert Victor despite seeing a documentary about him. It's a pet peeve of mine when people on television get basic historical facts wrong:someone described Lady Jane Grey as being Henry VIII's wife and Anne of Cleves as his fifth. The latter was said by the leader of an archaeological dig at Greenwich and the presenter, with a doctorate in history, never challenged him! So, as an amateur historian I take great care in checking my facts as far as possible. But as was shown at Chenies Manor House, even current well known historians, such as Dr Jonathan Foyle, can end up with egg on their faces.
    I guarantee that in a decade's time there will be yet more changes at Hampton Court. The Queen's Gallery, for example, is closed until next Spring to be prepared for a major new exhibition. They are trying to find ways to draw traffic away from the Tudor areas to other parts of the palace. A hard task when faced with the enduring star power of the Tudors.

  3. It's hard to keep them all straight! If only they hadn't insisted on having the same three or four names. But you're right, the historians, at least, should get it right.

    I'm sure it's Henry's lust--or lusts, I should say--that draw attention. But weren't the Georgian Rooms remodeled? So they were once Tudor as well, although I suppose few traces remain. I'd be interested to know if there's anything left of the earliest palace to see in those rooms.

  4. Hello Petrea,
    The Duke of Cumberland Suite was remodelled out of Henry's private apartments. Henry's spiral staircase and door in the dark closet are reminders of the apartments Tudor origins.Moving between the Cumberland Suite and the Communication Gallery you pass the Tudor Wolsey Closet. However the Georgian Rooms are in the part of the palace designed by Wren. He demolished the parts of the Tudor palace which contained Henry's state apartments. Pure vandalism. If Queen Mary hadn't died and the costs spiraled out of control, Wren would have demolished the rest of the Tudor Palace with the exception of the Great Hall.


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