Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly's Hampton Court: The Royal Mews

On Wednesday the Brimstone Butterfly became an unofficial writer-in-residence at Hampton Court. On a whim I decided to try and write an entire piece for my blog, or at least start one, from within the palace itself. Thus, this post is brought to you from the Member’s Room at Hampton Court Palace.

In September, as I took the bus from Hampton Court to York House in Twickenham, I was fascinated to see a two storey red brick range of Tudor buildings facing Hampton Court Green. Its sheer scale and proximity to Hampton Court made it clear it must be connected to the palace. Until that month I had been completely unaware of its existence as it is separated from the gated palace complex by a main road which crosses the river. In the Tudor era and for most of the Stuart there was no bridge spanning the Thames at this point. To cross the river people had to make use of ferries.

 En route to the mysterious building I passed the respective former homes of Sir Christopher Wren, who had demolished so much of the Tudor Palace to build the Baroque wings, and of Sir Michael Faraday, the eminent scientist.

A large notice pinned to the wall revealed that the Tudor range was occupied by the Horse Rangers Association. To give myself a legitimate excuse to explore further I decided on the spur of the moment as it were to become a member of the Rangers, although I hadn’t a clue as to what a ranger was. As I drew closer, an unmistakable odour revealed the building to be a working mews with stabling for horses. The signs forbidding parents from entering the stables was further evidence that it was a riding school. I no longer wished to become a Horse Ranger but a devoted mother, who only wanted the very best for her imaginary child including riding lessons at this historic building.

I walked around the side of the mews and came across a riding ring with a solitary horse in it. One of the assistants was sitting on a bench playing with her Labrador.  She asked if she could help me. In response to my question she confirmed that it was a children’s riding school but there was a long waiting list. How old was my child? About 8 I said and then, realising that most mothers would have a more precise idea of their child’s age, added that my enquiries were on behalf of a friend. The assistant said I could go up to the office and add the child’s name to their waiting list if I cared to. I decided to leave all the paperwork to my imaginary child’s imaginary parents.
Having ascertained that the large arch at the other end of the range led to private accommodation, I decided to take a peek into the cobbled courtyard beyond. These buildings and the riding school  were first built as stabling for the palace in the early 16th century and were substantially extended in the 1570s by Elizabeth I. They continue to be used as a royal mews today. Indeed, royal horses are put out to grass here in the summer months when they are not required for ceremonial duties in London.

After my little detour, I made my way back along the road to the palace. The main gateway was closed for building works so I entered through the arched entrance leading to the Tudor Kitchens, exchanging pleasantries with the warder on duty who recognised me. Hordes of small school children were in front of me and another contingent were coming up fast behind so I beat a hasty retreat for the Queen’s Staircase near the Member’s Room.
The Queen’s Staircase was designed for Caroline of Ansbach by William Kent, who also designed the Duke of CumberlandSuite and Chiswick House. As at Chiswick, William Kent was inspired by the art and architecture of Ancient Rome. The ceiling of the Queen’s Staircase has a trompe l’oeil dome with an order of the Garter Star at its centre. A vast classical painting dominated one wall, the theme of which completely eluded me. Various grisaille (monochrome or near monochrome) figures and ornament were featured elsewhere. The way to the Queen’s State Apartments was closed as they are undergoing extensive renovation and are not expected to re-open again until Easter 2012.

Inside the Members’ Room an elderly lady called Winifred came to the front door just as I stepped through it.
“I see you’ve managed to open it, “she said.
It is rather tricky and given that many members are on the more mature side, not very forgiving for those of failing eyesight and reduced dexterity like my good self. Winifred has been a volunteer at the palace for over 8 years, when the scheme first started. As part of her duties, she had arranged to escort a visually impaired visitor around the palace. To enhance their experience visually impaired visitors receive a special commentary and are allowed to touch certain objects selected by the curators in advance. For conservation reasons these objects are not normally allowed to be handled by the general public or even the volunteers. Shortly after Winifred left the doorbell sounded, a further reminder that the double storey space with its own internal staircase had once been a grace and favour apartment. I toyed with the idea of pretending that I was not in. Finally, as I made my way to the entrance hall a red coated warder let two woman members in. Earlier I had noticed that the door to the chamber above the gateway arch upstairs was open again and I was anxious to be left on my own and to my own devices. Who would rid me of these turbulent visitors? Fortunately they did not stay long.

After they left I threw caution to the winds and ventured upstairs to the training room where I photographed the glorious arched mullioned windows. From these very windows in his private quarters, Henry VIII would have had been able to blow kisses to Anne Boleyn across the way in her own sumptuous apartments above her eponymous gateway. It also afforded him a splendid view of his astronomical clock whose designer, Nicolas Kratzer, had been so gallant to me in the Communication Gallery a week or so earlier. I returned downstairs to the dining room just as Winifred reappeared. It seems her visitor never arrived.
Henry VIII's Bayne Tower at Hampton Court
I packed up my laptop and made my way to the King William Apartments. En route I was told by some volunteers  that the colonnade went past Henry VIII’s  Bayne Tower. Though truncated and extensively remodelled since Henry’s time, this would have housed other rooms in his private apartments including a strong room and a bathroom, which boasted plumbed in running hot and cold water. The water was heated up in a nearby boiler and the cold water tap fed with spring water piped into Hampton Court from Coombe Hills several miles away, a feature Cardinal Wolsey had installed when he first built the palace. I used to pass by the remnants of Cardinal Wolsey’s Conduit houses in Coombe Hills on a daily basis when I worked in Kingston. A television documentary revealed that the spring water captured within there is as sweet today as it ever was. Nowadays, the Bayne Tower provides private accommodation for a senior member of the palace staff and for the actors who play Henry VIII. What a perk of the job to stay in Henry’s actual private apartments!
Lady Frances Grey and Dame Sybil Penn
Two Tudor Ladies were seated on a bench near the Bayne Tower. They were Dame Sybill Penn in black and Lady Frances Grey in red, the latter being the niece of Henry VIII by his sister and Charles Brandon. We fell into conversation. Having determined that there was a vacancy for the post of queen following the fall of Katherine Howard, the two court ladies said I had best be quick if I wished to set my cap at the king because rumour had it that his fancy had settled upon the Lady Latimer, better known to posterity as Katherine Parr. Rather than an apartment the actresses playing Henry’s wives are provided with a revolving door.

I mentioned that I had seen Dame Sybil’s old haunts when I visited Apartment 39 in September and was sorry to hear that she had died of smallpox whilst nursing Queen Elizabeth I. The actress playing Dame Sybil said she was not sure whether it was Sybil or another royal servant who had sacrificed her life for the Queen’s. Moreover, there was a certain mystery as to her true origins as an extant letter mentioned a different surname and the coat of arms on the memorial plaque in the church where she is buried were those of the Hampden family. Sybil it transpires was closely related to John Hampden the famous 17th  century parliamentarian.  Such was John Hampden’s renown that towns have been named after him in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine. The John Hampden Society newsletter number 62 for Spring 2010 states that Sybil died on 6th November 1562 after having nursed Queen Elizabeth I,  who had been stricken with smallpox. From the same newspaper I learned that  Sybil  married  a David Penn. As loyal servants to the Tudors the couple had been granted confiscated monastic lands at the Dissolution. Her brother Richard Hampden had also prospered being appointed Clerk of the Royal Kitchens during Elizabeth’s reign. Consequently he would have been well acquainted with both the Tudor Kitchens and the Privy Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace.

I then addressed the lady in red, the Lady Grey. (Somewhat confusingly Dame Sybil achieved posthumous fame as the lady in grey, the epithet given to what is thought to be her ghost). Lady Frances explained that she was the mother of Lady Jane Grey. I realised later that she was also the mother of the equally unfortunate Katherine Grey, whose portrait I had seen at Syon House. The latter ended her days in much the same way as Sophia Dorothea of Celle, the ill-fated wife of George I. Both died whilst under permanent house arrest, having not been allowed to see their own children in years. In Katherine Grey’s case, Queen Elizabeth was furious when her fecund second cousin and possible heir had married in secret. Katherine’s proximity to the throne was such that the English Ambassador in Madrid, Sir Thomas Challoner, had written to Elizabeth’s chief minister Lord Cecil advising him of a plot to marry Katherine off to the king of Spain’s son. Challoner’s letter states:
"King Philip (of Spain) is so jealous of the anticipated power of  France, by the alliance of young Francis the Dauphin with the Queen of Scotland, and her claim to the crown of England that he positively contemplates stealing Lady Catherine Grey out of the realm, and marrying her to his son, Don Carlos, or some other member of his family, and  setting up her title against that of Mary Stuart, as the true heiress of England. Lady Catherine will probably be glad to go, being most uncomfortably situated in the English Court with the Queen, who cannot well abide the sight of her……so she lives as it were in great despair. She has spoken very arrogant and unseemly words in the hearing of the Queen and others standing by. Hence it is thought that she could be enticed away if some trusty person were to speak with her."
The Spanish marriage plot was thwarted and afterwards Lady Katherine took the reckless decision to elope with Edward Seymour. Lady Frances did not live long enough to see Katherine imprisoned for life by Queen Elizabeth. It might have proved one sorrow too many following the executions of her sixteen year old daughter Jane and Jane’s father for high treason, following their abortive attempt to claim the throne for Jane and usurp Mary Tudor. As if to show that she harboured no further dynastic ambitions, Frances married her Master of the Horse, Adrian Stokes. His far lower social standing meant that their children could never aspire to the throne. In her affair with Stokes, Frances was following the example of her royal mistress. The court was scandalised by Queen Elizabeth's enduring relationship with her own Master of the Horse Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and brother-in-law to the late Lady Jane Grey.  I have since discovered a third woman to add to the triumvirate of prominent Tudor ladies dallying with the master of the horse. Though I was fully acquainted with the histories of Lady Frances Grey’s daughters Katherine and Jane, I knew little about the third daughter, Mary.
Lady Mary Grey
Mary had been born with what we would need regard as a curvature of the spine making her one of the smallest people at the Tudor court. Never was the saying opposites attract truer than in Mary’s choice of husband. In 1564 the diminutive Mary made her way to the Watergate at Westminster to marry in secret the 6 foot 8 Sergeant Porter and Deputy Master of the Horse, Thomas Keyes.  It is hard to say whether Elizabeth was more scandalised by the fact that yet another Grey sister and potential heir to the throne had eloped or the fact that Mary, like her mother Frances in 1555, had married so far beneath her. Perhaps in emulating her mother Mary had hoped that her misalliance was a clear signal she had no dynastic ambitions. A third reason for Elizabeth ‘s anger could have been simple jealousy in that Mary was free to marry her deputy Master of the Horse whereas Elizabeth was unable to wed her actual Master of the Horse, Robert Dudley. Whatever the reason, Mary was immediately placed under house arrest when the marriage was discovered. One of her jailors was Thomas Gresham, the original builder of Osterley Park where Mary was confined from time to time. Neither Gresham nor his wife appreciated Mary’s presence. Indeed Gresham wrote to Cecil lamenting that Mary was his own wife’s “" bondiage and harte sorrow."

Lady Mary was  finally released from house arrest in 1572 after the death of  Thomas Keyes in jail.  Mary had failed to secure the Queen’s permission to take care of Thomas’s orphaned children by his first marriage but in time she was allowed back at court. On New Year's Day 1577, for example, she is recorded as having been at Hampton Court Palace where she presented the queen with " four dozen buttons of gold, in each of them a seed pearl, and two pairs of sweet [i. e. perfumed] gloves." She received in turn “a silver cup and cover, weighing eighteen ounces.” The meticulous royal household accounts for 1576 record Mary’s gift of a gold cup for the Queen when Mary attended the Christmas revels at Hampton Court.

On 28th April 1578 Lady Mary Grey, the last of Lady Frances Grey’s children, died.  But the centuries have wrought a final ironic twist to the story of Lady Frances. Her daughter, Lady  Jane Grey ruled a mere 9 days, the shortest reign in English history. Next year a direct descendant of Lady Frances Grey’s, through her daughter Katherine, will celebrate her diamond jubilee making her reign the second longest in English history.


  1. I just want to say that I adore your blog, and how much work you put into your posts. They're informative, fascinating, and (thanks to the pictures) beautiful! I appreciate the equine interest too.

  2. Thank-you Marisa.
    I am strictly an amateur but I take a pride in trying to get the detail right, which is why I had to quickly change one crucial detail in this post when I re-read it. I do tend to go off at a tangent though, so I don't always know what will end up in my post by the time I have completed it. As for the photos I can spend hours editing them. I only have a cheap and cheerful compact digital camera so I am limited as to what I can achieve. But by dint of taking a great many, I have ended up with some that I am really proud of.


  3. Oh, Brava! I love all your posts, yet this one is outstanding among them. The story of your discovery of the mews is exceedingly entertaining. And the way you lead us through the tale of the Greys is brilliant.

    I'm also thrilled to see another commenter pipe up. You deserve kudos, Caro.

  4. Thank-you Petrea.As I said to Marisa, I never quite know how a post will turn out as I research details as I write and try to find original source materials wherever possible, a task made infinitely easier thanks to the internet. Serendipity also plays a major part. I happened to came across the Tudor women in the Baroque Fountain Court on my way to William III's apartments. I assume they were only sitting there because two Tudor gateways were blocked off owing to building work. If I had not stopped and talked to them I would have not found out about Lady Mary Grey, her story being as fascinating as that of her sisters. And of course, if I had not decided to visit York House after Hampton Court I would not have come across the Royal Mews.


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