Thursday, 27 January 2011

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

I have been visiting Hampton Court for so many years now I like to think that long after I am dead my shade will continue to roam the palace, allowing me to explore every nook and cranny of such a fascinating place. Every time I visit I glean some new snippet of information. For example, the permanent exhibition on Young Henry (VIII) is set in a sequence of rooms Cardinal Wolsey would have recognised. The Tudor linen-fold panelling is still in place and the ornate plaster ceiling display Wolsey's ecclesiastical badges and ciphers.

Aside from this suite of rooms the only other intimate chamber which appears to have changed little from its Tudor heyday, is the so called Wolsey Closet. It too boasts an ornate ceiling with Tudor roses and Prince of Wales feathers. The sequence of religious paintings, above the linenfold panelling, was commissioned by Henry VIII but was hidden behind a screen of paintings from the following century. Off from this room is a small alcove, which might have served as a garde-robe and is claimed by some to be haunted.

When I made to walk out of this room in early January 2011 I had to quickly step back again as Henry VIII and his courtiers strolled past. They came to a halt in a part of the palace which had been rebuilt in the 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren, not that they seemed to notice. I hot-footed it back to the Hanoverian suite of rooms and asked the warder the quickest way to back the Great Hall so I could see Henry dine in public.

The Hanoverian Rooms in a small stately home would be deemed important rooms in their own right. They get a little lost between Tudor magnificence and  Stuart grandeur. I was intrigued by a locked room I could only peek at it through the top of the glazed door. It shows a room not open to the general public and which has yet to be renovated and in its current delapidated state reminded me of the upper floor of Kew Palace. I asked the warder if it ever would be opend up and he thought possibly no as its small size would make access difficult.

I was fortunate enough to be standing near another warder when he explained that only three roundels in the ceiling of the Great Watching Chamber dated from the Tudor period. They belonged to Jane Seymour, of whom the less said the better as far as I am concerned. All the rest were placed there in the 19th century.

Attempts had been made by Henry VIII to obliterate all reminders of Jane Seymour’s unfortunate predecessor, Anne Boleyn, so I was pleased to come across Anne's initials intertwined with Henry's in the oak screen in the Great Hall, although it was hard to get a clear image.

I find increasingly that strangers stop and ask me questions about a stately home whenever I visit a place. Thus, at Ham House I was asked about the Duchess of Lauderdale's bathroom and at Hampton Court an elderly lady asked if I knew what the bean bag like object  on the floor of the Pages' Room was. Perhaps bedding I mused and was pleased to have it confirmed by a sign that said pages ate and slept in this room. “And there”, I said confidently, pointing to the arras curtain, now sealed up, “is where they would have passed through to the Great Watching Chamber to wait upon the nobility”.

There is a charming contemporary portrait of one boy in Tudor livery peering cheekily from behind a glazed leaded window at the palace. The artist is unknown. It is to be found in the so called Haunted Gallery, where the ghost of Catherine Howard is said to re-enact her desperate bid to speak to the king after her notorious sexual past was exposed.

Along this same corridor, visitors can now look into the Holy Day closet of Katherine Parr in which she married Henry VIII on 12th July 1543. In Katherine's time her closet would have been partially glazed to allow her to look out over the Chapel Royal. There was a time when visitors like myself could step onto the royal balcony but a number of years ago it was found to be structurally unsound, meaning it was no longer safe to be open to the general public. 

Happily, new delights compensate for the curtailment of old. Thus, Henry's Council Chamber, which overlooks Chapel Court and its Privy Gardens, has been reconstructed to how it would have looked in his time with screens around the room showing looped conversations between his chief privy councillors. As befitting my own status, I sat on the replica of Henry's chair beneath his canopy of state as his councillors on video screens bickered amongst themselves.

There are many items on display in Hampton Court, glorifying a reigning sovereign. But there is one piece of furniture which silently whispered “Remember Caesar, thou art mortal” every time it was used. If you descend from King William III’s state apartments to his private apartments on the ground floor, you pass a small closet off the stairwell containing his personal close stool. It is of faded red velvet inlaid with brass studs and is very similar in style to the earlier Stuart royal close stool on display at  Knole. 

There are reminders scattered around Hampton Court that although it is no longer a  royal residence it continued and continues to function as a home to a number of people. Thus, there is the letterbox by the Tudor Kitchens. A pump in Fountain Court provided water to the grace and favour residents. Ironically in the 16th century Cardinal Wolsey had piped running water on the ground and first floor of his original palace. Name plaques to former grace and favour residents are to be found by their former apartment.

Of all my discoveries about Hampton Court Palace, the one secret that has occupied my mind for years was finally revealed to me in January 2011. There are a set of imposing doors in the Great Watching Chamber which once led to Henry VIII’s private apartments, through which only the most exalted or most favoured visitor could pass. I yearned to know what I would see if the doors were opened. I did not mind if it were only mundane offices or decaying chambers on a par with the one in the Georgian Rooms. On 2nd January 2011 I was finally granted my wish as a warder solemnly unlocked the door to reveal..........a blank brick wall. I have to confess, my imagination had never once led me to expect that there was a brick wall concealed behind the doors. No wonder poor Henry and his courtiers had to take refuge in the 17th century part of the palace just an hour or so earlier.