There are few places that evoke the past better than Hampton Court Palace. Set back from a curve in the Thames amid beautifully landscaped gardens and somewhat less romantically, still within London’s Zone 6, Henry VIII’s former home provides its visitors with a flamboyant trip through 500 years of royal history.
In fact, this year marks the 500th anniversary of Cardinal Wolsey’s construction of the Tudor residence in February 1515. Unluckily for old Wolsey, the palace only remained his until he fell from favour with the king. A disagreement over Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and the subsequent break from Rome’s Catholic Church not only sent shockwaves throughout Europe, but also lost the Cardinal his home. Hampton Court swiftly turned into a pleasure palace for Henry’s infamous Court.
Indeed, the palace’s architecture stands alone from other haunts of this era. As you walk through Base Court, a fountain once flowing with wine for the king’s guests takes pride of place. Overhead, ornate Tudor chimneys ensured that every reveller’s suite was kept warm, and colossal kitchens kept guests in gluttony. Unlike the Tower of London where ironically, most of Henry’s courtiers ended up, the feeling at Hampton Court is one of decadence rather than defence. In The Great Hall, opulence replaces oppression, with giant tapestries hung from every wall under gold leaf eaves and stags heads. Records show that each hanging cost £2000 at the time, when artists as well recognised as Holbein were earning roughly £30 annually.
As you escape the eerie corridor that’s supposedly haunted by the distressed ghost of Henry’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, the lavishness continues into the Baroque chambers of the Stuart Dynasty. Works commissioned to the architect, Christopher Wren, in the late 1600s comprise countless bedchambers and reception rooms that shimmer with velvet drapes and drip with frescoes from the domed ceilings. It’s clear to see that this part of the palace was built to emulate, and perhaps rival, France’s Versailles. Grandiose staircases connect the labyrinth home of William III and gradually give way to the east façade of the palace that looks onto famed gardens.
Stepping out from dark wooden panels and the shadows of Fountain Court into bright sunlight, you could be forgiven for thinking you had been slipped a hallucinogen. Massive funnels of topiary fan outwards on perfectly manicured lawns. Towards the river, caricatures of flowerbeds buzz with giant bumblebees attending giant thistles and begonias. As a scene from Alice In Wonderland unfurls and the path meanders to the world’s largest grape vine, you question whether this is an afternoon’s history lesson or a not-unpleasant drug induced dream.
Reality comes in the form of muffled movement from fellow tourists. Although another feather in Hampton Court’s cap is that somehow, it manages to filter the volume of visitors expertly. It’s at these tranquil moments among the palace’s walls where history truly comes to life: First, you hear a shout over your shoulder and turn to glimpse the swish of thick red petticoats drifting behind a doorway. Suddenly, a second echoing voice of a stern courtier, and you’re there.
Through specially written micro-plays, events from bygone eras unfold in front of you: Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry’s ill-fated wives argues with her rumoured lover, Thomas Wyatt in a darkened hallway; Jane Seymour, the only queen to give Henry a male heir screams in labour behind an ancient door; Oliver Cromwell, on discovering Charles I has escaped the grounds, holds a heated discussion with palace guards. Acted perfectly in full costume, I’ve never felt so immersed in the past.
Back in the present it was Sunday afternoon and my train beckoned but I didn’t want to leave without celebrating five passionate and powerful centuries. I was in luck: Every day in 2015, Henry VIII’s wine fountain once again flows. Visitors are cordially invited to take a cup of vinegar wine (actually a smooth French merlot) to toast this special anniversary. How could I refuse?
Here’s to another 500 years of celebrating history at Hampton Court Palace!
For more behind the scenes pictures of the palace’s 500 years, have a browse through my photo gallery.
Check out Hampton Court Palace’s website if you would like to join in the 500th anniversary celebrations.