SECRETS OF HAMPTON COURT PALACE!!
A conversation with Gareth Russell, author of ‘The Palace’
Hampton Court Palace is a vast red-brick Tudor pile set on the river Thames a little way outside London. It’s one of the most famous royal buildings in England. Maybe in the world. I’ve been going there for many years, sometimes to film TV shows or visit exhibitions, and sometimes just to potter around the gardens, or wander through the palace’s succession of courtyards and cloistered walkways.
In fact, here’s a photo I took there one slightly overcast morning, seven or eight years ago.
Anyway, I’ve always felt that I had a reasonable sense for Hampton Court Palace’s origin story - Wolsey built it, Henry VIII pinched it. Yet at the same time I’ve also had a nagging sense that there was plenty I didn’t know, too. Just as there are so many of the hundreds of rooms there I’ve never seen, so there must be thousands of stories yet to be told - probably about toffs getting wasted and having it off behind tapestries.
For that reason, I was delighted when earlier this year I received an early copy of Gareth Russell’s new book, The Palace: From The Tudors To The Windsors, 500 Years of History at Hampton Court. Like all Gareth’s other books, including the now-standard biography of Catherine Howard, Young Damned and Fair, and Do Let’s Have Another Drink about the late Queen Mother (Queen Grandmother, now, I guess?) - it’s scholarly, gossipy, witty and enormous fun.
I was even more delighted when Gareth agreed to have a chat about the book for History, Etc. For one thing, it spares you lot hearing me bang on for yet another week about the Princes in the Tower. But more importantly, it’s a good chance for a real expert in the field to share a bit of his immense historical learning. I’m thrilled to say that our conversation below includes not only an informative discussion of Hampton Court Palace’s evolution over the centuries, courtesy of Anne Boleyn, Oliver Cromwell, Charles II and many more - but also mention of candied laxatives and a jester riding around the palace on a pretend horse made from a broomstick.
Oh, and when I reboot/revamp/remix History, Etc, in the New Year, I thought I would include author interviews as a regular feature. Let me know in the comments if you’d like that - and who you’d love to hear from.
For now, though, it’s over to Gareth.
DJ: Hampton Court is one of the most extraordinary buildings in England… maybe even in the world. For anyone who has never been there can you give a flavour of what it’s like to walk through those great gates for the first time?
GR: You’re right – that’s the perfect word for it: extraordinary. You get a sense of that, right away, when you walk through those gates, passing the huge royal coat of arms on either side of you. They set the tone for the marriage of fantasy and history that’s baked into the Hampton Court bricks.
As you walk from the gates towards the palace, the first thing that impresses you is the sheer size of Hampton Court and that continues as you cross the bridge – passing by more stone unicorns and dragons, clutching the heraldry of the great families who have held sway there, like the Tudors, the Stuarts, the Seymours, and even the Beauforts.
Everything in the architecture is designed to overawe you, but as you walk through and under that first gateway into the courtyard you are also overawed by the history because you are walking the same path, and seeing much the same view, as Anne of Cleves, Edward VI, William Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, and Xenia Romanov.
It has this rather amazing origin story, doesn’t it - Cardinal Wolsey builds it when he is the most powerful man in Henry VIII’s England, and then the king nicks it! Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Yes, poor old Wolsey is the man who turns it into a palace. For centuries, there had been a manor on the site that belonged to the warrior-monks of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller. They ran it as a glorified ecclesiastical Airbnb and started renting it out to courtiers who wanted a country house that was close to the royals’ palaces at Byfleet, Sheen and, later, Richmond. In 1515, Wolsey becomes the latest tenant but, in true Wolsey style, he does nothing by halves and persuades the Order to give him a ninety-nine year lease, which means he can treat it like his property.
Wolsey has a vast income as the King’s chief minister and, as a clergyman, he can have no legitimate heirs, so he’s not worried about building a fortune for future generations. He can spend it on what he likes. He recruits the best and brightest artists in northern Europe to come to England to work for him between 1515 and 1522 as he transforms Hampton Court from a comfortable mansion into one of the most admired palaces in Europe.
By the time he’s finished, one visitor thought that Hampton Court outshone the palaces of the Habsburg emperors. But, when Wolsey falls from favour in 1529 – as punishment for failing to persuade Pope Clement VII to dissolve Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon – Henry takes the lease off him.
In 1531, Henry ‘persuades’ the Order to accept a property swap, whereby the deeds for Hampton Court will pass to the Crown in return for the Priory of Saint Mary Magdalene in Essex. Which, as property swaps go, is about as fair as somebody saying that in return for your first-class seat on British Airways, they’ll give you a tricycle. So, that’s how Hampton Court went from Church to Crown via an impressive but unlucky cardinal.
Was building on this scale typical in the sixteenth century? The Tudor age seems to me to represent a golden age of palace and great house building in England? Is there an architectural revolution at work here? Is this the proceeds of the Reformation matched with the artistic ambition of the Renaissance reaching England? I’m completely making this up, so please contradict me if I’m wrong!
It is absolutely a golden age of palaces. Hampton Court owes a lot to the vision and education of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, who, in 1533, became the first queen to live at Hampton Court when it was a Crown property. Anne had a French Renaissance education and she also had two sides to her family who were very keen patrons of architecture – the aristocratic Irish House of Butler, which her grandmother Margaret was a matriarch of, and her father’s family, the Boleyns.
All three influences left Anne very aware of what was happening in building design throughout the European upper classes and she was very keen to make sure that Hampton Court kept pace with that. She was responsible for the plans to increase its size by nearly fifty percent more to what it had been under Cardinal Wolsey, by building new private wings for the royal apartments that faced towards the hunting grounds and gardens.
She also ensured that it captured both the cutting edge of the Renaissance along with the era’s occasional artistic nostalgia. That’s what you can see if you walk into Hampton Court’s magnificent Great Hall, which looks medieval, but which was actually built for Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. The French royal family had recently pioneered ‘bringing back’ the medieval Great Hall in their new palaces and Hampton Court did the same for England. Henry VIII wanted it to look like a hall where his favourite ancestors – Edward III and Henry V – could have held court in the glory days, as he saw it, of the Hundred Years War.
After Anne’s death in 1536, her husband embarked on a less precise but even more enthusiastic building programme that doesn’t end until 1539. In those years, Hampton Court benefitted massively from the Reformation. The seizure of closed monasteries’ land allowed the King to create a 10,000-acre private hunting estate that surrounded the palace, later known as the Hampton Court Chase, and he also took Church land to build a smaller subsidiary palace within the Chase, Oatlands, where he married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard.
He even uprooted a closed monastery’s forest and replanted it at Oatlands to provide a nice spot for a stroll. Hampton Court kept this land until the civil wars of the 1640s, so, for a century, it became not just one of the largest palaces in Europe thanks to the Renaissance but one of the largest private estates in the world, thanks to the Reformation.
Why did you decide to write about Hampton Court?
I had written a biography previously of Queen Catherine Howard, whose downfall began at Hampton Court in 1541. When a colleague came over from the States, they asked if I would mind showing them the palace. As I was taking them through it, they were overwhelmed by how much history had happened there and suggested a book. I shelved it in my mind, but I came back to it later when I was thinking about what to write next. I had wanted for a while to look at a building, or a place, that told the stories of many generations and, once I started really looking into Hampton Court, I was so surprised that nobody had written a popular history of it since the 1880s. It seemed the most remarkable collection of stories that are by turns important and fascinating.
After the Tudor age, what happens to Hampton Court? In broad strokes, I mean. Has it always been a royal palace?
It had a very busy seventeenth century. The Stuart dynasty, who take power after Elizabeth I’s death in 1603, love it and they celebrate their first Christmas in England at Hampton Court, where they’re entertained by William Shakespeare and King James begins his love affair with the handsome but stupid Lord Philip Herbert.
I’m By his own cheerful admission, Herbert knew nothing except how to hunt, drink, and have a good time. The royals flee to Hampton Court on the eve of the civil war a generation later and, when the monarchy is abolished in 1649, Hampton Court is saved when Britain’s new republican head of state, Oliver Cromwell, picks it as one of his official homes. It becomes a little bit like the White House for Britain’s Puritan republic and, after the monarchy comes back in 1660, puritanism of any variety is very definitely out of favour. Charles II installs his glamorous but detested mistress Lady Castlemaine here and he lets her keep her rooms there after their relationship ends. (He caught her trying to smuggle her naked lover, John Churchill, out a palace window one evening. After which, the King’s passion cooled.)
In the 1690s, one of Britain’s most impressive generals, King William III, knocked down Anne Boleyn’s private wing and replaced it with a very expensive Baroque section.
When the Stuarts are replaced by their German kinsman King George I in 1714, the new royals are delighted by the fusion of Tudor state rooms with Baroque private apartments and Hampton Court remains a centre of gossip and politics. That comes to an abrupt end in the 1760s when George III, who had a miserable time at Hampton Court living with his ornery grandfather George II, left the palace, bought Buckingham Palace as his new residence in London, and turned Hampton Court’s rooms into self-contained apartments for retired servants and fabulously eccentric relatives fleeing the French Revolution. It was turned into a museum by his granddaughter, Queen Victoria.
Do you have a favourite tale from within the walls of Hampton Court?
I quite enjoy the story of Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwyn feeding candied laxatives to a rival mistress, whom she’d pretended to befriend. In terms of something that punches at the chest a bit, it’s probably the fact that King George V picked a tree from Hampton Court to make the coffin of the Unknown Warrior at the end of the First World War. “The Palace” tries to focus on a different room from the perspective of a different person in a different decade – and I didn’t want it to just be a story of monarchs, ministers, and mistresses, though they certainly feature.
One of the palace staff in 1920 was a lamplighter called Thomas Abnett, who had lost three of his four sons during the war years – and he was my focus for the chapter on the Unknown Warrior. How the King became involved and what the plan meant to so many people, like Abnett, was moving, but it’s also fascinating how the army selected a body of an unknown First World War soldier, as are the ways they ensured nobody could ever know who it had been, or even which battlefield the bones had been taken from. The King wanted the wood from Hampton Court because, by then, the palace had become a symbol of the nation’s history, which gave me an idea of how much it’s meant to so many people over the years. The descriptions of the Unknown Warrior expedition and ceremonies stayed with me for a long time after I’d written that chapter.
A second favourite?
In 1551, Edward VI was at Hampton Court with his friends, including his favourite, the Irish aristocrat Barnaby Fitzpatrick. They were all feeling very low because two of their schoolmates had been killed in an outbreak of the plague earlier that year. Some summer festivities had been organised to try to distract them.
One afternoon, Edward and his friends went to the palace tiltyard to watch the jousting. Barnaby was about seventeen years old by this stage, a good swordsman and horseman, outgoing, and athletic, and he was expected to compete. Edward was fourteen and, although he loved sports, he was considered too young to compete. It was all shaping up to be quite a serious day of lances and one-upmanship when, just before the tourneys began, an old man ran onto the tiltyard with a broom clamped between his legs. It was Henry VIII’s former jester, Will Somers, who had been given accommodation at Hampton Court to live at the royal family’s expense after his retirement. Hearing that King Edward and his friends were still grieving, Somers decided to dress up as a knight and prance up and down the tiltyard in front of the entire court, using the broom as a horse – like a child would if they were playing – and making fun of the very serious way all the courtiers approached the jousts.
Edward VI loved it, people laughed, and I love anecdotes like that, where you get a real sense of humanity and silliness. You can imagine this group of young lads, who are deeply upset, and then the comic relief that can come unexpectedly during grief when someone does something silly for a laugh, like Will Somers did – wearing a ridiculous costume while running up and down a one-thousand-foot tiltyard with a broom between his legs.
Writing - or indeed broadcasting - about buildings can be tricky. (Or at least, that was my experience of doing the Castles TV show.) You obviously need to deliver some architectural nuggets - but I sense that you, like me, are most interested in the human stories that are played out inside buildings. Give us some insight into your approach to writing about buildings.
Couldn’t agree more. I’m very clear at the start of The Palace that it’s not an architectural history. You’re right that you need to include details of it though sometimes, because it’s unquestionably relevant. I try to avoid too much specific or technical architectural jargon. Twenty years ago, Simon Thurley wrote a great monograph on the technical aspects of Hampton Court for a university press and, like you Dan, I’m personally more interested in the human aspects. When researching it, I would go through all the architectural research and specifications to make sure I understood them, then try to see were they necessary to the chapters. If so, I would present them in a readable way.
For me though, I think it’s a good idea when writing to decide at the start what your book will be and stick to it. “The Palace” is a human story of the remarkable people, from every class, who have lived at Hampton Court from the Tudor era to our own, and that’s what I kept at the heart of the narrative.
What are you up to next? Are you going to do a tour of the great palaces of England? Or are you galloping into a new project entirely?
I’ve just finished a bit of filming for two new documentaries on the royal homes at Clarence House and Saint James’s Palace, which will be out in the new year. Book-wise, I’m galloping off to the Stuarts next; I’m writing a private life of James I, told through the people he loved. It starts during his time as King of Scots and carries right the way through to his death in England in 1625 – I’m having a blast doing it. It’s a fantastic history of love affairs, kidnapping, poison, murder, political totalitarianism, religious fundamentalism, wild parties, arranged marriages, and wars.
And I’ll be in America this December for the release of “The Palace” on December 5th and doing media events and bookstore events there. I can’t wait.