King Henry VIII looks down from his chair and puts the question to his trusted advisors, “What are we to do about the Queen?” We advisors were just 21st-century tourists five minutes ago. Now we have the serious business of telling the most powerful ruler we’ll ever know how to punish his unfaithful wife.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It’s Henry VIII’s palace, the home of the most famous of England’s kings.
- Children and adults alike will find much to explore and enjoy.
- The buildings, furnishings, decorations and gardens are priceless treasures.
- Good for history fans and for families. There are special activities for children.
On the north bank of the River Thames, west of central London, Hampton Court Palace is magnificent. The red brick front of the Tudor palace is guarded by red-coated warders instead of soldiers these days, but each visitor walks the same path as the courtiers, lovers, friends and foes of kings and queens of old.
Home of King Henry VIII and His Six Wives
The last monarch to use Hampton Court as an official residence was King George II in 1737. Thanks to extensive restoration, curation, and interpretation, both inside and out, the palace and its gardens now display some of the past days of Henry VIII (ruled 1509 to 1547), William III and Mary II (William ruled 1689 to 1702, Mary from 1689 to 1694), and George II (ruled 1727 to 1760).
As we consider the fate of Queen Anne Boleyn, King Henry looks through the window at the small courtyard below. On the other side of the garden wall is the Chapel Royal, still in use as an Anglican church. Henry’s private chapel is just along the corridor from the council chamber. In making a decision as momentous as this, Henry may go and pray later for divine guidance after hearing from his earthly advisors.
Meanwhile, Sir Thomas Seymour presents some outrageous claims against the Queen, and the group takes it in. The mildest accusation is that she has had a love affair with a mere musician. The King is almost insulted, though he tries not to show his full emotions. One of the lords suggests sending Anne to a nunnery. Barrel-chested Henry laughs at this unimaginable prospect.
Most of the council members today are surprised to be speaking with a king, but as a frequent visitor to Hampton Court Palace, I’ve come into his presence a few times. He always looks as majestic and imposing as a Holbein portrait.
They say clothes make the man. Henry’s outfit is quite different from what any of us, even a king, would wear today. The top is voluminous and heavily embroidered. It looks structured and stiff. I imagine it took hundreds of hours for the best needleworkers in the land to create this. The king wears a cap, breeches and leggings, and even a codpiece, an item of male decoration that seems to have passed from the sartorial vocabulary. This outfit, along with Henry’s size, his booming voice, and his air of complete superiority, mark him as the one and only king.
At Hampton Court Palace, visitors soon appreciate that this place was always meant to show off the king’s power and wealth, and to prove that England is the mightiest of all countries. I like to listen to the free audioguides, which tell stories and point out some of the conspicuous shows of wealth. Even without the guide, it’s easy to see that no money was spared in building and decorating this place.
One of my favourite parts of the palace is the Tudor kitchen complex. It fills a series of dark rooms and stone-tiled alleys running along most of the east side of the building. In the days when everything was made by hand and cooked on a fire, it took a lot of space and co-ordination to feed the hundreds of palace guests whenever the king was in residence. The tour of the kitchens follows the route an egg, a side of beef, or a sack of flour might have taken.
Goods came by wagon load after wagon load, arriving in the Lord Chamberlain’s Yard. Eagle-eyed clerks watched, counted and recorded everything, making sure His Majesty wasn’t being cheated, and providing an inventory, just as in a modern hotel.
Down a narrow alley, servants would pass like so many ants in a line, each carrying his load to the right little storeroom. Today’s kitchen shows a few well-stocked rooms, where butchers and bakers would have worked.
The smell of a log fire draws every visitor to the great roasting spit in the main kitchen. Tudor guests were offered massive amounts of meat, and this is where it came from.
The room is like a cathedral, its open-timbered roof soaring above. The fireplaces, charcoal stoves, brick ovens, soup pots and long tables full of ingredients show on the one hand how comparatively primitive the cooking equipment was, and on the other, how fine the product could be. The noise must have been deafening, considering the crowds of cooks, servers, fire-stokers, spit-turners, runners, fetchers, stirrers and carriers it would have taken to feed the hundreds of courtiers upstairs.
Like guests in a fine hotel, very few of the diners would have understood just how much work went on down in the kitchens. Only some of the servants would actually serve the meals. Most wouldn’t see the people in their finery sitting down to eat.
The Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace
Today, we have the privilege of seeing both upstairs and downstairs. The vast space of the Tudor kitchen has an even more impressive cousin, the high-ceilinged Great Hall, which was Henry’s public stage. He and the Queen could entertain hundreds of guests with day-long feasts, wine, and dancing.
The stained glass in this hall shows, in rich jewel tones, the emblems of the prominent families. The highest, grandest window has a giant portrait of Henry himself, looking down on everyone. Fine tapestries, specially commissioned and costing a fortune, line the walls.
Thanks to the passage of time and the changing tastes of its later occupants, the Tudor part of Hampton Court Palace doesn’t have the personal living quarters of the royal family. Instead, there are some opulent suites as used by William and Mary, and later by George II and his family. Travelling from room to room, the sights include masterworks by fine painters, silver candelabras, elaborately patterned stone table-tops, gilt-trimmed wood panelling, and the exquisitely delicate wood carvings of Grinling Gibbons.
Outside, particularly in summer, the gardens are equally impressive. From inside the palace, there is a fine view of the William and Mary formal Privy Garden on the south side. This garden was known only from pictures until an extensive archaeological research and restoration project slowly brought it back to life.
King Henry, of course, had no idea what would happen to his palace after his death. He was very concerned about having a male heir to continue his family’s reign. Had Anne Boleyn’s child been a boy instead of the later Queen Elizabeth I, the King might never have heard any rumours of her being unfaithful. As it happened, she became an unwanted wife, and so he had to make a decision.
Today we know the fate of each of the six wives. “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, lived” is a little ditty repeated here and there in the palace. Anne Boleyn was number two on that list.
The council offers the king a few suggestions: a convent, exile, execution. The king retires, the demure Lady Jane Seymour on his arm, to consider further.
In the meantime, we visitors scatter to enjoy the architecture of Sir Christopher Wren, to look for ghosts in the galleries, and to find our own Hampton Court treasures.
- Hampton Court Palace is one of the Historic Royal Palaces, which include the Tower of London and Kensington Palace. The website is particularly detailed and includes accessibility information.
- A membership to the Historic Royal Palaces may save you money, depending on your visiting plans.
- A visit to Hampton Court can easily take a whole day. Be sure to save lots of time to visit the gardens.
- The Tiltyard Cafe is the better choice of the two on-site eating spots.