Hampton Court Palace is one of England’s most popular tourist attractions. A visitor to the magnificent buildings and gardens, can experience over 500 years of English history. Situated on the banks of the River Thames, only twelve miles from London, it is easily accessible from Waterloo Station, London, in thirty-five minutes. Hampton Court Station is a few minutes walk from the Palace, across Hampton Court Bridge. It can also be reached in a leisurely fashion by boat from Westminster Pier in London, or Richmond-upon-Thames. Hampton Court Palace is now in the care of a registered charity, Historic Royal Palaces.
When touring the Palace and Gardens, it is difficult to contemplate all that has happened here during the long period since the 16th century, when it has been occupied by the Kings and Queens of England. The names of persons associated with Hampton Court Palace read as the contents of a “Who’s Who” of English history. Cardinal Wolsey, King Henry VIII, Queen Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I, King James I, William Shakespeare, King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, King William III, Sir Christopher Wren and Queen Victoria, have all played their part in creating the beautiful and fascinating scenes that we see today. Hampton Court Palace’s spectacular features continue to be put to good use. On 1st August 2012, Bradley Wiggins earned a gold medal when he won the 2012 London Olympics Road Cycling Time Trial Event, which began and finished at Hampton Court Palace.
There is an annual music festival in June each year, when world renowned entertainers perform at the Palace. In July, the annual Royal Horticultural Society Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is held in Home Park, which Henry VIII enclosed and used for hunting. In the 17th century, Charles II had the Long Water dug and avenues of trees planted. It is home to three hundred fallow deer.
Hampton Court Palace is high on the list of the most haunted locations in the United Kingdom. Several ghosts are said to haunt the Palace, including Henry VIII’s wives, Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard. A gallery, which links the Chapel with Cardinal Wolsey’s State Apartments, is said to be visited by Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife. Visitors may dismiss the legend, but those who work at the Palace have admitted experiencing unusual cold feelings and unexplained glimpses of figures and heard retreating footsteps. In 1541, Catherine Howard, little more than a teenager, learnt that she was to be charged with adultery. Legend says that she ran along the Gallery to the Chapel, where Henry was deep in prayer, desperate to plead her innocence. Before she reached him, guards dragged her away screaming. She was executed for treason and perhaps doomed to scream for mercy for eternity.
Hampton Court Palace, in people’s imagination, is dominated by Henry VIII. The initial view for the visitor of the rose red brick Main Entrance from the west, is memorable. This is the Great Tudor Palace of which only half survives. The remainder of Hampton Court Palace was rebuilt by William III as a stunning baroque palace and was first occupied in 1700. The Tudor Palace was presented to King Henry VIII by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1525. He had acquired the site in 1514 and quickly began to turn, what was a manor house, into a grand country residence to reflect his own position and ambition. It was also to allow him to have a building where he could entertain the King and other foreign dignitaries. Wolsey was very able and worldly and was relied upon by the young King for his administrative ability and skills in state affairs. Realising that King Henry may be envious of the grandeur of Hampton Court, Cardinal Wolsey presented the Palace to him in exchange for Richmond Palace. Henry had been married to Katherine (or Catherine) of Aragon for over twenty years, since 1509, but although she had born him six children, including three sons, he did not have the son he desperately wanted for an heir. Five of the children had died, leaving only Mary, who later would become Queen Mary I of England. Henry needed Cardinal Wolsey to persuade the Pope to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon on the grounds that she was his brother’s widow. Henry already had a mistress, Anne Boleyn, who he wanted to marry. The Pope would not agree and Henry, as a consequence, in 1529, dispossessed Wolsey of his lands and removed him from Hampton Court. Henry married Anne Boleyn in 1533, as she was already pregnant. The Pope refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Katherine for seven years. Consequently, Henry turned himself and England against the Catholic Church and Rome. In 1534, he passed the Act of Supremacy, which declared that the King was now head of the English Church. He had appointed a new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who annulled Henry’s marriage to Katherine.
Queen Elizabeth I did not have much affection for Hampton Court Palace, perhaps because she nearly died of smallpox there early in her long reign from 1558 until 1603. However, she did add a new privy kitchen in 1567. King James I, who reigned from 1603 until 1625, spent Christmas 1604 as King at Hampton Court. He had a private theatre company, the ‘King’s Men’, which included William Shakespeare. It is believed that he entertained the King and his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, in the Great Hall and performed “Measure for Measure”. Early in 1604, James had held the Hampton Court Conference, which resulted in the compilation of the King James or Authorised Version of the Bible. Charles I, who was King from 1625, added his art collection of Italian masters. The Triumphs of Caesar, by Andrea Mantegna, painted between 1484 and 1505, consist of nine huge canvases and were, at one time, the most famous paintings in Europe. They can be seen in the Lower Orangery at Hampton Court Palace. Charles I fled from London to Hampton Court in 1642, but eventually lost the Battle of Naseby in 1645 and was imprisoned by Oliver Cromwell at Hampton Court Palace. He escaped, but was recaptured and then tried and executed in Whitehall in 1649. Oliver Cromwell sold many of the Royal possessions, but retained the Palace and spent weekends here hunting, enjoying music and generally living like a King.
The second great palace at Hampton Court began when William of Orange and his wife, Mary, became the joint monarchs, King William III and Queen Mary II in 1689. William did not like London’s fog and smoke and wanted to live in the country, but he considered the Tudor Palace to be old fashioned. Sir Christopher Wren was, therefore, commissioned to replace it with a palace to rival Louis XIV of France’s Palace at Versailles. Wren designed an ambitious new palace in the elegant baroque fashion. However, his plans were never completed, leaving a palace of two halves. His clever design made the new palace hide the rest of the Tudor buildings, creating the illusion of a completely new palace. The shell of the new building was mostly complete by 1693. The cost of the new building was excessive and Mary, at the age of 32 in 1694, suddenly died of smallpox. The King, stricken with grief, ordered the building work to be stopped, leaving it unfinished. The new apartments were completed six years later, but William only lived there for two years. He was thrown from his horse whilst hunting at Hampton Court and died soon after at Kensington Palace, leaving huge unpaid bills.
King George III did not want to stay at Hampton Court Palace, as he preferred Windsor Castle and Kew Palace as residencies away from London. A British monarch has not lived at the Palace since. He formalised the system of ‘grace-and-favour’ accommodation, i.e. the granting of rent free tenancies of royal properties to private persons in recognition of their great service to the monarchy or the country. These were generally widows. The last grace-and-favour warrants were granted during the 1980s.
Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1819, but did not live at Hampton Court Palace. In 1839, she opened the Palace to paying visitors. The railway opened in 1849 and Londoners flocked to Hampton Court as a favourite day’s outing.
A visitor to Hampton Court Palace should allow time to enjoy the various beautiful gardens spread over sixty acres, which stretch down to the River Thames. The gardens are both formal and informal. The Wilderness Garden was originally an orchard in the 16th century, where courtiers could wander. Later, it became a garden of tall clipped hedges, planted in geometric patterns. Only the famous Maze remains of this aspect. 330,000 visitors enter the Maze each year and eventually find their way out again! In the spring, the garden is a spectacular mass of colour from the hundreds of thousands of bulbs that have been planted.
Henry VIII, when young, enjoyed taking part in tournaments and other sports, but later preferred games where there was less chance of injury. From the five brick towers in The Tiltyard, Henry and his courtiers would have watched jousting and wrestling. Only one tower remains today, where the popular Tiltyard Cafe is situated. Henry VIII built the Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court, probably in 1529. The game of real tennis, still played here, is not to be confused with the better known lawn tennis played at Wimbledon. The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court is the oldest place in the world where a ball game is still played. It is believed that Henry VIII was playing tennis here in 1536, when he heard that his second wife, Anne Boleyn, had been beheaded on his command for alleged adultery and treason. Her initials, intertwined with Henry’s initials, can be seen on the gateway arch that bears her name, when viewed from Base Court. Part of the original Tiltyard is now set out as a magnificent Rose Garden.
The Great Vine can be viewed within its glasshouse. This is the oldest (over 240 years old) and largest grapevine in the world and continues to produce a good crop of Black Hamburg grapes in late August each year, which can be purchased by visitors. The Vine was planted in 1768 by the celebrated landscape gardener, Lancelot Capability Brown.
The Pond Gardens were originally sunken ponds used to hold freshwater fish, such as carp and bream, to feed Henry VIII’s court. Today, they are planted with a spectacular selection of spring and summer bulbs and plants.
The Privy Garden was the king’s own private garden. The garden you see today, is a restoration of William III’s Privy Garden of 1702, which was opened in 1995. It displays the same type of original plants, including the hornbeam bower, which was part of William III’s original design. At the River Thames end, the garden is bordered by the Tijou Screens. These are decorated iron screens, built by the French blacksmith, Jean Tijou. The Screens allowed William III to view the River Thames through their gilded iron foliage. Beyond the Screens, is the Thames-side Barge Walk, named after the working barges which were once towed along from the riverbank.
The Banqueting House is a detached building built in 1700, overlooking the River Thames. This is where King William III enjoyed intimate after dinner parties. It contains Antonio Verrio’s wall and ceiling paintings. It is one of Hampton Court’s most important baroque interiors. The Banqueting House is still used for prestigious events and may be hired for weddings.
The Great Fountain Garden on the east, gets its name from the thirteen fountains which were in the semi-circular garden laid out by William III and Mary II. Only one fountain remains. The large yew trees were planted by Queen Anne, but were originally small clipped specimens. The two great marble urns close to the Palace, date from 1690. The Broad Walk is a wide gravel terrace, half a mile long, running from the Flower Pot Gate on the Kingston Road, to the River Thames. It is bordered on the Palace side by a two metre wide herbaceous border, which was planted in the 1920s and remains the largest in the world.