Tigger had a day off from work today and we of course determined to put it to good use. Weekday outings have advantages over weekend outings but also some disadvantages. The main disadvantage is that buses and trains are crowded, especially at certain times of day. On the other hand, the transport system is running well (no dratted “scheduled engineering works”), shops and cafes are open and, best of all, the interesting places we may wish to visit are not as packed out as they are likely to be during the weekend.
We took a bus to Waterloo, bought baguettes and coffee, and jumped aboard a train. It was a rather grey, chilly day, right for indoor visits rather than for wandering about in the open. Our destination was at the terminus, so there was no risk of missing our stop!
Our destination lay at the terminus of the line at what seems a rather understated little station in view of the noble name that it bears. We had come to visit Hampton Court Palace, once the habitation of monarchs and today a national treasure and tourist attraction.
Within sight of the station is Hampton Court Bridge. This is the fourth bridge on this site. The first was built in the mid-18th century at what was then a ferry crossing. The current bridge was opened in July 1933 by the Prince Of Wales, later to be King Edward VIII. Twickenham Bridge and Chiswick Bridge were also opened at the same time. I do not know how often it has happened that three bridges have been opened together in a single ceremony.
A short walk from the end of the bridge brings you to the gates of Hampton Court Palace. The four gate posts are decorated with heraldic figures.
People often refer to the palace simply as “Hampton Court” but really, we should refer to it as “Hampton Court Palace”. This is because the immediate area is also called Hampton Court (as is the railway station) and because there is another Hampton Court, also called Hampton Court Castle, in Herefordshire.
Hampton Court Palace is, or rather was, a royal residence from Tudor times until George II. Today it is managed, along with the Tower of London, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace, by a charity called Historic Royal Palaces. Much of it is open to the public (there is an admission charge) but some parts are closed, including the “grace and favour” apartments that are still occupied. There is also accommodation available for visitors who wish to stay overnight.
It must be said straightaway that the Palace is not only vast but is also complex. Imagine two palaces, one Tudor and the other Baroque, and now imagine that someone has jammed them into one another, like two icebergs colliding. That gives you some idea of the architectural entanglement of the Palace. Successive waves of building have added new parts or altered existing ones, according to the needs and fads of the inhabitants.
The Manor of Hampton was acquired in the 13th century by the Knights Hospitallers who had a grange on the site but it also came to be used as a staging post and guest house for royal visitors. Its first use as a residence came in 1494 when it was leased to Giles Daubeney, Lord Chamberlain to Henry VII, who needed a residence near the royal court.
A pivotal moment in the history of Hampton Court came in 1514 when the Knights Hospitallers assigned a 99-year lease on the property to Thomas Wolsey, then Archbishop of York, and an ambitious politician rising quickly up the hierarchy. Wolsey was to become a Cardinal and a close associate of Henry VIII and now set about building a residence that suited his rank and ambitions. Thus came into being the Tudor Palace of Hampton Court.
Wolsey was playing for high stakes, a dangerous game which he ultimately lost. Charged with obtaining the Pope’s permission for Henry to divorce his first wife, Katherine, on the grounds that she had not produced a male heir, Wolsey failed and fell into disfavour. In 1528, Wolsey was disgraced and Henry snatched both Hampton Court Palace and Wolsey’s other property in London, York Place.
Wolsey’s final downfall occurred in 1530 when he was accused of treason and arrested near York. Summoned to London, Wolsey must have known that he faced imprisonment, a humiliating trial and at last, an appointment with the executioner, sharing the fate of all those who incurred Henry’s displeasure. Sensibly, Wolsey died on the journey back to London.
Crossing the Clock Court (whose clock, incidentally, reflects the medieval belief that the sun revolves around the earth), we arrived at the entrance to King Henry’s state apartments. We found a gaggle of people waiting and, as we had heard there were to be some free guided tours, we waited with them. We were subsequently met and taken in hand by two ladies of King Henry’s court.
These were of course re-enactors impersonating historical personages and they treated us to all the court gossip while leading us inside and up the great staircase. Personally, I find this irksome and artificial, especially when they buttonhole members of the public and address them as though they are themselves members of the court. Tigger seemed to enjoy it, though, so I spent my time nosing around, taking photos and avoiding vexatious encounters with “The King” who happened by at one point.
In some places, the walls give the impression of being stage sets because they are painted to give a trompe-l’œil effect. This is because many of the tapestries have been taken down for cleaning – winter, when there are fewer tourists, is the best time for this. Similarly, some of the best rooms – such as the Great Hall – were closed and we had to give them a miss.
While the Tudor court ladies were twittering in the gallery, I explored and took some photos. Note the handsome red coats worn by the wardens, as they are called. More about that shortly.
As I skulked around avoiding poseurs in Tudor costume, my attention was caught by this display. It is the contract, though only a copy, of the marriage contract between Henry VIII and Kateryn Parr (as her name is there spelt). I was interested because my maternal ancestors are also called Parr and one of my relatives is convinced that we are “descended from” the Queen of England. Personally, I am unconvinced as there are many sources of the name Parr (German and French as well as English) and “my lot” seem to have come from Ireland sometime in the 19th century.
The Great Hall is said to be splendid but it is currently closed to the public for cleaning and refurbishment. We were taken instead to the Great Watching Chamber. Getting an unobstructed view proved difficult as the two Tudor ladies were holding court at one end. This room (missing its tapestries at the moment) has served various purposes in its time.
The decor of the room leaves no doubt that it was intended to impress visitors with the ostentatious display of the owner’s wealth and therefore power.
These tall stained glass windows have an almost ecclesiastical look to them except that the designs are based on heraldry to please and flatter the royal eye.
As we returned down the Queen’s Staircase, a lady warden was kind enough to pose for us. You can see the red coat with its crest and, on the chair, the black cape that she had been wearing earlier when I met her on outside duty. Wardens are issued with two coats, a lighter one for summer and a heavier one for winter. All the wardens we met were friendly and ready to talk about the Palace and about their duties. This was informative and added to the interest and pleasure of the visit.
Photography is allowed everywhere in the Palace except in the Chapel Royal. I am not sure why this is. The Chapel is still used as a place of worship but I don’t think that is the reason. The chapel is certainly one of the most remarkable and beautiful parts of the building. Whether or not you are religious, you can appreciate the magnificence of the furnishings and decor. It is certainly a sight not to be missed by the visitor. The motto seen here – DIEU ET MON DROIT – is seen everywhere in the Tudor palace.
After a cup of tea in the cafe, which is sited in part of the original Palace kitchens, we continued our tour, this time without the company of pseudo Tudors.
Passing through the outer court, we came upon a couple of Tudor Palace servants taking a break from their no doubt onerous duties. One was enjoy a jug of ale while the other looked as though he had had a little too much already. Either that or he was stopping the Palace from falling over…
Hampton Court Palace, having been greatly extended and elaborated by Henry VIII, passed to his heirs. It was to remain an exclusive royal property, used sometimes as the royal residence and sometimes as a country retreat or a hunting lodge, until the reign of Victoria who, somewhat to people’s surprise, decreed that it should be opened to the public. In a sense, that is where the history of Hampton Court Palace ends. In between these end points, however, there had been a major upheaval: the rebuilding of Hampton Court Palace in the Baroque style.
William III and Mary II (ruling as joint monarchs 1689-94, and William ruling alone until 1702), decided that Hampton Court Palace was old fashioned and needed to be rebuilt in a style appropriate to the late 17th century. They set about demolishing bit by bit the old Tudor palace and replacing it with a new Baroque structure designed by Wren, with an eye to the Palace of Versailles. Fortunately for us, the plan stalled and was never completed – hence the “colliding palaces” that I mentioned at the beginning.
The “Privy Apartments” of Henry VIII are closed at the moment, denying us a glimpse the private life of a Tudor monarch. In this the apartments of William III afforded a contrast as both the state rooms and the private quarters were open. Throughout, compared with the Tudor palace, there is an altogether more “modern” feel. Even the state rooms, though large and handsomely decorated, lack the ostentatious pomp of the Tudor rooms.
Am I right to see even the Chamber of the King’s Presence as being relatively low key? The King would have sat on what appears to be a comfortable armchair rather than a jewel-encrusted throne. There are still tapestries as in the Tudor palace but in these apartments there are also framed pictures, pictures everywhere.
Away from the state rooms, the private accommodation is comfortably if richly decorated. Low-slung and well cushioned chairs predominate along with exquisitely worked cabinets, writing desks and small tables.
The decor is fine but restrained, emphasising the formal function of the room. Compare this with the dining room in the King’s private apartment.
The private dining room is more informal. It is almost cosy, a feeling emphasised by the low ceiling and the round table, unlike the long rectangular formal dining tables. In the absence of electricity, candles are used for lighting. One reads, writes letters, holds conversations, plays games and dines in localized pools of light, emphasised by the dark panelling.
There is a set of private sitting rooms, called “closets” (East Closet, West Closet, etc), for use by the royal family. The same low chairs and beautifully made furniture is found throughout. Royal rooms were arranged in sequence so that people gradually penetrated further into the private realm as intimacy between them and the King increased.
They obviously enjoyed their art, as witness the paintings, busts, sculptures and vases displayed both in the formal rooms and in the private “closets”. This gallery contains an impressive collection of sculptures.
Another source of pleasure would be the extensive Palace Gardens which are visible from many of the windows in this wing of the building. They are “jardins sages”, modelled perhaps on the gardens of Versailles and laid out in formal designs. The King had an “orangery” built – a sort of covered area – so that he could walk in the gardens even in inclement weather.
(The above picture suffers slightly from having been taken through wavy window glass. The dull lighting conditions don’t help, either.)
One thing that surprised me – though, on reflection I suppose it’s not really so surprising – was the amount of graffiti. This has not been left by recent visitors but is 18th century graffiti, no doubt incised by soldiers during long and boring periods of guard duty at either end of the royal wing. The one on the left reads simply “Abner Mitchener 1764” while the other is somewhat more informative:
W R Scott
3rd Regt of
Feby th14 1789
By giving their names, these men clearly rendered themselves liable to detection and punishment should anyone have cared to take such steps. Obviously, no one did. It seems not to have bothered them that the guards were defacing the palace walls. And not only the walls…
There are even more graffiti in the foot of a staircase. It was densely packed and as the space ran out, carvings ran on top of carvings. Successive generations of bored guards must have whiled away the time engraving their names and whatever information about themselves they thought to leave as evidence of their sojourn.
Normally we frown upon such desecration, especially of beautiful buildings, but I suppose time has to some extent lessened the offence by turning these graffiti into records of past lives of people who usually do not achieve a personal mention on the pages of the history books.
We could have gone on exploring but decided we had done enough for one day and, as Tigger said, it’s good to leave something for another visit (we can get in free with our Art Pass cards – they are really good value). We paid East Molesey a courtesy visit, though, to be honest, we were looking for lunch. We found it in the Prince of Wales where they serve hand-battered haloumi. Try and resist that!
We had a little look around the town, for example at the old Post Office dated 1906 which these days, unfortunately, has become a shop selling equipment to people who like torturing fish for a hobby. It deserves a better fate.
East Molesey also has an unfussy little commemorative drinking fountain originally erected in 1887 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. In more recent times (2002), it has also been used to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of that other long-reigning monarch, Elizabeth II.
East Molesey which, together with its significant other, West Molesey, forms Molesey tout court, possibly has other points of interest, a supposition supported by the existence of an apparently flourishing Molesey Local History Society. As the light was beginning to fade and an evening chill to make itself felt, for us it was time to head for the station and begin the journey home. We shall no doubt return.