History, art and culture
Matthew Pearson

Hampton Court Palace London: A Cheat’s Guide

Hampton Court Palace, London is best known as Henry VIII’s home. The king who split England away from papal authority. Who cruelly ditched and executed his wives when they didn’t give him a male heir. Whose reputation and belly precede him. From his private quarters to his enormous banqueting hall, the palace is greatly marked by the life of Britain’s most notorious monarch. But with over 500 years of royal history, with many kings and queens besides Henry calling the place home and leaving their mark on it, there’s plenty more to see during your visit to the palace. But it is hard to know where to start. And east to get your Tudor bits and your Stuarts mixed up. So here’s our cheat’s guide to the palace’s main features Hampton Court Palace, London. But first, a little history.

A Short History of Hampton Court Palace, London

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and key advisor to Henry VIII, took ownership of the site in 1514. He set about building his own Renaissance palace fit for a king. The problem with building something fit for a king when you’re friends with the king? They can take it from you when you fall out. Previously a favourite of Henry's, the King stripped Wolsey of his titles when the cardinal failed to secure an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. And Henry took his palace from him. The King greatly expanded the palace, with vast kitchen spaces and a Great Hall that could accommodate the 1000 people in the Henry’s court. Henry brought all six of his wives to the palace, his son was born there, and he kept one of his wives - Catherine Howard - captive at Hampton Court. The Stuart era saw Shakespeare’s ‘King’s Men’ perform Hamlet and Macbeth for James I in Hampton Court’s Great Hall. In 1647, Charles I was kept as a prisoner at Hampton Court by Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. He managed to evade his captures and flee through the palace’s Privy Garden. He was eventually captured once more and was executed in 1649. In 1689, England’s joint monarchs, William III and Mary II commissioned Sir Christopher Wren - the leading architect of the time - to rebuild the palace in a more contemporary baroque style. Wren planned to gradually replace the Tudor elements with his own designs. When Mary died, William lost interest in the project, so rebuilding ceased with the work only half finished. That is why Hampton Court Palace, as we see it today, has such architecturally distinct sections: the bold and powerful Tudor, and the delicate, more palatial and European baroque. Since George II, no monarch has lived at the palace. It was restored and opened to the public during the reign of Queen Victoria. Originally free to enter, Hampton Court Palace, London now charges an admission fee, but access is included in The London Pass.

Tudor Kitchens

It’s no secret: by the end of his life, Henry was a big, greedy lad. It makes sense that a king known for his demanding nature, massive appetite and sense of occasion would have the largest kitchens in Tudor England. But this mazy network of kitchen spaces is really quite something. 55 rooms covering an area of 3,000 square feet pumping out around 1600 meals a day. It was, by all accounts, absolutely hellish in these kitchens. Today, they are among the most evocative and educational things to see at Hampton Court.

The Great Hall

After slaving away in the kitchens, you’ll want to see where all the food gets served. Designed to overawe visitors and attest to the strength and power of Henry VIII, The Great Hall is the grandest late-Medieval hall in the country. The Abraham Tapestries that adorn the walls, woven in Brussels from silk, wool and threads of gold and silver were first hung in 1546, and certainly help to create this impression. Look up to admire the stunning craftsmanship of the carved wooden roof, designed in an early-Medieval style. It harks back to a time of heroes and knights and chivalry. Henry saw himself in such terms.

Young Henry VIII Exhibition

Before he turned into the boorish, bullying, gluttonous monarch we all know and love, Henry VIII was apparently pretty talented, athletic and charming. This exhibition tells the story of the Young Henry through historic paintings from the Royal Collection, and personal accounts from those who knew him best.

The Haunted Gallery

Follow in the king’s footsteps, from Henry’s private quarters to the Chapel Royal, down what is now known as the Haunted Gallery. It is said that Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, upon realising she was going to be executed for adultery, escaped from her guards and ran down the gallery. She headed for the Chapel where she believed Henry to be, desperate to prove her innocence to her husband. But Catherine didn’t get the chance to plead her case; a group of guards intercepted her and dragged her back to her room. Henry had her executed three months later. Some say her ghost haunts this gallery. Lots of other don’t.

Chapel Royal

For the last 500 years, The Chapel Royal has been a place for monarchs to pray and enjoy quiet contemplation. The most extravagant and arresting Tudor feature of Hampton Court Palace, the Chapel Royal’s vaulted ceiling is a rich blue and gold masterpiece that evokes the night sky. Sir Christopher Wren redesigned much of the rest of the interior in the early 18th century. His baroque style elegantly contrasts with the boldness of the Tudor ceiling.

William III’s Apartments

The joint monarchs William III and Mary II took a particular liking to Hampton Court Palace. They commissioned Sir Christopher Wren - he of St Paul's fame - to redesign it in a more contemporary, baroque style. When the queen died, the king lost interest, leaving the refurbishment job unfinished. But Wren did manage to change about a third of the palace, and his baroque sensibilities can be seen in the wings surrounding the Fountain Court, including William III’s Apartments. The rooms upstairs were designed to impress, but it’s downstairs that the Stuart king really spent his time. A particularly popular thing to see here is the King’s Other Throne. The one he sat on when completing the official business we must all complete on a daily basis.

The Palace Gardens

The magnificent, historic gardens of Hampton Court Palace consist of 60 acres of artfully maintained gardens, and 750 acres of wilder parkland. Highlights of the tamed parts of the grounds include the world’s oldest garden maze (it takes about 20 minutes to complete and kids must be supervised); the biggest grape vine in the world (planted by England’s most admired landscape gardener, Lancelot “Capability" Brown); and the topiary in William III’s baroque Privy Garden. The wilder parts of the garden were formerly royal hunting grounds. Today, you can see relatives of deer hunted by Henry VIII bounding around without a care in the world. Sure, they get spooked by kids sometimes, but at least they don’t have a desperately hungry and perma-angry king on their tails. Anyway, their presence is a nice little link to the past. Eager to learn about another of London's premier historical landmarks? Check out our guide to visiting the Tower of London.

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