Hampton Court – the Tudor Palace

"All roads lead to Rome” goes the old adage. But as a lover of Tudor history, I prefer to say “all roads lead to England” and to be precise you have to travel about 19 km from London towards East Molesey, along the banks of the river Thames and there you find the object of your (my) desire… Hampton Court Palace. You will be greeted by the heavenly vision of the red bricks of the West Gate, with the Union Jack waving on the top (though at the time of Henry VIII there was no Union Jack yet). 

For Tudor-style purists who have never seen such magnificence, there is one warning: the building is not exactly 100% Tudor. What we see today is a mix in which the residence that once belonged to Cardinal Wolsey and then to his Majesty the King Henry VIII coexists with the Baroque style of the successive monarchs that lived there. For all this we have to “thank” the Dutch stadtholder William of Orange. After becoming William III King of England, or if you prefer to be informal you can also call him King Billy, he had the audacious idea of ??completely demolishing the Tudor palace to build a new one that could rival Versailles in France. Fortunately for us, the economic problems associated with the high costs of the restyling project partially preserved Hampton Court, from what I consider an act of baroque vandalism, with all due respect for the beauty that still characterizes the post-Tudor part.

Hampton Court is linked to the history of the English monarch par excellence, his Majesty the King Henry VIII. King Henry was notorious, terrible, and capricious, who went down in history for being the father of the Anglican Church (the break with the Roman Catholic Church occurred as a consequence of infamous love affairs and the love triangle between the Spanish Queen Catalina de Aragona and wanna be Queen Anne Boleyn). He is also considered the father of the British navy; starting with merely 7 ships, he left as many as 54 ships at his death. But if you want to go after the gossip, he is the one in the English annals that competes with Elizabeth Taylor in the search for the perfect partner. His record is 6 wives - although in his will he envisaged the possibility of a wife number 7, congratulations on the tenacity! Meanwhile Ms Taylor had a total of 8 husbands. Our Tudor Superman did however have to guarantee the nation the dynastic continuity with a male heir to avoid the kingdom from falling into the nightmare of a new civil war, like the Wars of the Roses.

The person responsible for ??creating such a splendid palace in that area was not Henry VIII but his Chief Minister of the time, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. A person of humble origins, this cardinal is the protagonist of an extraordinary climb to the top posts in the King’s court with a dazzling ecclesiastical career such that in a few years we see him leap from simple chaplain of Henry VII in 1507, to Cardinal in September 1515, to Pope's Legate a Latere in May 1518. Obviously these assignments had brought him a consequent increase in revenue. Now rich and powerful, Wolsey decides to privately purchase the area that had been the residence of Giles Daubney, who had previously obtained a lease of 99 years from the Knights Hospitaller. In 1514 the works on the expansion of Hampton Court began with the aim of making it a dream residence worthy of the Cardinal’s high social rank, a Renaissance palace! The works were divided into two phases from 1514 to 1522 and from 1522 to 1528, and evidently Wolsey got a little carried away as the end result was so spectacular that Henry VIII himself was a little envious of his subject, since he the King of England, orphan of the royal residence of Westminster destroyed in a fire in 1512, no longer had anything like it to display. So it is natural that Wolsey, a few years later, in danger of falling out of favor with the monarch who was slightly mad at his Chief Minister, for the well-known events of the complicated love triangle and the annulment of his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon, played to give Hampton Court to him as a gift. The King had no problem in taking the palace and he proceeded with further works. As a consequence, those amazing areas of the building that we admire today such as the Great Chamber, Great Kitchen, Council Chamber, the ceiling of the Chapel Royal are all King Henry’s additions.

When the modern tourist arrives at Hampton Court, he is greeted at the entrance by the King's Beasts, a set of 10 statues that dominate along the small bridge across the mote. You can admire these heraldic symbols from the Lion of England, at Yale of Beaufort, the Tudor Dragon or the Greyhound of Richmond. Once past the bridge, you arrive at the Great Gatehouse. I suggest you look up and admire the ceiling. You will see the Royal Arms of Queen Victoria, with the initials VR on display, where the Garter with the inscription "Honi soit qui mal y Pense" is surrounded by symbols, such as the Cardinal's Hat, the Galero, decorated with tassels (granted in red to cardinals at first by Pope Innocent V, during the Council of Lyon 1245 and later modified under Pope Pius VI 1775/1799 with the custom of having 15 tassels displayed in 5 rows), the initials of Cardinal Wolsey " TC ", or the Pallium, the processional Cross that may represent the See of York, the Miter with the ribbon, symbol of the Catholic Church.

Ribbed ceiling with the Cardinal’s badges
PHOTOGRAPH BY Francesca Orsatti

As you arrive in the Base Court, on your right you will find the replica of the fountain represented in the painting that celebrates the meeting of Henry VIII and Francis I at the Fields of the Cloth of Gold, a painting that you can admire together with others, such as the Battle of the Spurs or the Embarkment of Henry VIII at Dover, along the path through the Wolses Rooms. The paintings were commissioned in the 1540’s by Henry VIII, to be exhibited in the palace of Whitehall. The goal was propaganda, highlighting the biggest successes of his reign, Henry wanted to enhance his greatness as master of Europe . The author of the paintings is unknown, but it appears to be a group of court artists known as the "British School". A small suggestion for those of you who will be in front of the painting “Embarkment of Henry VIII at Dover” to find King Henry in it, focus on the ship with the golden sails, he is there, very small, on board the ship. While roaming among the paintings, I suggest to also look up as you will not be disappointed by the ribbed ceiling incorporating the Cardinal's badges.

Speaking of paintings, you can't miss the Mantegna Gallery. Here are 9 paintings on display, “The Triumphs of Caesar in Gaul” made between 1485 and 1505 by Andrea Mantegna and commissioned by Francesco II Gonzaga, Isabella d’Este’s husband, Marquis of Mantova. The marquis nicknamed the "Novo Cesare" - the New Caesar by the poet Ercole Strozzi, wanted to enhance this attribute and his own successes with a cycle of frescoes with the representation of the imposing triumphal procession dedicated to Julius Caesar and his victory over the Gauls. The subjects of the nine paintings are:

1. Trumpeters and bearers of insignia 2. Triumphal chariots, trophies and war machines 3. Wagon with trophies and loot carriers 4. Bearers of vessels, sacrificial bulls and trumpeters 5. Trumpeters, sacrificial bulls and elephants 6. Wearers of corsets, trophies and armor 7. Prisoners, buffoons and a sign holder 8. Musicians and sign holders 9. Julius Caesar on the triumphal chariot.

There were originally 10 canvases but Mantegna died before finishing it and only a draft survives. The paintings were destined by Francesco II Gonzaga to be hanged in the large room on the first floor of Palazzo di San Sebastiano in Mantova, specifically known as the Sala dei Trionfi, the only room in whole city large enough to accommodate all the paintings. In 1627, stringent economic needs forced the Gonzagas family to sell the works to Charles I, and today the original paintings are kept in Hampton Court. An interesting fact that today in Mantua at the Palazzo San Sebastiano you can still admire, in a less impressive version, the complete series of the nine Mantegna’s paintings, faithful copies of the originals, attributed to the painter Ludovico Dondi (1585 - 1623), who was already superintendent of the collections for Vincenzo I Gonzaga. The cycle of frescoes was made at the end of the sixteenth century, when the originals of Mantegna were still in Mantova, in Palazzo San Sebastiano. Although the grandeur and strength of Mantegna's masterpiece is missing from the copies, the artist who made them was able to look closely and accurately reproduce the originals, perhaps mediated by Andrea Andreani's engravings.

Anne Boleyn gateway ceiling
PHOTOGRAPH BY Francesca Orsatti

The traces of the greatness of the Italian Renaissance at Hampton Court, however, are not only limited to Mantegna. Legend has it that Giovanni da Miano, a sculptor from Firenze, at some point (perhaps 1519 although there are no certain sources about it) was recruited by Pietro Torrigiani, who was already active on the English scene for the realization, for example, of the portrait bust of Henry VII (painted terracotta 1509/1511) and the tomb of Henry VII and Elisabeth of York in Westminster Abbey. Thanks to a series of court assignments, it seems he came into contact with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and was entrusted with an assignment in the context of the decoration of Hampton Court. For Hampton Court Palace Giovanni made, in 1521, eight painted and gilded terracotta roundels depicting the busts of Roman emperors along with three panels with scenes relating to the myth of Hercules. Of the latter, no trace remains. The restored roundels today are relocated to various areas of the Palace, visible at the entrance and the Clock Court inside the complex (The Clock Court is located beyond the Anne Boleyn's gateway, and it takes its name from the astronomical clock placed on the facade of the Tudor building, below there is the coat of arms of Cardinal Wolsey, made of terracotta). The busts are reproduced frontally, inserted in concentric circles of garlands, with other various heraldic-military symbols. From 1528, by the King's will, Giovanni received a fixed salary, and from 1530 he collaborated with Benedetto da Rovezzano and other Italian artists in the revision of the project for the tomb of Henry VIII, recovering part of the material already prepared by Benedetto da Rovezzano himself for the unfinished tomb of Thomas Wolsey and intended for the cardinal's chapel in the church of St. George in Windsor. The work was interrupted in 1536 and was never completed. Giovanni was perhaps the executor in 1536 of some painted and gilded medallions, with the emblem of Queen Jane Seymour, for the Great Watching Chamber, and a series of terracotta panels with the coat of arms of the queen and king, to be placed above the door that led into the chapel of the palace. On the tower there is another walled and partially restored relief, of pure Florentine style and dated 1525, it is not known who the executor is, the hypothesis is between the two Giovanni da Maiano or Pietro Torrigiani. Always ascribable to the circle of Giovanni, the two cherubs that hold Wolsey’s coat of arms, but they could also be of Torrigiani's work considering the similarity with the cherubs of the tomb of Henry VII.

In a top luxury royal Renaissance residence, the tapestries could not be missing. Status symbol of power, wealth, glory and fame, preferred means of propaganda, easily transportable from one palace to another, exposed on important occasions, such as public celebrations or precessions, weddings, etc., the tapestries were designed to impress. Wolsey had a collection of about 600 pieces then passed into Henry VIII’s collection (in 1547 his will lists 2450 pieces). The Triumphs of Petrarch have survived and are exhibited in the Great Watching Chamber. Also in this case the Italian inspiration returns, as the theme of the tapestries is taken from the poem of the Italian poet Petrarch The Triumphs, which describes the impersonated triumphs of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Divinity, with inscription in Latin at the bottom and French at the top.

Great Hall tapestry
PHOTOGRAPH BY Francesca Orsatti

The Great Watching Chamber located beyond the Great Hall, was the first room of Henry VIII's state apartments. The layout of the rooms was structured so as to allow access to the King for people with appropriate social rank; the higher in the social ranking and the closer you could get to the royal sanctorum of the Privy Chambers, in a sequence of rooms one more exclusive than the other. To control access, the Yeoman of the Guard. The Great Watching Chamber was used not only by the Tudors but also by subsequent royal residents, the wooden panels are an addition by Christopher Wren, so the room you see today is a mix of different styles.

From the Base Court passing the Anne Boleyn’s gateway look up on the ceiling before facing the staircase to enter the Great Hall, you will see a reminder of the golden age for the union of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII with their initials H – A along with other symbols, Anne’s falcon badge, the Tudor Portcullis, and the lily of France, in addition to the Tudor rose in the centre. Once you enter the Great Hall, continue to look up to admire the hammer beam style ceiling, evoking the great halls of medieval times and the 'Eavesdroppers' - the carved and painted heads that listen to all of your conversations to catch your secrets and deliver the information to the King so that he knows all.

Great Hall ceiling
PHOTOGRAPH BY Francesca Orsatti

The construction of the Great Hall began in 1533 with the goal to celebrate Henry VIII’s union to Anne Boleyn whose coat-of-arms the falcon badge and initials are visible in the the roof, and carved the entwined letters H and A on the wooden screen at the end.

As for the Abraham tapestries displayed in the Great Hall, it is not certain if they were commissioned by Henry VIII but given the high cost for the creation, the monarch was one of the very few who could afford such a commission. The theme of the Story of Abraham was dictated by the political and dynastic issues of the moment, the dream of a male heir, and the divine pact with God to legitimize Henry's role the “One” in direct contact with God to guide the kingdom towards the Reformation and the break with Rome and the Pope. The scenes represented in the 10 panels are the Departure of Abraham, the Return of Sarah, the Separation of Abraham and Lot, the Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, God appears to Abraham, the Circumcision of Isaac and the Expulsion of Hagar, the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Purchase of the Field of Ephron, the Oath and Departure of Eliezer, and Eliezer and Rebekah at the Well. All are taken from the biblical passages of the Book of the Genesis. Woven with gold and silk in the workshop of Willem Pannemaker, perhaps after designs by Pieter Cocke van Aelst.

After having feasted in the Great Hall and then passed through the Great Watching Chamber, you can access the Chapel Royal. Mind you to get there you have to go through the Hunted Gallery, and it is possible you could hear the ghost of Catherine Howard who runs along the gallery screaming Henry Henry. It was in the chapel, in 1540, that Archbishop Cranmer handed Henry VIII a letter outlining various accusations against the King's young wife; she was accused of unchaste behavior before her marriage to the King and executed at the Tower of London.… At this point an accurate replica of the crown worn by Henry VIII awaits you on display in the Royal Pew of the Chapel Royal, where Henry himself would have sat wearing it. From the top of the Royal Pew, today in the single room version created by Christopher Wren for Queen Anne in the early 1700's, as it was originally divided into two rooms, the Holy Day Closets, you can admire the outstandingly rich and colorful vaulted ceiling installed by Henry VIII in 1535/1536. The Chapel was built by Cardinal Wolsey in 1520 on the site where the chapel was used by the Knights Hospitaller. Beneath the Altar Jane Seymour’s heart rests in peace buried there as ordered by Henry VIII. The bright Tudor color scheme you see today is thanks to a restoration made in 1847, and as a reminder of the divine authority the Tudor dynasty possessed (according to Henry VIII's little ego and strong religious beliefs) you will find the royal motto Dieu et mon droit, (“God and My Right”) appearing 32 times, along with 60 gilded winged angels. The Chapel Royal is a place of worship still active today and part of the Ecclesiastical Household of Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II. Photography inside the Royal Chapel is not allowed (if you cannot resist and you need a photo or two to take home with you, be careful not to get caught in the act by the stewards. If you need a tip, go there and do it around late afternoon when the place is not too crowded and surveillance is a bit more loose).

These are the parts that I love the most of Hampton Court Palace, but if you can visit the Palace, there are many many things to see and admire. I leave you the pleasure to discover them by your own… don’t miss the Great Kitchens, the Tennis court, the fantastic gardens… Hampton Court Palace is a place that has to be visited more than once because it is fantastic, and I guarantee no matter how many times you’ll go there you’ll ask for more…I confess I lost the count of the times I’ve been there!

You can visit Hampton Court on your own but there also tours of the Palace organized by various companies. I choose a tour with Prof. Suzannah Lipscomb as guide whom I highly recommend. There is nothing better than having a Tudor historian taking you along Hampton Court and telling you all the stories of Henry VIII and his wives. A legendary Palace, a legendary King, a group of legendary Wives and a legendary Historian…the best equation for the best experience ever…go to Hampton Court!





Historic Royal Palaces


Hampton Court Palace: an introduction


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Francesca Orsatti

Self-confessed history addicted and Ireland obsessed, Francesca was born in Ferrara and bred italian, and when, 21 years ago, given the chance to go to the Emerald Isle, she made it her second home, since then she’s spent her life going there and back between the 2 countries. She has a BA in Political Sciences with a thesis in geopolitcs about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. When not busy working on legal documents, she loves to spend her time travelling, reading books, giving lectures pro-bono about irish history for a charity organization in the city where she lives. She also enjoys to relax studing and following online courses on Futurelearn platform and so far she’s got certificates on courses about The Tudors, England at the time of Richard III, The Book of Kells and Empire: the controversies of british imperialism. Since speaking 3 languages is not enough for her, after english and spanish, she’s now learning irish.