Hampton Court Palace is a royal palace in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, Greater London, in the historic county of Middlesex, and within the postal town East Molesey, Surrey. It has not been inhabited by the British Royal Family since the 18th century. The palace is 11.7 miles (18.8 kilometres) south west of Charing Cross and upstream of central London on the River Thames. It was originally built in 1514 for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a favourite of King Henry VIII. In 1529, as Wolsey fell from favour, the King seized the palace for himself and later enlarged it. Along with St. James’s Palace, it is one of only two surviving palaces out of the many owned by King Henry VIII.
In the following century, King William III’s massive rebuilding and expansion project was intended to rival Versailles. Work ceased in 1694, leaving the palace in two distinct contrasting architectural styles, domestic Tudor and Baroque. While the palace’s styles are an accident of fate, a unity exists due to the use of pink bricks and a symmetrical, if vague, balancing of successive low wings.
Today, the palace is open to the public and is a major tourist attraction, easily reached by train from Waterloo Station in central London and served by Hampton Court railway station in East Molesey, in Transport for London’s Zone 6. In addition, London Buses routes 111, 216, 411 and R68 stop outside the palace gates. The structure and grounds are cared for by an independent charity, Historic Royal Palaces, which receives no funding from the Government or the Crown.
Apart from the Palace itself and its gardens, other points of interest for visitors include the celebrated maze, the historic real tennis court (see below), and the huge grape vine, claimed to be the largest in the world.
The palace’s Home Park is the site of the annual Hampton Court Palace Festival and Hampton Court Palace Flower Show
Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, Chief Minister and favourite of Henry VIII, took over the site of Hampton Court Palace in 1514. It had previously been a property of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Over the following seven years, Wolsey spent lavishly (200,000 gold crowns) to build the finest palace in England at Hampton Court. Wolsey rebuilt the existing manor house to form the nucleus of the present palace. Today, little of Wolsey’s building work remains unchanged. The 1st courtyard, the Base Court, (B on plan), was his creation, as was the 2nd, inner gatehouse (C) which leads to the Clock Court (D) (Wolsey’s seal remains visible over the entrance arch of the clock tower) which contained his private rooms (O on plan). The Base Court contained forty-four lodgings reserved for guests, while the 2nd court (today, Clock Court) contained the very best rooms – the state apartments – reserved for the King and his family. Henry VIII stayed in the state apartments as Wolsey’s guest immediately after their completion in 1525.
In building his palace, Wolsey was attempting to create a Renaissance cardinal’s palace of a rectilinear symmetrical plan with grand apartments on a raised piano nobile, all rendered with classical detailing. The historian Jonathan Foyle has suggested that it is likely that Wolsey had been inspired by Paolo Cortese’s De Cardinalatu, a manual for cardinals that included advice on palatial architecture, published in 1510. The architectural historian Sir John Summerson asserts that the palace shows "the essence of Wolsey—the plain English churchman who nevertheless made his sovereign the arbiter of Europe and who built and furnished Hampton Court to show foreign embassies that Henry VIII’s chief minister knew how to live as graciously as any cardinal in Rome." Whatever the concepts were, the architecture is an Amazing and rare example of a thirty-year era when English architecture was in a harmonious transition from domestic Tudor, strongly influenced by perpendicular Gothic, to the Italian Renaissance classical style. Perpendicular Gothic owed nothing historically to the Renaissance style, yet harmonised well with it. This blending of styles was realised by a tiny group of Italian craftsmen working at the English court in the 2nd and 3rd decades of the sixteenth century. They specialised in the adding of Renaissance ornament to otherwise straightforward Tudor buildings. It was one of these, Giovanni da Maiano who was responsible for the set of eight relief busts of Roman emperors which were set in the Tudor brickwork.
Anne Boleyn’s Gate. The Tudor gatehouse and astronomical clock, made for Henry VIII in 1540 (C on plan above) Two of the Renaissance bas reliefs by Giovanni di Maiano can be seen set into the brickwork.
Wolsey was only to enjoy his palace for a few years. In 1528, knowing that his enemies and the King were engineering his downfall, he passed the palace to the King as a gift. Wolsey died two years later in 1530.
Within six months of coming into ownership, the King began his own rebuilding and expansion. Henry VIII’s court consisted of over one thousand people, while the King owned over sixty houses and palaces. Few of these were large enough to hold the assembled court, and thus one of the 1st of the King’s building works (in order to transform Hampton Court to a principal residence) was to build the vast kitchens. These were quadrupled in size in 1529. The architecture of King Henry’s fresh palace followed the design precedent set by Wolsey: perpendicular Gothic-inspired Tudor with restrained Renaissance ornament. This hybrid architecture was to remain almost unchanged for nearly a century, until Inigo Jones introduced strong classical influences from Italy to the London palaces of the 1st Stuart kings.
Between 1532 and 1535 Henry added the Great Hall (the last medieval great hall built for the English monarchy) and the Royal Tennis Court. The Great Hall has a carved hammer-beam roof. During Tudor times, this was the most important room of the palace; here, the King would dine in state seated at a table upon a raised dais. The hall took five years to complete; so impatient was the King for completion that the masons were compelled to work throughout the night by candlelight.
The gatehouse to the 2nd, inner court was adorned in 1540 with the Hampton Court astronomical clock, an early example of a pre-Copernican astronomical clock. Still functioning, the clock shows the time of day, the phases of the moon, the month, the quarter of the year, the date, the sun and star sign, and high water at London Bridge. The latter information was of great importance to those visiting this Thames-side palace from London, as the preferred method of transport at the time was by barge, and at low water London Bridge created dangerous rapids. This gatehouse is also known today as Anne Boleyn’s gate, after Henry’s 2nd wife. Work was still underway on Anne Boleyn’s apartments above the gate when the King, who had become tired of her, had her executed.
Henry VIII’s 1st building project at Hampton Court created vast kitchens capable of feeding his court of 1,000 people.
During the Tudor period, the palace was the scene of many historic events. In 1537, the King’s much desired male heir, the future Edward VI, was born at the palace and the child’s mother, Jane Seymour, died there two weeks later. Four years afterwards, whilst attending Mass in the palace’s chapel, the King was informed of his 5th wife’s adultery. The Queen, Catherine Howard, was then confined to her room for a few days before being sent to Syon House and then on to the Tower of London. Legend claims she briefly escaped her guards and ran through The Haunted Gallery to beg Henry for her life but she was recaptured.
King Henry died in January 1547 and was succeeded 1st by his son Edward VI, and then by both his daughters in turn. It was to Hampton Court that Queen Mary I (Henry’s elder daughter) retreated with King Philip to spend her honeymoon, after their marriage at Winchester. Mary chose Hampton Court as the place for the birth of her 1st child, which turned out to be the 1st of two phantom pregnancies. Mary had initially wanted to give birth at Windsor Castle as it was a more secure location, and she was still fearful of rebellion. But Hampton Court was considerably larger, and could accommodate the entire court and more besides. Mary stayed at the Palace awaiting the birth of the "child" for over five months, and only left because of the inhabitable state of the court being kept in the one location for so long, after which her court departed for the much smaller palace of Oatlands. Mary was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth I, and it was Elizabeth who had the eastern kitchen built; today, this is the palace’s public tea room.
Christopher Wren’s south front built for William and Mary (G on plan) viewed from the Privy Garden.
On the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the Tudor period came to an end. The Queen was succeeded by her 1st cousin-twice-removed, the Scottish King, James VI, who became known in England as James I of the House of Stuart.
In 1604, the palace was the site of King James’ meeting with representatives of the English Puritans, known as the Hampton Court Conference; while agreement with the Puritans was not reached, the meeting led to James’s commissioning of the King James type of the Bible.
King James was succeeded in 1625 by his son, the ill-fated Charles I. Hampton Court was to become both his palace and his prison. It was also the setting for his honeymoon with his fifteen year old bride, Henrietta Maria in 1625. Following King Charles’ execution in 1649, the palace became the property of the Commonwealth presided over by Oliver Cromwell. Unlike some other former royal properties, the palace escaped relatively unscathed. While the government auctioned much of the contents, the building was ignored.
After the Restoration, King Charles II and his successor James II visited Hampton Court but largely preferred to reside elsewhere. By current French court standards Hampton Court right now appeared old-fashioned. It was in 1689, shortly after Louis XIV’s court had moved permanently to Versailles, that the palace’s antiquated state was addressed. England had two fresh joint monarchs, William of Orange and his wife, the daughter of James II, Queen Mary II. Within months of their accession they embarked on a massive rebuilding project at Hampton Court. The intention was to demolish the Tudor palace a section at a time, while replacing it with a huge modern palace in the Baroque style retaining only Henry VIII’s Great Hall.
The ceiling of the Great Hall of Hampton Court Palace.
The country’s most eminent architect, Sir Christopher Wren, was called upon to draw the plans, while the master of works was to be William Talman. The plan was for a vast palace constructed around two courtyards at right angles to each other. Wren’s design for a domed palace bore resemblances to the work of Jules Hardouin Mansart and Louis Le Vau, both architects employed by Louis XIV at Versailles. It has been suggested, though, that the plans were abandoned because the resemblance to Versailles was too subtle and not strong enough; at this time, it was impossible for any sovereign to visualise a palace that did not emulate Versailles’ repetitive Baroque form. However, the resemblances are there: while the façades are not so long as those of Versailles, they have similar, seemingly unstoppable repetitive rhythms beneath a long flat skyline. The monotony is even repeated as the façade turns the corner from the east to the south fronts. However, Hampton Court, unlike Versailles, is given an extra dimension by the contrast between the pink brick and the pale Portland stone quoins, frames and banding. Further diversion is added by the circular and decorated windows of the 2nd floor mezzanine. This theme is repeated in the inner Fountain Court, but the rhythm is faster and the windows, unpedimented on the outer façades, are given pointed pediments in the courtyard; this has led the courtyard to be described as "Startling, as of simultaneous exposure to a great many eyes with raised eyebrows."
The Fountain Court designed by Sir Christopher Wren (E on plan): "Startling, as of simultaneous exposure to a great many eyes with raised eyebrows."
During this work, half the Tudor palace was replaced and Henry VIII’s state rooms and private apartments were both lost; the fresh wings around the Fountain Court contained fresh state apartments and private rooms, one set for the King and one for the Queen. Each suite of state rooms was accessed by a state staircase. The royal suites were of completely equal value in order to reflect William and Mary’s unique status as joint sovereigns. The King’s Apartments face south over the Privy Garden, the Queen’s east over the Fountain Garden. The suites are linked by a gallery running the length of the east façade, another reference to Versailles, where the King and Queen’s apartments are linked by the Galerie des Glaces. However, at Hampton Court the linking gallery is of more modest proportions and decoration. The King’s staircase was decorated with frescos by Antonio Verrio and delicate ironwork by Jean Tijou. Other artists commissioned to decorate the rooms included Grinling Gibbons, Sir James Thornhill and Jacques Rousseau; furnishings were designed by Daniel Marot.
After the death of Queen Mary, King William lost interest in the renovations, and work ceased. However, it was in Hampton Court Park in 1702 that he fell from his horse, later dying from his injuries at Kensington Palace. He was succeeded by his sister-in-law Queen Anne who continued the decoration and completion of the state apartments. On Queen Anne’s death in 1714 the Stuart dynasty came to an end.
Queen Anne’s successor was George I; he and his son George II were the last monarchs to reside at Hampton Court. Under George I six rooms were completed in 1717 to the design of John Vanbrugh. Under George II and his wife, Caroline of Ansbach, further refurbishment took place, with the architect William Kent employed to design fresh furnishings and decor including the Queen’s Staircase, (1733) and the Cumberland Suite (1737) for the Duke of Cumberland. Today, the Queen’s Private Apartments are open to the public and include her bathroom and bedroom.
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