Hampton Court Palace
King Henry VIII of England has been the subject of countless books, films, TV shows and documentaries, but there is one place where his legacy can best be seen—at the fascinating Hampton Court Palace on the River Thames, a few miles southwest of London.
While the palace has an extraordinary story behind it, Henry Tudor—most famous for executing two of his six wives—was not the man behind the building’s creation more than 500 years ago. Instead, it was his chief advisor Thomas Wolsey, a priest, the Archbishop of York, a cardinal of the Catholic Church and one of Europe’s most influential men. He was a master of detail and finance, and King Henry put him in charge of England’s domestic affairs. By 1515, Thomas had complete control over both church and government and was the second most powerful man in the land.
This position of power was a far cry from Thomas’ humble beginnings as a butcher’s son in the provincial town of Ipswich. Henry’s adviser wanted a residence commensurate with his status and riches amidst the hostility of jealous nobles. So Thomas built Hampton Court in Kingston upon Thames, on the banks of London’s famous river, from where he enjoyed easy boat access to the king, who lived in Greenwich Palace, 10 miles downstream.
The palace was built over 10 years, starting around 1515, and its design was a pioneering mix of Gothic and Renaissance architecture—sometimes looking like a castle, with battlements and a moat, while at other times inspired by Italian design, even that of ancient Rome. (Roman emperors’ faces adorn the English-style gateway.) This combination is known as Tudor architecture, named after King Henry’s Tudor dynasty, and Hampton Court is the finest example.
Sadly for Thomas, complex royal circumstances curtailed his enjoyment of Hampton Court. Henry’s wife of 20 years, Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess and the widow of Henry’s elder brother Arthur, had only produced a daughter, Mary, and the king desperately wished for a son.
It was apparent that Catherine would not deliver a male heir—this was a time when boys were valued much more highly than girls— and Henry started to believe this was God’s punishment for marrying his dead brother’s wife. So he dispatched Thomas to Rome to seek an annulment from Pope Clement. Unfortunately, Clement had just been taken hostage by Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V of Spain. Anxious to avoid displeasing his captor, the pope refused Thomas’ entreaties to cancel the English king’s marriage.
Thomas could only maintain his power as long as he was useful to his king, and, having failed in his mission, his position deteriorated quickly. His many enemies among the nobility dripped poison in the ears of the king, so in 1529, fearing the end, Thomas offered his magnificent Hampton Court to Henry as a gift in the hope of saving his own life. The gambit failed. A year later, he was accused of treason and ordered to London to face his execution, only to die of a stroke on the way to his trial.
Ruthless Henry then took control of Hampton Court and designated it as a palace, fitting it with one of Europe’s grandest halls and vast kitchens to feed 1,000 people at one sitting. Henry had the largest appetite of all, regularly demolishing eight-course meals, so it is no surprise the gates to the kitchens, used for wheeling in the tons of food required, are as imposing as the entries to many other palaces.
Having failed to get the pope to agree to his annulment, Henry bypassed him by taking England out of the Catholic Church altogether and making himself head of the newly established Church of England. Now he could grant his own divorce and quickly banished Catherine, before marrying her lady-in-waiting, 25-year-old Anne Boleyn.
This did not bring the king contentment. By 1536, Anne had only managed to give Henry another daughter, Elizabeth. Tiring of her, he accused her of adultery and witchcraft and had her beheaded. A visitor to Hampton Court today can visit the Anne Boleyn apartments above the main gate, which were still being fitted out at the time of her execution, an event Henry did not even attend. Instead, he played tennis at Hampton Court, a place where current members of the royal family, notably Prince Edward, still play.
Henry was now corpulent, still with a gargantuan appetite but unable to exercise, having a knee wound from jousting that refused to heal. For the last few years of his life he made it through four more wives, the penultimate of whom, beautiful 19-year-old Catherine Howard, he imprisoned in Hampton Court when he suspected her of an affair. At one point, she broke out of her room to beg the king for her life, but was recaptured and later beheaded. This part of the palace is now called the Haunted Gallery, and many have reported seeing her ghost fleeing along the corridors there.
Henry died in 1547, and his palace became the principal home of the English monarchy for the next 200 years until George III moved to the more defensible Windsor Castle, where Queen Elizabeth II still dwells.
Things have changed at Hampton Court Palace over the centuries. The front facade retains its Tudor design, but the back is now in a completely different baroque style. In the 1690s, Queen Mary and her Dutch husband King William had the palace extended to rival Versailles in France. It was designed by the most acclaimed English architect of all time, Sir Christopher Wren. The WM motif, for William and Mary, is repeatedly carved into the stonework. The extensive gardens also date from this time.
Regularly hosting modern-day music events, from Elton John to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and surrounded by a deer-filled park, Hampton Court Palace is far from the crowds of London’s city center sights and is one of Europe’s best-preserved monuments to an age of high culture and high brutality.