Tudor Screams and Baroque Dreams: Building a Royal Legacy at Hampton Court
By Christopher Malone, ’21
Long before the Victorians retrofitted Hampton Court Palace (the palace first began as a manor house in 1086 and was expanded by Thomas Wolsey in 1514 before it was taken by Henry VIII in 1526) with mock-Tudor windows, architectural ad-ons and imagined brickwork, the site went through centuries of development to match the tastes of each successive monarch during their reign and subsequent use of the palace. Cardinal Wolsey began with an Italian-inspired villa on the banks of the River Thames chiefly to show visitors to the English court that the monarch’s advisor was well educated and informed about how other cardinals in Italy lived. His plan for the palace, which includes the two inner courts still visible today, features eight relief busts of Roman emperors created by the Italian craftsman Giovanni da Maiano.
Wolsey’s fall from grace came when he unsuccessfully petitioned the Pope for a divorce between Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon. At this time, Henry moved his court to Hampton Court and carried on Wolsey’s architectural tradition of perpendicular gothic-influenced Tudor with elements recalling renaissance design. Henry’s court contained over 1000 people, and as his primary residence, Hampton Court was too small. Work to expand the king’s apartments and the kitchens began between 1530-32, which upon completion allowed the king to remain at his palace for a season. With Henry’s reign came the Great Hall, a combination between the one at Westminster and a Tudor hunting lodge; hunting being a favorite pastime of the king. Henry also enjoyed tennis matches, which he seemingly always won on a tennis court Wolsey built before Henry occupied the building and which subsequent monarchs both used and improved upon.
After Henry’s heir to the throne, Edward VI, was born in 1537 and fifth wife Catherine Howard ran screaming down the now “haunted gallery” in lament for her life, Hampton Court went through repairs and alterations until the reign of William III and Mary II in 1689. Both monarchs decided to tear down the Tudor stronghold for a Christopher Wren designed palace fit for English rule by a Dutch couple. Lacking the funds to continue their destruction of the past, the palace became a palimpsest of courtly styles influenced by foreign monarchs. Though the court at Versailles built one of the most opulent palaces known to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, William and Mary’s tastes, though lavish to today’s eyes, were restrained compared to other European court architecture. William III’s state apartments include long hallways, Grinling Gibbons limewood carvings, and expensive ornamental tapestries, but his private apartments appear subdued, dark and more intimate. It is here that William often retreated, surrounding himself with mementos of his wife, who died in 1694, eight years before William’s own death in 1702. William’s sister-in-law Queen Anne continued improvements on the palace, completing the Queen’s apartments before 1714. After Anne’s death the palace saw two kings reside at Hampton Court, George I and his son George II. Both improved upon Anne’s changes, hiring John VanBrugh to complete and furnish six more rooms and later architect William Kent who designed the Queen’s staircase.
In the eighteenth century, Hampton Court fell out of favor with the monarchy until it was restored in the nineteenth century by Queen Victoria for the benefit of the public. Unfortunately, much of the “Tudor” elements that you see when visiting Hampton Court today were added by an imaginative Victorian mind. The Victorians delighted in tales of old and stories of chivalrous knights. Despite its wounds, the palace is a great example of both a real and an imagined past, filled with sorrow, bloodshed, life and death, all on a truly global stage for nearly 500 years. While walking through the various courts today, it’s hard not to notice how medieval and early Renaissance builders attempted to sympathetically match architectural styles. Each corner and seam between the palaces reveals the changing tastes of successive monarchs. The change in style between the Tudor court and the baroque halls of William and Mary act as a guide to how each generation contracted or expanded the number of people living and working within the palace. It is in these inconsistencies that Hampton Court derives the most meaning to those who visit; history can be both messy and rich despite a few mismatched bricks.