When my mam came down to London to stay with me for a few days, I asked her to choose some places she’d like to visit. Top of her list was Hampton Court Palace. Years ago, my dad, who used to be a teacher, visited several times with parties of schoolchildren, but my mam had never had the chance to go – until now. I had visited before – back in 2009 – but was happy to go again.
Hampton Court is perhaps best known for its connection with Henry VIII. The Palace was the main country residence of Cardinal Wolsey, and on his fall it was taken over by the King. However, it also has strong associations with the age of William and Mary, and in fact it has a rich and varied history going back around 800 years. If you live in or have visited London recently you may have noticed the adverts for Hampton Court: some display the Palace’s striking Tudor front and some, its exuberant Baroque-inspired back view. I feel that these adverts are excellent at getting across what Hampton Court is all about – royal connections and contrasting design.
***Location and Travel***
Hampton Court Palace is south west of London, beside the River Thames. If you are coming by car, the Palace is within the M25 near the M3 and M4 and is apparently well signposted with brown heritage signs (though I can’t verify this, having never visited by car). My mam and I arrived via train: there is a regular South West Trains service to Hampton Court Station from London Waterloo, which takes only 35 minutes. For Travelcard and Oyster card purposes, the station is in Zone 6 so if you have a Travelcard valid for that zone – or Oyster Pay as You Go – there’s no need to buy a separate train ticket. The Palace is close by, signposted and easily reached by crossing the bridge to the right. Several bus routes also pass by the Palace: visit the website for more details.
Hampton Court Palace has a long and eventful history. Records indicate that the Knights Hospitallers of St John Jerusalem used the site as a centre for their agricultural estates as early as 1236. They began to rent out the site around the fifteenth century. One tenant, the socially climbing courtier Giles Daubeney, received visits from the royal family – Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth – at the beginning of the Tudor period, and after he died in 1508 the estate was taken over by Thomas Wolsey.
Wolsey was Henry VIII’s right-hand man for a number of years, rising to become a Cardinal and Lord Chancellor of England. He transformed Hampton Court into a vast Bishop’s palace, installing private rooms for himself and suites for the royal family. Base Court, the vast outer courtyard, was built by Wolsey. During his tenure, the Palace played host to state occasions, entertaining important European visitors and serving as a backdrop for political machinations.
After Wolsey’s fall in 1528 (he had failed to get Henry a divorce from Katherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn), the King took over Hampton Court and it acquired a pre-eminence never subsequently matched. His building works were extravagant and included tennis courts, kitchens, a chapel, a Great Hall and a hunting park. All of his wives spent time here and they, along with the King’s children, had lodgings in the Palace. Again, the place was used to host international delegations, such as the French ambassador and his 200-strong entourage in 1546.
After Henry’s death, each of his three children – all of whom ruled England at one point or another – spent time at Hampton Court. The Palace was used but not greatly added to until the reign of James VI of Scotland – in 1603, James I of England – who was a keen huntsman and made the most of the superb hunting to be found in the nearby park. It was used for entertainments, masques and theatrical productions – among the guests was William Shakespeare himself, whose plays were produced at the Palace. James’s son Charles I spent time at the palace as both a king and a prisoner. He is noted for purchasing Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar and displaying them at the Palace in 1630, where they have remained ever since.
After his execution the victorious Parliamentarians removed several of the Palace’s treasures for sale, but when Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector he took Hampton Court for his own use. On the Restoration in 1660, Charles II made occasional use of the Palace, installing his mistress Barbara Villiers in lodgings here. The accession of William III and Mary II heralded dramatic changes to Hampton Court Palace. They commissioned Sir Christopher Wren – famous architect of St Paul’s Cathedral – to completely demolish and rebuild the Palace. Luckily for posterity, neither the time nor the money was sufficient to allow this to happen. Instead, the king’s and queen’s apartments on the south and east sites of the Palace were rebuilt. Wren’s architecture, Grinling Gibbons’ carvings and Antonio Verrio’s painted ceilings ensure that there is a striking contrast between this part of the Palace and the remaining Tudor buildings. The gardens were also transformed during this time.
Neither Queen Anne nor George I left much impact on the palace, but George II and his wife Caroline – as both Prince and Princess and King and Queen – spent a great deal of time at Hampton Court. They oversaw the completion of the long-neglected Queen’s Apartments, and had lodgings built for their second son the Duke of Cumberland. The royal family and royal court spent considerable time at the Palace.
From the 1760s, Hampton Court Palace was used for a very different purpose. It was divided into lodgings, granted rent-free to tenants who had served the Crown or country. This went on until 1838, when the young Queen Victoria declared that the Palace should be opened to the public. For the next few years, Hampton Court was restored, a development which was fuelled by the interest of antiquarians and architects. Another wave of restoration followed towards the end of the century.
The history of the Palace remained largely uneventful until a fire in 1986 – which some older readers may recall – severely damaged the King’s Apartments. Repairs, and subsequent restorations, were largely completed in 1995. The King’s Apartments had been restored and recreated, as far as possible, to their original form, while a similar process had been undertaken in the Queen’s Apartments. Defined ‘routes’ through the Palace were implemented to improve visitor accessibility, and the Privy Garden was replanted to its 17th-century design. Conservation, restoration, and even – on occasion – new building work continue to this day. Staff at Hampton Court continue to explore ways to make a visit here more accessible, enjoyable and educational.
***Visiting Hampton Court Palace***
Hampton Court Palace can be seen as you cross the bridge after exiting the railway station. You go in through the driveway and purchase tickets from the building on your left. After that you are free to explore the Palace. Approaching the front of the building, you get your first taste of the grandeur you are about to experience. The Palace is certainly well situated. You are given a map when you buy your ticket, which is incredibly helpful considering the size and scale of the place.
As with Kensington Palace, Hampton is divided into different areas or routes, which is handy for getting your bearings and planning your visit. My mam and I decided we would like to get audio guides (included in the price of your ticket) and these can be obtained from the centre of the Palace. This area also contains rails of velvet Tudor-style robes which can be borrowed: as we went round the Palace, we saw many people – both children and adults – with these on. I wanted to put some on, but my mam flatly refused, much to my disappointment!
Before heading off on our adventure, we had a look at the small but detailed exhibition on the history of Hampton Court, which tells the story of the area from earliest known times to the present day. This exhibition contained a great deal of information, but was presented logically and in an easy to read format. This done, we headed off on our travels.
*Henry VIII’s Kitchens*
We decided to begin at the kitchens, since we had passed the entrance to this section on our way to retrieve the audio guides. The kitchens were heavily used during Henry VIII’s time to feed the huge number of guests he entertained at Hampton Court. They comprise a number of rooms, enormous roaring fires (one of which was lit on our visit, giving off a considerable amount of heat) and various utensils. Mam and I were amazed at the sheer size of everything, and as a non-meat eater I was somewhat freaked out by the giant roasting spits and the huge tub in which pie filling was cooked. I must say that, apart from the fact that they contained meat, the pies on display looked rather appetising – although as our audio guides told us, people at the time wouldn’t actually have eaten the pastry, which simply acted as a cooking pot. The top would be removed, the contents eaten and the rest of the crust thrown away. What a waste!
Our wanderings took us through the kitchens and out the other side, where liveried servants would be waiting to carry the piping hot food the short distance to the guests in the Great Hall. We passed a room in which accounts were kept – as you can imagine, feeding such a huge number of people required an incredible amount of organisation, and it was essential to keep track of what was available and what was needed.
Finally, we ended up at the wine cellar. I liked this part! Beer was drunk by pretty much everyone during the Tudor period – the water was unsafe – but wine was reserved only for the wealthiest. Whereas the majority of Hampton Court Palace is concerned with the grand surroundings of royalty, the kitchens explored what it was like for the servants below stairs. They clearly had an extremely difficult job!
*Young Henry VIII’s Story*
Continuing the Henry VIII theme, we headed for this section of the Palace, which concerned Henry’s life as a young prince right up to his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. These rooms had comparatively modern surroundings, although they were basic enough not to look odd framed by the ancient stone walls. In each room, three wooden ‘thrones’ represented Henry, Katherine and Sir Thomas Wolsey, the three most powerful people in the land, and carried information about each individual and their role in state affairs. As you follow the story from room to room, you witness the fall from favour of both Katherine and Wolsey: the one demoted from her role as Queen and separated from her daughter, and the other forced to give up his titles and royal palaces (he died shortly afterwards). Henry was never meant to be king – that role was to have been taken by his elder brother Arthur, but Arthur died relatively young, leaving Henry as the next heir. This section of the exhibition did well in exploring the youthful Henry’s exuberance, enthusiasm and successes, before he became the ungainly tyrant-King of later years.
*Henry VIII’s Apartments*
We finished off our exploration of the Henrician age with a visit to Hampton Court’s main draw – Henry VIII’s Apartments. Our audio guides proved invaluable here, as they had done in the kitchens, in telling us about the rooms. They were magnificent, as befits a King’s apartments – particularly the Great Hall (which I had seen from below earlier, on my tour of the kitchens). The tapestries – which were originals – were especially impressive and the pictures were fascinating to inspect. The chapel, too, was beautiful and ornate (you can go onto the top balcony from these apartments; the chapel itself can be entered from the corridor below, near Fountain Court).
One of my favourite things about this part of the Palace was ‘Henry VIII’ himself! The King resided at Hampton Court later in his reign, after the fall of Wolsey, and actors portray an event from this period – the preparations for his marriage to Catherine Parr. This was his final marriage and Catherine actually survived him – a lucky escape considering Henry had divorced his first and fourth wives (the latter was ‘too ugly’ for Henry!), and had two others beheaded, not to mention Jane Seymour who died in childbirth. ‘Henry’ strides about the Palace at frequent intervals, heralded by courtiers crying “Make way for the King”, and occasionally stopping to make a speech declaring how happy he is at the prospect of his forthcoming marriage. My mam found this a bit silly, but I thought it was highly entertaining!
*William III’s Apartments*
The brightly-coloured apartments are in great contrast to the dark wood Tudor parts of the Palace. To get to them, you need to climb up a staircase – this is shallower than most, as it was designed for the asthmatic William. The rooms are in more or less a straight line, the majority containing thrones, though the last few contain beds. The rooms get grander and grander as you go along – they were designed so that less-important subjects could speak to the King in the first room, while only a select few had access to the more intimate bedchamber and adjacent throne room. These rooms reminded me of Buckingham Palace in their formal layout, although the finishings and furniture were less ostentatious. It was interesting to see another side to William’s character, after seeing the King’s Apartments in Kensington Palace, where he also spent time.
*Mary II’s Apartments*
Though these apartments were begun during the reign of Mary, her sudden death called a halt to building work and they were not finally completed until the reign of George II and his wife Caroline. When my mam and I visited, there was a temporary exhibition on display entitled “The Beautiful and the Damned”. This consisted of paintings of court beauties in the reign of Charles II, and featured several scantily-clad ladies draped over armchairs, usually mistresses of the King or other men of note. My mam and I did notice that ideas of beauty have changed considerably over the centuries: with a few exceptions, neither of us would have called these women ‘beautiful’, but I guess that’s a good thing – there’s hope for us all! The exhibition was interesting and provided something a bit different to look at.
*Georgian Private Apartments*
These apartments were built by George II for his second son, the Duke of Cumberland. They have a strong Georgian feel to them, and seem much more private and homely than the other parts of the Palace. They provided an interesting contrast to the grandeur on display elsewhere.
*Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar*
We didn’t have enough time to see these, but they are paintings, held in the Palace since the reign of Charles I.
Again, we didn’t have enough time to wander around the gardens. However, I spent some time in the gardens on my previous visit, and they were beautifully landscaped and very pleasant to spend time in. I must say though that I much prefer houses to gardens when visiting places like this, so I wasn’t overly disappointed at not being able to have more of a wander around.
One of the cafes at Hampton Court is beside the gardens, and they also offer the best view of the Baroque side of the Palace, so it’s worth popping out for a few minutes.
Much to my disappointment, we hadn’t time to visit the maze either. However, last time I visited – with a group of friends – we DID go in the maze and it was great fun. It isn’t huge like the maze at Longleat, but it’s big enough to get lost in once or twice, although we did eventually manage to reach the centre. I do recommend leaving enough time to have a go, as it is really enjoyable – particularly if you have children.
The Palace has a number of gift shops, including a general shop near the entrance and a smaller shop near Henry VIII’s Kitchens which stocks several items of a historic culinary nature. The main shop has the usual range of souvenirs and tat as well as some genuinely nice items. Some of the items are part of the general Historic Royal Palaces range, but many are tailored to the individual site: for example, medieval-themed souvenirs were available here but not at Kensington Palace, which I had visited previously, while reproduction Victorian jewellery was found at Kensington but not at Hampton.
***Food and Drink***
There are three eateries open for visitors: the Tiltyard Café, the Snug and the Privy Kitchen. My mam and I had a well-earned cup of tea and slice of cake in the Privy Kitchen, which used to be the kitchens used by Elizabeth I and strongly resembled Henry’s kitchens that we visited earlier in the day. An interesting assortment of refreshments was available, and I was half sorry that we had brought our own sandwiches, as the hot meals looked delicious. In any case, our cake was lovely. Prices were average – not cheap (I have never encountered any café within a heritage site in which they were), but not excessively expensive.
Hampton Court is massive – as the website states, if you see all the interiors and a bit of the gardens you will travel over 2 miles. Disabled car parking spaces are available on a first-come, first-served basis and parking is free for Blue Badge holders. There are several accessible toilet facilities across the site and while visitors with disabilities pay the standard admission charge, an accompanying carer or assistant will receive free entry. Service dogs are also welcome.
A limited number of manual wheelchairs and single-person scooters (for use in the gardens only) are available on a first-come, first-served basis. British Sign Language tours take place within the Palace, and a number of downloadable resources are available from the Hampton Court Palace website, including a guide for parents of children on the autistic spectrum.
My mam and I both had an amazing day at Hampton Court Palace. Whereas my mam was disappointed with Kensington Palace, she thoroughly enjoyed Hampton Court. I certainly feel that the entrance fee is better value for money: while it costs a few pounds more to get into Hampton Court, not to mention the cost of travelling from central London by train, you get a great deal more for your money. If you make the most of everything the Palace has to offer, you could easily spend an entire day here, or even more if you want to spend a lot of time in the gardens. If you live in London and think you might visit again I would strongly recommend the Historical Royal Palaces membership, which gives you free entry to Hampton Court plus the other four palaces for a year – you could easily get a lot out of this. Alternatively, if you have a Tesco Clubcard, the Days Out tokens are worth exchanging Clubcard points for.
If you are thinking about visiting, or can’t visit for whatever reason but still want to find out more about the Palace, I highly recommend the website (address given below) which is rich in detailed information about the history of the Palace, what you can see there, current and forthcoming exhibitions, concerts which take place in the grounds, and more.
Address: East Molesey, Surrey, KT8 9AU
Opening Hours: 10am-6pm daily
Prices: £16.95 adults, £8.50 children; membership of Historic Royal Palaces allows free entry to all five included palaces – Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Kew Palace, the Tower of London and the Banqueting House