The real-life Wolf Hall in Britain

Friday 10 June 2016

To mark its 500th birthday, Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Hampton Court Palace, reveals some of the hidden histories of King Henry VIII’s favourite home to Sally Coffey from Britain Magazine. Watching Wolf Hall? Then you’ll know that Hampton Court Palace was at the centre of many of this period’s most momentous events.

Scene from Wolf Hall Scene from Wolf Hall


Real or not, the programme reaffirms the significance of Hampton Court in Tudor times: it was at Hampton Court that Henry married the last of his 6 wives, Catherine Parr; his long-awaited son Edward was born here to Jane Seymour (who died less than two weeks later in the same room) and it was also the location from which he launched the English Reformation – effectively saying to the Roman Catholic Church: “If you won’t let me marry Anne Boleyn I’ll set up the Church of England.” However, it wasn’t Henry who built this pleasure palace on the banks of the River Thames, but one of his ministers, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the Archbishop of York, who enjoyed an elevated position as Henry’s chief advisor for many years before falling dramatically from favour when his sway with the Pope proved insufficient as regards Henry’s proposed marriage to Anne Boleyn.

The Great Hall, Hampton Court The Great Hall inside Hampton Court Palace. Pic: Tony Murray


I’m sitting in a former grace-and-favour apartment within the palace with Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity that looks after Hampton Court. Few people – if any – understand the workings of Hampton Court Palace and life in a Tudor court as well as Lucy – she even lived here for a time when she first took on the role, freezing away in a room fitted with 17th-century windows through which the “wind would blow in and out.” Lucy tells me that Cardinal Wolsey was an ambitious man, “He was a sort of magnate of the Church and he saw himself as equivalent to the Renaissance princes of Europe – England was too small to hold him really so he wanted a grand country residence,” she says. And so in 1515 the building project began. “He built the whole of Base Court and what you can still see around Clock Court, then Henry VIII came along and just took it off him,” she says.

Lucy Worsley - Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces. Tony Murray Photography


By the time Henry took Hampton Court from him, Wolsey was already on the downward slide and the line he’d always used that, “I’m building this for you, Your Majesty, come and stay here whenever you want,” came back to bite him. In Wolf Hall Mark Rylance’s Cromwell is forced to watch on helplessly as his mentor is removed from the premises before being sent to the north of England, to York. Lucy says that her favourite part of the building is actually a relic from Wolsey’s time. “The Wolsey Closet is a treat,” she says. “This funny little room is sort of hidden away in the heart of the palace. It’s got a Tudor ceiling and panelling and is just a snug little room that shows the Tudors were starting to want to spend time alone as opposed to living a very communal life, which medieval people did. “Stepping into the Closet is like stepping inside a little Tudor jewel casket as it’s so richly decorated,” she says. What was life like on a day-to-day basis in Hampton Court Palace? “If you were a top courtier then you had to take part in an elaborate piece of performance art that involved attending the king and standing in line and walking in procession,” Lucy says. “But if you were a lower servant then life involved a lot of cleaning and hard work. The reason the kitchens here are so massive is because they weren’t just cooking food; they were preparing it, almost from when the cow walked in and the bushel of grain arrived.”

Hampton Court interior Hampton Court interior. Tony Murray Photography


Some servants, Lucy tells me, were fortunate enough to have their own apartments but those that didn’t had to relieve themselves in the sounds-a-lot-nicer-than-it-was ‘Great House of Easement’: a big communal toilet. However, Lucy says that servants didn’t always make it to the amenities. “There was a big problem in the Tudor court of lower servants urinating in the passages and fireplaces,” she says. “Those who ran the household decided to make a chalk cross around the bottom of the walls; the idea was that people wouldn’t piddle on a religious symbol.” Food was of huge importance in Henry’s time, but while it’s true that the Twelve Days of Christmas involved feasting every day, the court would have fasted for a month beforehand so would have been more than ready for it. Lucy says: “People do have the wrong idea about how much Henry actually ate because if you look at the records for what was on his table, it says 13 dishes or 15 dishes, but that was just the way the food was served – it was like a buffet.” Despite his reputation, Henry was relatively trim up until 1536 when he fell off his horse, resulting in a bad back. “That’s when he got fat and depressed and tyrannical,” says Lucy unsympathetically. The diet of Tudor courtiers included a lot of roast meat, which was considered high-status because, as Lucy points out, “you needed a deer park and loads of fuel, burning for a really long time, plus someone to turn the spit.” The Tudors loved roast meat so much that even today it survives in our language that if you eat meat on a Sunday you call it a ‘roast’ even though you’re not roasting it, you’re actually baking it. Conversely, if you were a Tudor peasant you would eat some soup or sludgy, vegetable-based food that you could cook over a low heat.

Table in the Great Hall, Hampton Court Palace Table in the Great Hall, Hampton Court Palace. Tony Murray Photography


One of the most striking rooms within the palace is the Great Hall, an ornate room that was designed to “overwhelm” the courtiers who had to pass through it to see Henry in his state apartments. Cromwell would most likely have walked through here, perhaps to present himself to Henry and ask cap in hand for some money for Wolsey. Later, it was in this very room that William Shakespeare performed in front of King James I in 1604. Although we can’t say for certain what play Shakespeare and his King’s Men troupe performed, it’s believed to have been A Midsummer Night’s Dream as records make mention of a character from that play, Robin Goodfellow. Today the Hall has hardly changed, Lucy says: “You walk into it and just think ‘oh I’m in the 16th century.’” Although the room in which King Henry VIII’s long-awaited male heir (later King Edward VI) was born no longer exists, we have a good idea from Ordinances for a Royal Birth, a Tudor rule book set out by Henry’s grandmother Margaret Beaufort ahead of his elder brother Arthur’s birth, how it would have been decorated. The ceilings and carpets would have been covered with tapestries and the windows blocked up and covered, with just one small break for light – the Tudors believed that this would keep out airborne diseases. Edward was born on 12 October 1537 and in celebration hymns of thanksgiving were sung in churches across London. There were street festivals across the city with lashings of free food and wine before a huge christening was held in Hampton Court 3 days after his birth. This was actually later than the norm to allow dignitaries from across Europe the chance to attend. Sadly, less than 2 weeks after his celebrated birth, Edward’s mother, Jane Seymour, died. One theory for her death is that she may have died from the placenta not being properly removed.

Gallery in Hampton Court Gallery in Hampton Court. Tony Murray Photography


While the Tudor era may be the one that reigns in people’s imaginations, it wasn’t the only period of courtier life at the palace. The successive Stuart period saw King William III and his wife Queen Mary II completely overhaul the palace but they both died before they really got the chance to enjoy it. So it fell to the Georgians – King George I and King George II – to make best use of the completed palace. However, when King George III came to the throne in 1760 he didn’t want to live here. Lucy says: “The story goes that he didn’t want to live here as he associated it too much with his grandfather George II who was very strict with him and used to beat him on the bottom if he made spelling mistakes.” Instead he chose to live at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, bringing to an end the role of Hampton Court Palace as a royal residence. In 1838 Queen Victoria opened the palace to the public and it is now a must-see building on any Tudor obsessive’s (and Wolf Hall fan’s) tour of England. Did you know?

  • Hampton Court Palace had its own suffragette Indian princess. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of the last Maharaja of the Punjab, who surrendered his kingdoms to the British Empire. She lived in one of the grace-and-favour apartments at the palace for many years and was a known suffragette as well as a member of the Tax Resistance League.
  • King Charles I was kept prisoner by the Parliamentarians at Hampton Court and, rather excitingly, he escaped. He climbed out of a window and disappeared in a boat up the Thames, although his captors caught up with him and he was later executed at Banqueting House in Whitehall.

2015 sees all sorts of events and activities celebrating 500 years of Hampton Court. A version of this article first appeared in Britain Magazine. The bi-monthly magazine tells the story of the British Isles, from 1066 right through to the present day. Each issue is packed with fascinating features that showcase Britain at its most beautiful, and is full of inspiring ideas for where to go and what to see. Subscribe to Britain Magazine and save money off the cover price.

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