Hampton Court Palace, Friday 24.9.10
Posted by Lisa Hill on September 25, 2010
Today we got down to the serious business of being tourists. We took the tube to Waterloo and then a train to Hampton Court to see the palace we’ve seen so many times in films about Henry VIII and his unfortunate wives. There was light rain falling as we arrived and a brisk wind, (the first time we’ve ever had bad weather in England) so it looked less cheerful than it looks in the movies…
If you’ve read Hilary Mantel’s wonderful historical novel Wolf Hall, then you know that it was Cardinal Wolsey who built Hampton Court with a view to currying favour with Henry, but alas, it all came to grief because he failed to inveigle the pope into granting the annulment that Henry needed to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry was none too fastidious about bumping off his old pals, and bumping off Wolsey not only gave Henry a more amenable cardinal but also Hampton Court. In the end, however, it was Katherine Parr who made it her home, and it is she who parades through the palace today with Henry in re-enactments of her wedding day. (BTW Like any other groom, Henry is amenable to photo opportunities with his guests, even ones from Antipodes not known to exist in the 16th century!)
Hampton Court is not as ornate as the continental palaces we’ve seen. Henry VIII’s apartments are full of deer horns and whatnot, very masculine indeed, and the wood panelling is rather sombre. The tapestries, though, are truly beautiful, even though they have faded from their rich reds and blues with time. Many of them are allegorical, and they were commissioned by Henry himself to impress his visitors especially the French. (Who were probably a bit put out when they saw these tapestries because they are bigger and more impressive than any we’ve seen in chateaux in France so far).
This detail from one of them caught my eye because as usual women are being exhorted to be obedient (though it seems to me that it might have been prudent for everyone to do King H’s bidding). After all, it was Wolsey who started the tapestry collection at Hampton Court, amassing about 600 of them according to the guidebook, and Henry got the lot of course, though not all of them have survived to this day.
The Chapel Royal is gorgeous. The entrance is just a mundane wooden doorway which opens into what is still a functioning church in continuous use since Wolsey built it 500 years ago. It was Henry who installed the magnificent vaulted roof painted in rich turquoise and gold, and there used to be an impressive stained glass window with images of him, Katherine of Aragon and Wolsey, but it was destroyed and the gap bricked up during the Commonwealth by those bolshie republicans. That must have looked rather ordinary so it’s a good thing that Queen Anne had it covered by the wooden carving behind the altar (it’s called a reredos).
Queen Anne’s apartments are the most impressive, but alas Tim’s camera card won’t talk to my net-book so the photos he took will have to wait till we get back to Australia. It’s a shame because the rooms are gorgeous, with more stunning tapestries, brilliant chandeliers, and painted ceilings designed to impress. These apartments were built over the top of Anne Boleyn’s rooms by Queen Mary II, (1689-94) then by her sister Queen Anne (1702-14) and finally by Queen Caroline (wife of George 11) so they are all a bit different in style. My favourite was Queen Anne’s bedchamber which has Anne on the ceiling with gods Britannia and Neptune and assorted members of the royal family, including one I had marked out as rather sulky – who turned out to be her husband Prince George. There’s another one of him looking even less appealing – he’s naked and podgy and riding on a dolphin which makes me wonder a bit about her artistic choices. (There’s also a rather unfortunate painting of her sprawled on a sofa in one of the other rooms…the palace guide who was stationed there told me she was also known as Brandy Nan because after 14 children she tended to drown her sorrows a bit. It’s the sort of picture I’d delete straight off a digital camera but Anne, for reasons known only to her, kept this picture in pride of place. )
The Mantegna series of paintings celebrating The Triumph of Caesar were a surprising enhancement to the day. I knew a bit about them but I wasn’t expecting them to be as superb as they are. They were bought by Charles 1 in 1629 from an impoverished Italian nobleman and they survived the Republic because (according to Wikipedia, where you can see images of all the paintings) even Cromwell wasn’t game to destroy such famous paintings and perhaps liked the idea of celebrating the exploits of a military fellow like himself.
The paintings are displayed in a long gallery along with some sculptures of various emperors, and show different aspects of Julius Caesar’s Triumph after the Gallic wars. They depict everything from the standard bearers and musicians to the elephants and the captives. (The captives is the only one in poor condition because it couldn’t be restored when all the others were because it didn’t have as many layers of paint.) It would be worth visiting Hampton Court Palace just to see these paintings alone…
Next stop was Henry’s kitchens and we could see why George IV, (son of the George 111, the one who was mad) was so proud of his kitchens at the Brighton Pavillion. Henry’s are rudimentary by comparison and rather a jumble of rooms, though I suppose the risk of fire in those earlier times meant it was not a bad idea to spread things out a bit. Tim, seen here with pewter plates and wineglass) was most interested in the set-up but I bet he wouldn’t really like cooking without all his fancy equipment that we have at home!
We had plans to check out the gardens, but the rain began pelting down and it didn’t look like any fun and as it was getting a bit late anyway we shelved plans to go to Kew Gardens as well. With any luck the weather will be fine by the weekend and we can go then.
Dinner tonight with Tim’s niece Georgia here at the Montague, which has an excellent restaurant called the Blue Door. They have a great range of international wines (last night we tried an American sauvignon blanc from a winemaker called Hess, which was excellent) and a good, interesting menu. One of the reasons we came back to this hotel again was because it’s nice not to have to go out to have a good dinner, especially on a rather bleak night!