The royal family may have left Hampton Court in 1737 but the palace and its apartments soon found another purpose. After George III (r 1760-1820) decided not to live there, there was debate as to the future of the palace’s thousands of rooms.
From the 1760s onwards, the palace was divided up for ‘grace-and-favour’ residents who were granted rent-free accommodation because they had given great service to the Crown or country. They lived, often with their own small households of servants above, underneath and around the state apartments.
A labyrinth of apartments
The whole palace was divided up into a labyrinth of apartments of varying size and quality. The average size was 12 to 14 rooms, many of them vast in scale. However, some apartments had no more than four rooms, while the largest had nearly 40.
Despite the grand location, the apartments were by no means luxurious. Yet competition for them was fierce and many applicants waited years in the hope of obtaining an apartment.
Over the next two hundred years a wide variety of people became Hampton Court residents. Lady Baden-Powell, the widow of the founder of the Scout movement, had apartments within Henry VIII's kitchens.
The great experimental scientist Professor Michael Faraday (1791-1867) had a house on Hampton Court Green.
Victoria opens the palace to visitors
In 1838, the young Queen Victoria (r 1837-1901) ordered that Hampton Court Palace ‘should be thrown open to all her subjects without restriction.’
This was not a proclamation for the establishment of a commune to replace the grace-and-favour residencies, but was still a pretty far-reaching step.
Up to this point, visitors of appropriate social standing had been allowed a rather speedy tour of the palace on payment of a fee to the resident housekeeper.
Now, all ranks of society were invited to stroll through the palace, and some had visions of ‘an insulting rabble marching through the State Apartments, tearing down tapestries, wrecking the furniture, and carrying off pictures.’
Restoration and conservation
At the same time, although – and perhaps partly because - Hampton Court had ceased to be a royal home, antiquarians and architects showed increasing interest in the surviving parts of the historic Tudor palace. Enthusiasm and support grew to restore the building to something of its original glory.
Between 1838 and 1851, about £7,000 a year was spent on restoration. The Great Hall, the Great Gatehouse and the whole of the West Front were ‘re-Tudorised’.
Sash windows introduced in the 18th century were removed and new stone casement windows in a Tudor style were inserted.
A second phase of restoration between 1875 and 1900 paid more attention to historical precedent than those of the 1840s.
Before long, Anne Boleyn's Gateway, the Great Gatehouse, several of the kitchen courtyards, Wolsey's Closet, the West Front moat and the Chapel windows had been restored.
Fire in the King’s Apartments
In the 1970s and early 1980s, more attention was given to the way visitors saw the palace. Exhibitions were introduced and some improvements made in the State Apartments, but all this was interrupted in 1986 by a fire that severely damaged a large part of the King's Apartments.
Repairs took six years and led to the largest series of restorations at the palace since the 1880s. These were largely completed in 1995.
The most visible result of this work was the restoration and display of William III’s King’s Apartments. These were re-created to their original form and decoration: furniture, paintings and tapestries were returned to the rooms for which they were originally intended, and from which they had been removed after the last royal visits in the 18th century.
Focusing on visitors
A similar project saw the Queen’s Apartments restored to their former glory, and Hampton Court was made generally more accessible and meaningful for the visitor by the establishment of a series of defined ‘routes’ through the palace.
The Tudor Kitchens were also stripped of the partitions and later insertions provided for grace-and-favour residents. The Privy Garden (which had become a rather atmospheric, but unhistoric, wilderness) was replanted to its 17th-century design.
Conservation and restoration of Hampton Court Palace continues. The vast majority of the palace buildings are now either open to the public or used as office space and store-rooms, although a small group of grace-and-favour residencies remain.
Perhaps surprisingly, new building works are also commissioned: 2007 has seen the opening of the brand new Clore Education Centre outside the palace’s West Front.
Interpreting and explaining the palace to the visitor also remains an ongoing challenge. Hampton Court has many histories, and understanding – and finding your way around – the complex geography of the site can be challenging.
It is perhaps easiest to think of Hampton Court as the ‘story of two palaces’: a Tudor palace established by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and made even more magnificent by Henry VIII, alongside a baroque palace built by William III and Mary II.
Yet dig a little deeper, and you will find many more hidden stories covering five hundred years of royal history.