Thomas Wolsey was a man on a rapid rise up the Tudor equivalent of the corporate ladder. He was soon to become a Cardinal and Lord Chancellor of England. He also held a host of other influential posts.
Crucially, though, he was also a close friend of the new king, Henry VIII (r 1509-1547) and would serve as his chief minister for over a decade.
Wolsey built a vast palace complex at Hampton Court, immeasurably transforming a grand private house into a magnificent Bishop’s palace.
Wolsey added new sumptuous private chambers for his own use, as well as three suites for the new royal family: one each for King Henry VIII, Queen Katherine of Aragon and their daughter Princess Mary. A grand processional route led from all these grand apartments to an imposing double-height chapel.
One of the best surviving parts of Wolsey's Hampton Court is Base Court, the vast outer courtyard he built to house his guests. The courtyard was originally cobbled and the gatehouse was higher, but the main features of the buildings themselves remain: 40 guest lodgings, each with an outer room and an inner room - and all ensuite with a garderobe (lavatory).
Palace as a power magnet
Thomas Wolsey also owned York Place in London, the official residence in the capital of the Archbishop of York. However, he needed Hampton Court as an appropriately splendid country house for entertaining and for hosting important state diplomatic visits.
Throughout the 1520s, Hampton Court hosted important European delegations. These were occasions for ostentatious displays of wealth and conspicuous consumption, but also – and the two purposes were not mutually exclusive – for doing deals and signing treaties that would help improve England’s position in Europe.
But though Wolsey’s great house was intended as a compliment to Henry VIII (just as Wolsey’s magnificence merely, according to him at least, reflected the glory of Henry) others didn’t see it that way.
Wolsey's fall from power
Why come you not to Court ?
To which court ?
To the king’s court ?
Or to Hampton Court ?
Nay, to the king’s court !
The king’s court
Should have the excellence
But Hampton Court
Hath the pre-eminence !
So wrote Wolsey’s contemporary, John Skelton, a poet and sometime tutor to Henry VIII.
Wolsey was thus criticised by many of his peers for his extravagant lifestyle, epitomised by his ostentatious palace at Hampton Court. But this was not what brought Wolsey’s fall from grace.
By the late 1520s, Henry was desperate to obtain a divorce from his first wife. Katherine had failed (in Henry’s eyes) to provide Henry with a male heir, despite numerous pregnancies.
Katherine was 40 in 1525, and the object of Henry’s desire was now the much younger Anne Boleyn. But after years of political manoeuvring and discussions, Katherine still refused to comply, the Pope didn’t grant the divorce and in 1528 Wolsey lost both Hampton Court and York Place to the King.