A party palace
When King James VI of Scotland came south to become James I of England (r 1603-1625), Hampton Court's continuing importance in royal life was assured.
James was a keen huntsman and the palace provided excellent hunting in the park. James’s first English court took place at Hampton Court over the Christmas and New Year of 1603-4.
The palace served as a venue for plays, dances, banquets and court masques and amongst the assembled guests was one William Shakespeare. He was booked as one of the newly liveried ‘King’s Men’ to produce his plays in front of a royal audience. The early Stuart court was notorious for increasingly lavish theatrical entertainments: for intoxicating, and occasionally intoxicated, revels.
Under James I, Hampton Court benefited from a low but constant level of expenditure on maintenance. Repairs to parts of the palace preceded autumnal visits of the royal court, including James’s wife and children. James’s queen, Anne, was at Hampton Court when she died in 1619.
A home and a prison
Hampton Court served as both palace and prison for James’s son Charles I (r 1625-49). In the early part of his reign, he was a frequent visitor to the palace.
Though the King’s main residence was still in central London, at Whitehall, Charles revamped and updated parts of Hampton Court to ensure its continued popularity as a holiday season pleasure-palace, and a suitable venue for entertaining visiting dignitaries.
Charles built a new tennis court and also dug out the Longford River, which still brings water from 11 miles away to power the fountains of Hampton Court’s formal gardens. The second Stuart monarch was also an enthusiastic collector of art, and revolutionised the royal collection of paintings and sculpture with major acquisitions from Europe.
His most striking addition to the collection at Hampton Court was Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, purchased from the impoverished Gonzaga family in Mantua, which arrived at the palace in 1630 and has been here ever since.
However, in 1647, during the Civil War when he was deposed by Parliament, Charles was brought to Hampton Court as a prisoner. Held there for three months, he later escaped but was executed in 1649.
The Commonwealth at Hampton Court
Parliamentary troops had seized the palace in 1645. They began to make an inventory of the royal possessions before putting them up for sale. Motivated by the radical Puritanism that sought to strip the Church of its frivolous trappings, they also removed all the fine fittings from the Chapel Royal.
When Oliver Cromwell (governed 1654-8) became Lord Protector, however, he reserved the palace and some of its principal treasures (including Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar) for his own use and enjoyment.
Cromwell spent weekends at Hampton Court, often working, but also hunting and enjoying music and ceremony. His daughter, Mary, was married in the Chapel Royal.
In 1660 the monarchy was restored and Charles II (r 1660-1685) ascended the throne. He preferred Windsor Castle to Hampton Court, but sometimes came for the day to attend royal council meetings.
He did build a set of lodgings at the south-east corner of the palace for one of his mistresses, Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, and her illegitimate children by him.