Henry VIII and Thomas Wolsey
For many people today, Hampton Court Palace is Henry VIII. It is indeed Henry’s royal standard that flies over the gatehouse. But it wasn’t always so.
Thomas Wolsey acquired a relatively small manor house here in 1514 and a year later extensive work began to construct a magnificent palace. It was only when Wolsey fell from his position of power and influence that Henry took ownership Hampton Court, and began his own ostentatious building programme.
The rewards of public service
‘There was in the royal household a priest named Thomas Wolsey, one of the number of royal chaplains, not unlearned in Scripture, a clever fellow, and most ready for any undertaking…’
This is how Thomas Wolsey is described at the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign. His remarkable promotion to Henry’s chief minister, and Cardinal, was achieved through hard work, political brilliance and, most importantly, getting things done for the King. Wolsey was the perfect foil for the young Henry VIII. Henry was impatient and in a rush; Wolsey was diligent, painstaking and comprehensive.
So, Wolsey took Henry to war against France in 1513, arranging for supplies, the mustering of ships, and for the raising of the enormous funds required to keep an army in the field. Seven years later, Wolsey directed the elaborate preparations for the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the most magnificent European summit ever held.
The fall of pride and arrogance
Wolsey’s rewards were astonishing. Hampton Court Palace became the physical manifestation of Henry’s gratitude. Wolsey built an enormous residence with room after room richly furnished, with painted and gilded ceilings and walls lined with expensive tapestries.
But Wolsey was accused of going too far, ‘imagining himself the equal of sovereigns’ and installing a gold throne and cushion in his audience chamber. The satirist John Skelton wrote,
‘The king’s court
Should have the excellence,
But Hampton Court
Hath the preeminence’
But Hampton Court was always, really, Henry’s. Even at the height of his powers, Wolsey referred to it as the King’s palace, and Henry stayed at Hampton Court whenever it suited him.
When Henry VIII wanted a divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, Wolsey, in his unique position as papal legate and chief minister, was in a fantastic position to pull it off. Or fail… Katherine resisted, and the Pope refused. Wolsey was helpless. His titles and properties were confiscated and the Cardinal died in 1530, after his arrest for treason.
Hampton Court now truly became Henry VIII’s favourite palace. He spent more time here than at any other of his residences during the second half of his reign, building new apartments for himself and his new wives. And the palace survived to witness many of the most important events in the chequered political and matrimonial history of the 1530s and 1540s.