Home of Henry VIII and the Tudor dynasty: a 500-year old royal pleasure palace
The original Tudor palace was begun by Cardinal Wolsey in the early 16th century, but it soon attracted the attention of Henry VIII, who brought all his six wives here. Surrounded by gorgeous gardens and famous features such as the Maze and the Great Vine, the palace has been the setting for many nationally important events.
When William III and Mary II (1689-1702) took the throne in 1689, they commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to build an elegant new baroque palace. Later, Georgian kings and princes occupied the splendid interiors. When the royals left in 1737, impoverished ‘grace and favour’ aristocrats moved in.
Queen Victoria opened the palace to the public in 1838. It has remained a magnet for millions of visitors, drawn to the grandeur, the ghosts and the fabulous art collection.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, started Hampton Court Palace’s transformation from ordinary country house to magnificent palace.
Wolsey wanted to create a grand building where he could host not only the King and the royal court but also monarchs from across Europe.
Investing huge sums of money, he created a palace fit for the King. Wolsey was so successful in his work that Henry eventually took Hampton Court for himself.
By the 1530s, Henry VIII’s Hampton Court was a palace, a hotel, a theatre and a vast leisure complex.
The King used it to demonstrate magnificence and power in every possible way, through lavish banquets, extravagant court life and fabulously expensive art.
In addition to Henry’s state and private apartments, where he slept, ate and relaxed, and the queen’s private apartments, the palace contained accommodation for courtiers. The style depended on the status of the occupant, but again, were intended to impress.
Around Base Court, the first big courtyard of the Tudor palace inside the West Front, there were 30 suites of lodgings used for the grandest visitors.
Image: King Henry VIII, after Hans Holbein the Younger, © National Portrait Gallery, London.
The palace also held unhappy memories for Henry. His third queen Jane Seymour died giving the King a longed-for son, Edward, later Edward VI. It’s said her ghost, a ‘white wraith’ appears on the anniversary of her death.
Henry's fifth wife Catherine Howard was arrested here and later executed at the Tower for adultery and treason.
It is said that Catherine's ghostly presence still screams for mercy along the corridors of the palace.
Up to 800 courtiers could accompany Henry VIII; all needed to be fed.
The King enlarged and added to the existing Great Kitchen, built in the late 1400s by a former resident Lord Daubeney.
The kitchens became an efficient food factory serving 1600 meals a day.
The 17th century saw many dramatic events at the palace, some of them taking place in Hampton Court’s Great Hall.
In 1603 William Shakespeare’s ‘King’s Men’ first performed Hamlet and Macbeth for the new Stuart king James I. James was also responsible for organising the 1604 Hampton Court Conference that resulted in the publication of the King James Bible in 1611 - the Authorised Version of the Bible in English.
His son Charles I used the palace to house much of his astonishing art collection, including Mantegna's ‘Triumph of Caesar’ paintings. The King must have felt a keen sense of irony when his art-adorned palace became his temporary prison. In 1647, he found himself under house arrest after his defeat in the Civil War. In an attempt to flee Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians, the King escaped through the Privy Garden. Charles was later recaptured and executed in 1649.
During the Commonwealth (1649-60) Cromwell saved the palace from destruction by making it his home. Despite his Puritan ideals, he appreciated fine art, particularly the tapestries and enjoyed living like a king here.
This beautiful canal was commissioned by Charles II (1660-85) in preparation for the arrival of his bride, Catherine of Braganza. The couple honeymooned at the palace and boats in the shape of swans sailed up the canal in a romantic gesture.
Charles’s principal mistress, Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, and their illegitmate children were also installed at Hampton Court. The Countess made changes of her own to the grounds, transforming Henry VIII’s old orchard into a delightful ‘Wilderness’.
When William III and Mary II took the throne in 1689 they asked Christopher Wren to design a new baroque palace for them. Wren scrapped his original plan to demolish the whole palace and instead created the spectacular Fountain Court, leaving much of the Tudor palace intact.
Image: The King's Private Dining Room. This room was used by King William III for small private dinner parties for his male friends. The walls are hung with Kneller’s paintings, ‘Hampton Court Beauties’.
William and Mary were also responsible for creating many of the most spectacular areas of the Hampton Court Gardens to complement their new palace. These include The Great Fountain Garden, created by Daniel Marot, and a new Privy Garden.
The yew trees of the Great Fountain Garden, once neatly pruned, were later allowed to grow to their present height by Capability Brown, head gardener in the mid 18th century.
The origins of the famous Maze are controversial, but it is thought it was created at the end of the 17th century.
The Maze was first planted in hornbeam, then replanted in the 1960s with visitor-proof yew hedges. The more authentic hornbeam is now being re-introduced.
When the palace was opened to the public in 1838, the Maze quickly became one of the most popular attractions, and remains so today!
The east end of the Royal Chapel once contained a great double window filled with stained glass, depicting Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon and Cardinal Wolsey.
This was destroyed in the Commonwealth and later bricked up.
In 1710 Queen Anne commissioned architect Sir Christopher Wren to remodel the Chapel.
He placed this grand timber reredos (altar screen) over the brickwork.
Wren also added boxed in pews, an organ and a staircase leading down from the Royal Pew.
George I’s (1714-27) main contribution to the palace was to build an impressive suite of rooms for his son George, Prince of Wales and his wife Princess Caroline.
The King also commissioned a new kitchen, today known as the Georgian House.
When George I returned in the summers to his native Hanover, he agreed reluctantly for for the Prince and Princess to represent him in England.
They entertained lavishly in his absence, leading a glittering court that outshone the old King’s.
The infuriated George I tried to outdo this rival court and make a bigger impact at Hampton Court.
So in 1718, the Tudor tennis court was refurbished as a grand assembly room and the Great Hall was converted into a theatre.
Image: King George I, © National Portrait Gallery, London.
When George II succeeded his father in 1727, the palace entered its final phase as a royal residence.
George and Caroline completed work on their apartments and started new works for the younger members of their large royal family.
In 1734 Queen Caroline invited her favourite architect and designer William Kent to decorate the plain walls of the Queen’s Stairs. He created a Roman-style design, which included a tribute to Caroline, whom he compared to the ancient goddess Britannia.
By 1737, George II no longer wanted to use Hampton Court as a royal palace. It was quickly filled with grace and favour residents.
Many of them were aristocratic widows in straightened circumstances, who were offered free accommodation in return for their husband’s services to the monarch.
The various apartments, although extremely grand, not always the most comfortable places to live. Residents regularly complained that the palace was ‘perishingly cold’ and damp, and some had no access to hot water.
Apartments continued to be granted as late as the 1960s, and although the practice has now ceased, there are still a couple of elderly residents living at Hampton Court today!
Image: Often characterised as genteel older ladies, the family of grace and favour residents often spanned generations. This is probably Lady Keyes - photographed by her daughter Madeline in 1906.
In 1838, Queen Victoria ordered the gates of Hampton Court Palace be ‘thrown open to all her subjects’ as an early act of generosity.
Visitors flocked to enjoy the stunning palace architecture, get lost in the Maze and relax in the beautiful gardens.
By 1881, over ten million visitors had been recorded, a huge number for the time.
Hampton Court Palace was one of the few attractions open on a Sunday, the only day working people had to visit. Visitors arrived by every possible means: from boat to public coach. Their journeys were made easier by the railways arriving at Hampton Court in 1849.
However, this sudden rush was not altogether welcomed by the grace and favour residents who had previously enjoyed exclusive rights to the palace gardens. They complained that the gardens became ‘hell on earth, the people come intoxicated and the scenes in the gardens on the Lord’s day are beyond description’.
Despite the complaints, the number of visitors rose steadily year on year. The public were eager for novelty, and applauded the gardeners’ effort to put the palace gardens in the forefront of fashion. Patriotic displays of mass bedding celebrated the coronation of George V in 1911, for example.
In the 1920s, further leisure activities were provided, along with a carpark, which was located, rather unattractively on the West Front! Visitors could take tea in the Tiltyard café, enjoy putting on the green or play a game of tennis on the newly installed court.
The palace is still a magnet for visitors from all over the world. One of the newest attractions for families is the Tudor-inspired Magic Garden, which was opened in 2016 by the Duchess of Cambridge.
Two famous annual festivals - the Hampton Court music festival and the RHS Flower Show – stay true to Henry VIII’s ‘pleasure palace’ principle.
And the superb art collection – a permanent, rotating display of some of the Royal Collections finest works, continues to delight.
Want to take a peek into the wardrobes of the kings and queens of the past?
With exclusive access to the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, this free online course from Historic Royal Palaces & the University of Glasgow explores clothing from the Tudors to the Windsors.