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The Tudor World in the Wolsey Rooms at Hampton Court Palace

Tudor world brought to life in new display at Hampton Court Palace

The Tudor World in the Wolsey Rooms opens on 13 July

They are the oldest surviving rooms at Hampton Court Palace, once places of glittering opulence where a young and headstrong King Henry VIII plotted the country’s future with his closest advisor, Thomas Wolsey. Now, a fascinating new display - The Tudor World in the Wolsey Rooms – will explore the early years of Henry VIII’s reign, as well as the lives of the ‘ordinary’ men and women who shaped the Tudor dynasty.

The display will explore the story of this ambitious royal family, and the impact of their rule in an age of great change during the tumultuous 16th century. From scientific advancement to religious uncertainty, English people had to adapt to survive, while European exploration – and exploitation – of the wider world affected lives everywhere. Rare Tudor objects belonging to Historic Royal Palaces – the independent charity that cares for Hampton Court Palace – will go on show, including a gold ring believed to have belonged to the Boleyn family and a brightly coloured silk hat linked to Henry VIII. It will also feature specially selected loans from other collections, including Wolsey’s own portable sundial on loan from the History of Science Museum at the University of Oxford, a gadget that helped him tell the time wherever he was. A wooden chest, on loan from Stonyhurst College, reveals a story of forbidden faith, when, during the reign of Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth I, priests disguised as travelling salesmen hid their religious contraband in their quest to offer private Masses to Catholic families worshipping in secret.   

Stars of the show are three rare surviving Tudor history paintings lent by His Majesty The King from the Royal Collection, including ‘The Embarkation of Dover’ and ‘The Field of Cloth of Gold’. The two astonishing works of art depict the Tudors’ powerful navy and aspirations to expand their power, while detailing Henry VIII’s extravagant summit with Francis I, King of France, in 1520. Through these paintings, Henry looked back on his achievements with pride, but the country remained threatened by its European rivals and divided by wealth and faith. The exhibition also traces Tudor connections with the rest of the world through other portraits from the Royal Collection, including Marcus Gheeraerts’ mysterious painting of a woman in Ottoman dress, and a portrait of Hürrem, an enslaved European woman who defied the odds by marrying Suleiman I, the Ottoman Emperor, and becoming an influential power behind the throne.

At the heart of the display are the ‘ordinary’ people who were living through this period of change, from soldiers and laundresses, to ladies-in-waiting and even ‘gong farmers’ who cleaned the toilets. The display shares the story of Anne Harris, Henry VIII’s personal laundry woman, who washed the bandages for his leg ulcers. She negotiated pay rises in order to cover her expenses and was eventually gifted a property in Westminster by the King. It will also feature Jacques Francis, a free-diver from West Africa, who was involved in the expedition to salvage guns from the sunken Mary Rose. He later became one of the first Black African voices heard in an English court, when he was called to testify in a case concerning his employer, Paulo Corsi.

The Tudor World will bring the 16th century to life in innovative ways, including hands-on interactives, replica artefacts, and digital projections to unlock the secrets of Tudor paintings. Themes explored will include material culture, science and faith, the construction of the Field of Cloth of Gold, and the roles of palace servants. A highlight of the historic objects on display from Historic Royal Palaces’ own collections is an original Tudor chain pump, that illustrates the messy business of how the Hampton Court cesspool was emptied! Visitors can also learn about the experiences of women in Tudor England and the restrictions on their opportunities, from miniature painters like Levina Teerlinc to Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting, and the relationships between Tudor queens and their daughters.

Brett Dolman, Collections Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, said, “The Tudors have long been a dynasty that has both fascinated and repelled, presiding over an age that saw great change. In this new display, we’ll be exploring the impact this period had on the everyday life in Tudor society, including the upheaval and uncertainty they often experienced. It will look not just at the monarchs and courtiers we are familiar with, but the ‘ordinary’ people who were vital in keeping the royal court running, and we look forward to sharing some of their stories with our visitors for the first time.”

The Tudor World in the Wolsey Rooms is open from 13 July in line with palace opening hours, and is included in palace admission.   

Historic Royal Palaces is grateful to the DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund whose generous support has helped to create The Tudor World display.

Notes to Editors 

For further information and images please contact the Historic Royal Palaces Press Office via [email protected] / 020 3166 6166          

Historic Royal Palaces is a team of people who love and look after six of the most wonderful palaces in the world. We create space for spirits to stir and be stirred. We want everyone to feel welcome and accepted. We tell stories about the monarchs you know and the lives you don’t. We let people explore and we set minds racing. We are a charity and your support gives the palaces a future, for everyone. 

Registered charity number 1068852. For more information visit www.hrp.org.uk

About the DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund:
 The DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund provides capital funding for museums and galleries across England to improve displays, protect collections and make exhibitions more accessible to visitors. In 2022-24, DCMS and the Wolfson Foundation each contributed £2 million to the Fund, which has benefitted more than 400 projects in its 20-year history.
 
The Royal Collection is among the largest and most important art collections in the world, and one of the last great European royal collections to remain intact. It comprises almost all aspects of the fine and decorative arts, and is spread among some 15 royal residences and former residences across the UK, most of which are regularly open to the public. The Royal Collection is held in trust by the Sovereign for his successors and the nation, and is not owned by The King as a private individual.

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