Have you ever visited Hampton Court Palace, the Mecca for any Tudor time traveller? Maybe not yet, but you dream of it. Maybe you have; and if that is the case, I bet most of you will have walked straight past some of the most intriguing features of the original, Tudor palace without even being aware of their significance. It would not surprise me at all if you strolled right through Henry VIII’s original bedchamber without a second glance. Why? Because it is not mentioned anywhere in the guide books! This room, like several others that have since been lost to later, Georgian refurbishments, belonged to Wolsey’s original state apartments, built for Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon and the Princess Mary.
As The Tudor Travel Guide, my joy is to help you rediscover these hidden treasures. So, come with me, and I will take you on an alternative journey through Hampton Court Palace, pointing out four ‘hidden’ features that you won’t find mentioned in the guide books, and helping you get closer to Henry’s ghostly court.
A Brief History of Hampton Court Palace
Originally built for Cardinal Wolsey as a house for entertaining royalty, foreign ambassadors and dignitaries, the magnificence of Hampton Court Palace reflected his status as Cardinal and Lord Chancellor of England. Wolsey built new kitchens, courtyards, lodgings, galleries, and gardens and began work on the chapel. He also built luxurious apartments for the king, queen and the Princess Mary on the site of the present-day Cumberland Suite, part of the later, Georgian Rooms. It is these rooms that I particularly want to show you. However, before we get there, let’s start at the beginning, for there is something that I do not want you to miss. Follow me!
Exploring the Lost Apartments of Henry VIII
In a previous post, I walked you through 9 Key features of a Tudor Palace; the sequence of rooms shown below being a standard layout in an aristocratic residence of the sixteenth century, including the outer, or public chambers, the privy chamber(s) and the innermost or ‘secret’ lodgings.
At Hampton Court Palace, the great hall and great watching chamber are accessible to visitors and, by and large, retain their original Tudor appearance. However, the first feature I want to draw your attention to is a rather insignificant doorway in the great watching chamber, tucked away in the corner of the room, behind the main doors that lead through from the great hall. Here it is shown in the photograph below:
That door once led through from the great watching chamber to Henry VIII’s Presence Chamber. Through this door, so many key characters at the Tudor court once came and went, all seeking an audience with the king. Today, this door is always kept firmly closed – and is easy to miss. However, since learning of its significance, whenever I visit, I can’t help but imagine guards in the royal, Tudor livery keeping watch by the doorway, ensuring only the worthy are able to pass by. I see ghostly figures come and go; Norfolk, Suffolk, Chapuys and Cromwell…plotting, intriguing, and advancing their cause.
Beyond that door, tragically, the once magnificent Presence Chamber is reduced to little more than a junk room in one part, and a training room in another. It is not open to the public, but I once managed to get access when researching In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn. It was fascinating to see the other side of that door – and to think who once walked through it. The space has clearly been divided up over time, and sadly, all original features are now lost – except one. This is the second feature I want to draw your attention to.
A large window gives a breath-taking view of the tidal clock, sited atop Anne Boleyn’s Gateway, across the far side of Clock Court. It is fascinating to think how there would have been a similar view from Henry’s Presence Chamber, with ambassadors and other notables able to keep an eye on the time, whilst waiting for an audience with the king. I suspect that if they were not resident at court, or needed to be back in the city, it would have been highly inconvenient to miss the tide that would carry them back to London! Sadly, neither this room – nor its view – is accessible to the public, but here is a sneaky peek of it from an insider’s perspective.
The Cumberland Suite
The Georgian Rooms may seem like they have nothing to offer the Tudor enthusiast but as mentioned earlier, it is precisely on the site of the present-day Cumberland Suite that Wolsey built part of the state apartments for King Henry VIII and his consort. The three-storey range was originally designed to house the Princess Mary on the lower level, Henry on the first floor and Katherine of Aragon directly above him. Later, it would also be used by Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour; the latter died there, in the queen’s bedchamber, following the birth of Prince Edward in 1537.
In the sixteenth century, the Presence Chamber would have led directly through into Henry’s private apartments (as the diagram above shows). Of course, it is no longer possible to follow this route. So, to pick up our trail, we need to head to the Cumberland Suite. This suite of rooms was designed in the 1730s by William Kent and was used by the Duke of Cumberland, the youngest son of King George II. It is now an art gallery.
The first room you enter was, I suspect, originally part of Henry’s Privy Chamber, although it is impossible to say how much of it corresponds to the original footprint of the room. A narrow corridor links you through to a second room. Just before entering this second room, there is a door on your right. This door accesses a spiral stone staircase coming up from the ground floor. Again, this doorway is always closed and not mentioned in the guidebook.
The room you are about to enter was once (at least part of) Henry VIII’s bedchamber. Directly below on the ground floor was The Office of the King’s Wardrobe, where the king’s clothes were stored. Every morning someone would bring Henry’s clothes up that spiral staircase to the entrance of the king’s bedroom (where you are standing). A Gentleman of the King’s Bedchamber would accept the clothes at the threshold to the bedroom and take them inside to dress the King.
Step into the room. You will notice an alcove built into the far wall with two doorways on either side (both usually left open). Inside that doorway, in the far-right hand corner is another bricked up doorway, designed with the iconic Tudor arch. This once connected the king’s secret lodgings directly with Wolsey’s gallery and apartments. I love this ‘lost’ doorway. It is one of my favourite features of the whole palace because so few people even realise it is there! It has such a story to tell. It speaks of the closeness that the king and his first minister shared. It is also so easy to imagine Wolsey visiting the Henry, discussing the business of the court, and of Europe, as the king dressed for the day.
Of course, there are many well-documented Tudor features to see at Hampton Court Palace; the great hall and watching chamber, the council chamber, chapel, and the Wolsey Rooms to name but a few. Yet, although so much was lost during later renovations of the palace, a few quirky features that link us intimately with the life of King Henry VIII and his court do survive. These are easily missed, as you will not find them indicated in the rooms or the guide books. However, now that you know, I hope when you next visit, you can look out for them and it will bring you just that little bit closer to the private life of one of the most infamous monarchs in English history.
Hampton Court Palace is managed by Historic Royal Palaces. For more information on how to reach Hampton Court and its opening hours, visit the Historic Royal Palaces’ website here, or telephone: + 44 (0) 2031 666000.
Postcode for Hampton Court Palace: KT8 9AU.