The original Tudor Hampton Court 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.
Historic Royal Palaces
Building of the palace began in 1515 for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a favourite of King Henry VIII. In 1529, as Wolsey fell from favour, the cardinal gave the palace to the king to check his disgrace. The palace went on to become one of Henry’s most favoured residences; soon after acquiring the property, he arranged for it to be enlarged so that it might more easily accommodate his sizeable retinue of courtiers. Along with St James’ Palace, it is one of only two surviving palaces out of the many the king owned. The palace is currently in the possession of Queen Elizabeth II and the Crown. In the following century, King William III’s massive rebuilding and expansion work, which was intended to rival the Palace of Versailles, destroyed much of the Tudor palace. His work ceased in 1694, leaving the palace in two distinct contrasting architectural styles, domestic Tudor and Baroque
In 1796, the Great Hall was restored and in 1838, during the reign of Queen Victoria, the restoration was completed and the palace opened to the public. The heavy-handed restoration plan at this time reduced the Great Gatehouse, the palace’s principal entrance, by two storeys and removed the lead cupolas adorning its four towers.
There are ten statues of heraldic animals, called the King’s Beasts, that stand on the bridge over the moat leading to the great gatehouse. Unlike the Queen’s Beasts in Kew Gardens, these statues represent the ancestry of King Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour. The animals are: the lion of England, the Seymour lion, the Royal dragon, the black bull of Clarence, the yale of Beaufort, the white lion of Mortimer, the White Greyhound of Richmond, the Tudor dragon, the Seymour panther, and the Seymour unicorn. The set of Queens Beasts at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II replaced the three Seymour items and one of the dragons by the griffin of Edward III, the horse of Hanover, the falcon of the Plantagenets, and the unicorn of Scotland.
Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, chief minister to and favourite of Henry VIII, took over the site of Hampton Court Palace in 1514.It had previously been a property of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Over the following seven years, Wolsey spent lavishly (200,000 Crowns) to build the finest palace in England at Hampton Court. Today, little of Wolsey’s building work remains unchanged. The first courtyard, the Base Court was his creation, as was the second, inner gatehouse which leads to the Clock Court (Wolsey’s seal remains visible over the entrance arch of the clock tower) which contained his private rooms. The Base Court contained forty-four lodgings reserved for guests, while the second court (today, Clock Court) contained the very best rooms – the state apartments – reserved for the King and his family.
Beyond the Great Gatehouse lies Base Court, little altered since Wolsey built it, on the far side of which Anne Boleyn’s Gateway leads to the small Clock Court with the Astronomical Clock above the arch. This clock was made for Henry VIII by the famous French horologist, Nicholas Ousian. Still, in good working order, its three copper dials indicate the hour, the sign of the zodiac, the month and day, the number of days since the beginning of the year, the moon’s phase, and the time of high water on the Thames at London Bridge. In accordance with the general belief of the 16th century, the sun is shown revolving around the earth.
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At over 3m in diameter, it is an imposing sight, set in the clock tower that overlooks the inner courtyard. It was installed in 1540 (although there were earlier clocks at the palace) and, as well as telling the hour, the day and the month, it shows the phases of the moon and its age in the month, the signs of the zodiac, the movement of the sun (according to pre-Copernican theory), and, most usefully for the members of the court, who usually travelled by barge, the time of high tide at London Bridge. This latter piece of information was necessary, as the unembanked Thames was strongly tidal, and the rapids that appeared at low tide around the bridge were dangerous.
In the second phase of works Wolsey demolishes more of Daubney’s original manor and builds new private apartments for the Royal Family, on the east side of Clock Court. This range would have housed Princess Mary on the ground floor, Henry on the first floor and Katharine on the double height second floor.
Tudor Times: Hampton Court Palace, Wolsey’s Masterpiece
The Great Hall was built between 1532 and 1535, making it the last medieval Great Hall built for the English monarchy. So impatient was the King for this Hall’s completion that the masons were compelled to work throughout the night by candlelight. During Tudor times, this was the most crucial room in the Palace. In this Hall, the King would dine in state seated at a table upon a raised dais. During the Tudor period, the Palace was the scene of many historical events.
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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.
Historic Royal Palaces
It has been suggested, though, that the plans were abandoned because the resemblance to Versailles was too subtle and not strong enough; at this time, it was impossible for any sovereign to visualise a palace that did not emulate Versailles’ repetitive Baroque form. However, the resemblances are there: while the façades are not so long as those of Versailles, they have similar, seemingly unstoppable repetitive rhythms beneath a long flat skyline. The monotony is even repeated as the façade turns the corner from the east to the south fronts. However, Hampton Court, unlike Versailles, is given an extra dimension by the contrast between the pink brick and the pale Portland stone quoins, frames and banding. Further diversion is added by the circular and decorated windows of the second floor mezzanine. This theme is repeated in the inner Fountain Court, but the rhythm is faster and the windows, unpedimented on the outer façades, are given pointed pediments in the courtyard; this has led the courtyard to be described as “Startling, as of simultaneous exposure to a great many eyes with raised eyebrows.”