Before you visit Hampton Court, you might want to watch an episode or two of the HBO series The Tudors. After your visit, you’re going to want to watch the entire series.
More than any other place I visited in London and the vicinity, Hampton Court Palace sparked my interest in the history of the British Monarchy. And one of the most fascinating periods of that history took place during the reign of the Tudors. The most famous of the Tudors was Henry VIII, the king who went through one wife after another in his quest for a male child, and in the process, tore England’s church away from its Roman roots, declaring himself as its ultimate authority.
Hampton Court Palace was Henry VIII’s home-away-from-home — just a boat ride on the River Thames away from London. Originally, it belonged to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who built much of the palace, but eventually gave the property to Henry VIII. Wolsey’s career took a rather serious turn for the worse, when he failed to secure an annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon (the king’s first wife, of six). The divorce issue was one of many that caused friction between Henry and the Catholic Church. The King didn’t like decisions affecting England being made in Rome, and eventually, he pulled the English church away from the Pope, declaring himself as its supreme head.
Okay, that’s all for the history lesson, at least for the moment. Instead, I’d rather tell you about what you can expect to see and do at Hampton Court Palace.
I arrived at Hampton Court Palace too late in the day to see everything. Truth was, I probably only had a couple of hours to explore, before visiting hours were over for the day. I had to move fast. (I’ll talk more about how to get here, in just a moment).
When you arrive at Hampton Court Palace, this is the view that greets you. It’s the West Front — which serves as the main visitor entrance. Before entering, I decided to take a side trip, to the northern end of the Palace grounds, to visit Hampton Court’s famous hedge maze. (The maze was going to close earlier than the rest of the complex, so I had to prioritize.)
Hampton Court’s famous maze has been around since the late 1600’s, when it was planted for King William III and Mary II. It’s rather simple, even though it contains a half-mile of paths, crammed into 1/3 of an acre of land.
It only took me a few minutes to find my way into the center of the maze, where a marker provides a photo opportunity. A shortcut allows you to exit without taking the long way around again.
Instead of wandering around the Wilderness, I quickly headed back to where I came from — the West Front. But I didn’t forget to stop and smell the roses.
Hampton Court’s Rose Garden is located just north of the main entrance to the palace at the West Front. There are rows and rows of huge rose bushes planted here, and it’s quite fragrant.
The Palace: Base Court and Clock Court
Once I was back at the entrance, I headed inside. Hampton Court Palace has three courtyards. The first is Base Court. The rooms that surround this courtyard were intended by Cardinal Wolsey to be used by guests of the Palace. The fountain in this picture is a re-creation of Henry VIII’s original wine fountain — which would flow with wine instead of water on special occasions.
Pass the fountain, and continue through the next gate (known as Anne Boleyn’s Gate, underneath the clock tower), then turn around and look up…
… to see Henry VIII’s astronomical clock. It was installed in 1540, making it one of the oldest clocks in Europe.
The face displays the time (in 24-hour format), month, day of the month, position of the sun on the zodiac, phase of the moon, and the time at which the moon would cause the highest tide at London Bridge.
Go back underneath the clock, and look for the entrance to…
Henry VIII’s Apartments
The first part of the tour of Henry VIII’s Apartments takes you through the Great Hall. This grand room was completed in 1535, and was the last great hall built for the English Monarchy. It’s the place where Henry VIII would hold formal dinners. The king’s splendid tapestries are still hung upon its walls.
In the following room, the Great Watching Chamber, the ceiling is the main attraction. It’s covered with gold leaf, and the family arms and badge of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife.
Next is the Processional Gallery, which leads from the Great Watching Chamber to the Chapel Royal. Henry VIII would have walked this corridor, wearing his crown and finest robes, on his way to the Chapel.
As you walk in the footsteps of Henry, it almost feels like he’s standing there, watching you — thanks to this famous portrait of the King, which hangs on the wall.
A portrait of his son, Edward, is nearby. The boy stands in a pose similar to his father. Edward became King upon Henry’s death in 1547, when he was only 9 years old. He died when he was 15.
This family portrait was painted when Henry was married to Catherine Parr, his sixth wife, but she isn’t the woman standing next to Henry. Instead, Jane Seymour, mother of Edward, stands in her place. This gathering would have been impossible in real life, since Jane Seymour died shortly after Edward’s birth.
Elizabeth I is also pictured here. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife. The portrait is intended to indicate her availability for marriage, and fertility.
At the end of the tour of Henry VIII’s apartments, you’ll find the Queen’s Staircase, elaborately decorated with huge paintings.
Queen Mary II’s Apartments
Next, I headed into the apartments of Queen Mary II. First is her Audience Chamber, which served as her receiving room, where she would meet guests. The room was finished in 1715, with the chandelier added in 1736. The Flemish tapestry depicts Christ’s charge to St. Peter.
The Queen’s Drawing Room is at the center of the palace’s east front. It was used for social receptions, but it was not used until after Queen Anne’s death.
Windows here look directly out towards the Long Water and the Great Fountain Garden.
But who needs to look outside, when you can just look up! The painting on the ceiling is remarkable.
The Queen’s State Bedchamber is next. It was completed in 1715 for George and Caroline, the Prince and Princess of Wales, and Caroline continued to use it after becoming Queen.
The bed, by the way, is original. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to roll around on it like you’re at the Sealy store.
Of course, there’s another exquisite painting upon the ceiling, which depicts daybreak.
The final room on the tour of Queen Mary II’s Apartments is the Queen’s Gallery. It connects the Queen’s Apartments with her closet, and the King’s Apartments. The Gallery looks the same as it did in the 1730’s — it was redecorated by King William, after Mary’s death. The stools around the perimeter of the room are originals, dating back to 1737. The tapestries, which depict the life of Alexander the Great, were added around that same time. Notice how one of them covers a doorway, and folds back when the door is opened.
At the end of the tour of Queen Mary II’s Apartments, I was nearly running out of time, so I skipped some of the other interesting sections of the palace, like William’s Apartments and Henry VIII’s Kitchens. I headed outside to explore the surrounding gardens (more on that in a moment). Afterwards, I ended up inside, once again, and by pure luck I got to see a beautiful attraction I nearly missed:
The King’s Staircase is the most elaborate of all the palace’s staircases. It was painted by Antonio Verrio, an Italian artist who also painted four other rooms at Hampton Court Palace. The painting spills from the walls…
… onto the ceiling.
Remember earlier, when I told you there were three courts at Hampton Court? The first two were Base Court and Clock Court. If you kept heading east, you would reach the third one: Fountain Court. As the name suggests, there is a fountain in the center, surrounded by grass. The apartments that surround the court include Henry VIII’s, Mary’s, and William’s.
The Chapel Royal
Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside Chapel Royal. You’ll just have to visit it, and see it for yourself. Construction on the Chapel was begun by Cardinal Wolsey, and completed by Henry VIII. When Henry attended services, he would have sat on the upper level, or balcony, while the congregation sat below.
On the east side of Hampton Court Palace, you can walk amongst the perfectly gumdrop-shaped trees of the Great Fountain Garden. This is arguably the most beautiful side of the Palace…
… and as the name suggests, there’s a big fountain at the middle of it all.
Go a bit further east from the fountain, and you reach the Long Water — a canal that stretches out eastward. It was added during the reign of Charles II in 1662.
Stretching south from Hampton Court Palace, the Privy Garden is a sunken garden that’s one of the most beautiful spots on the palace grounds. It has been painstakingly restored to its original appearance in 1702, when it was designed for William III. Even further back, all the way to Henry VIII’s days, this was the private garden of the King.
Notice the big, green wall in the picture above. This is actually an ivy passageway…
… covering a pathway that runs the length of the Privy Garden.
Don’t be confused — this is not the “Great Vine”… even though it is very great, and is covered with vines.
After exploring the Privy Garden, head west, and peek into the Pond Gardens…
… which are closed to the public, but still quite beautiful.
The Great Vine
The famous (and world-record-holding) Great Vine is located at the western end of the south side of Hampton Court Palace. It isn’t very photogenic, but it’s impressive nonetheless. This vine was planted in 1768, which makes it older than the United States of America. Guinness recognized it as the oldest productive grape vine in the world. The base of its trunk measures 12 feet around.
The vine grows inside a greenhouse, though its roots are planted outside. There is a large barren area, just outside the greenhouse, where no other plants are grown — so that all the nutrition goes to the Great Vine.
Getting There, and Getting Back
There are two ways to get to and from Hampton Court Palace, and I gave both a try. On the trip from London to Hampton Court, I took the Underground District (green) line to Richmond, then transferred to the R68 bus, which runs from Richmond to Hampton Court. This route wasn’t ideal, since I had a long wait for the bus outside the Richmond rail station, and the bus ride itself was quite slow (it’s only about 6 miles, but seemed much longer).
For the ride back, I walked to the Hampton Court Rail Station, which is just across the River Thames from the Palace. From here, heavy-rail trains run to London Waterloo, leaving every half-hour or so, and taking 37 minutes to reach the city. Since the train is a lot more pleasant than a bus, and since the station is within a 5-minute walk of the Palace, you would be wise to take the train in both directions (unless you just want to enjoy a scenic bus ride through the suburbs).
If you have a TravelCard, either of these routes are free, since the TravelCard covers Tube and Bus travel, as well as Rail travel within certain zones around London.
The train station is on the edge of the town of East Molesey, in the county of Surrey. It looked like it was worthy of some exploration, but I was too tired to think of seeing anything else.