Three Palaces for the Price of One.

 

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When Cardinal Wolseley started to build Hampton Court in 1515, he was Henry’s Lord Chancellor and probably the second most powerful man in England. He designed Hampton Court to be one of the largest houses in Europe. It was built for a household of no less than 500 people. One could certainly say that there was a house that was fit for a king.

When Wolseley fell from grace following his failure on obtaining Henry his divorce from his first queen, he tried to win back the king by offering him the house in 1528 as a gift. Henry accepted the present, but Wolseley did not manage to return to his previous role. In fact, only a year later he was stripped of all his properties and roles beside one: the Archbishop of York. He travelled north only to be called back to London to face trial for treason. During the trip back south, he fell ill and died. 

Henry now had a new toy to play with, and he enlarged and extended the already grand building, turning it into his primary residence in the capital. He added the great hall and the chapel that can still be seen today. Henry was not the best father or husband, and so it is easy to understand why his children preferred not to use Hampton Court as their home after his death, and the palace became semi-neglected. The next king who lived in Hampton Court was Charles I, but he did not do so from his own will. Before the English Civil War of the 17th century, Charles mainly used the palace to host some of his art collection, but after the war broke out, he ended up as a prisoner in the palace. After he escaped, he was moved to Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. The next resident of the palace was none other than Cromwell himself who perhaps was not crowned as a king but definitely lived like one.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the new king, Charles II, decided to embark on a different kind of building project at Hampton Court and created the ‘Long Water’, a canal the length of three-quarters of a mile that was excavated as a present to his new bride, Catherine of Braganza. The king and the queen enjoyed a pleasant honeymoon at the palace, with boats shaped like swans floating in the water. In later years Charles II spent many romantic times of his own in the palace as this became the home of his favourite mistress, Barbara Villiers. 

Hampton Court became a fully royal residence with the arrival of William and Mary at the end of the 17th century. The royal couple hired the famous Christopher Wren, the architect who rebuilt London after the great fire. Their palace was supposed to be the English equivalent of France’s  Versailles, but without sufficient funds, he could only achieve part of his plans. However, the couple did manage to add some Baroque flare to Hampton Court and during their time the famous maze was created.

Hampton Court Palace continued to act as a royal residence until the days of George II. Both William and Mary and the Georgians added rooms and halls to the old Tudor palace, which means that today, you can literally visit three palaces at Hampton Court rather than one.

After the palace stopped functioning as a royal residence in the 1730s, it became the home of those who enjoyed the grace and favour of the monarch. Most parts of the palace were converted into 69 apartments that became the home of over 100 residents with 200-300 servants. Amongst the many people who resided here, you could find the sister of the last Russian Tzar and Dr Samuel Johnoson, the author of the first English dictionary. Another famous resident was none other than the greatest landscape artist in the history of the country, Lancelot “Capability” Brown. 

The grace and favour tradition maintained until the 1960s. The residents did not pay rent, but they had to live in a place that was rapidly getting older and colder. Many complained that their apartments were cold and run-down; indeed, many of them did not even have hot water. In 1986, 15 apartments were still in use at the palace and most of them were occupied by veteran soldiers. Click here to learn more about the story of the non-royal residents of the palace. 

Queen Victoria opened the first parts of the palace to the public in 1838. Today, Hampton Court Palace is managed by the Historic Royal Palace organization and attracts over 600,000 visitors per year. 

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The Best Historic Attraction in London

Chasing Castles Review

The best accolade to pay Hampton Court Palace is to say it is the best historic attraction to visit within the M25 area. However, since this is a huge place with so much history, it is easy to get overwhelmed and miss out if you do not plan your visit well.  We have visited Hampton Court Palace twice so far and we may well have to return one final time in order to feel that we have finished exploring it all. 

Hampton Court Palace is not a single palace, it is actually three different palaces that represent different eras and different dynasties. Each palace tells a different story and although the palace of Henry VIII, the first king to own Hampton Court, attracts most of the attention, I would recommend not missing the magnificent halls of the Stuart or the Georgian palaces. 

 

When we visited the Tower of London during our ‘castle chase’, we discovered that although it was, in theory, the perfect castle to visit, it was hard to enjoy because it was so busy and you had to queue to explore its various rooms and attractions. Our second visit to Hampton Court took place during the school summer holidays and although there were lots of visitors, the place is so big that people spread out between the different rooms, halls and attractions. 

Visiting Hampton Court Palace is a real challenge (not only for history buffs like me). The palace offers so many places to explore and things to do which makes it very hard to plan your day well. Obviously, the best way to explore the palace is with a guided tour, but there was none available (you can pay for a private tour if you wish to have one). Instead, Hampton Court Palace offers the second best thing, a complimentary audio guide that includes a family-friendly version that my six years old really enjoyed.

Alternatively, you can try and have a conversation with the various guides spread around the palace. I had a few such chats with several guides and they were all very informative and knowledgeable. One of the guides admitted that most visitors do not ask any questions (which makes their day a bit dull) and when I asked him a few questions he even took me on a mini-guided tour across several rooms as part of his answer. So, if you read this blog and plan a visit to the palace, please make sure you approach the guides and speak to them. You will both get something out of it.

Hampton Court Palace has managed to combine to perfection the historic monument it is and the fact that it is also a tourist attraction. Next to various historic combinations, you could find local guides dressed as Tudor characters that offered anything from a selfie with a bird of prey to soldier training for kids. Other guides (also dressed as characters) gave a Tudor cooking presentation in the kitchen and so on, which means everyone can find something to do or explore that interests them.

The attractions are not limited to the buildings themselves. The gardens at Hampton Court hold many more things to see and do- from the famous maze to the ‘long water’ and much more. If this was not enough, one of the recent additions to the gardens includes one of the best climbing frames we have seen in the UK. 

To sum things up, Hampton Court Palace belongs to the very small group of historic places in this country that offer the perfect visitor experience. My tip to fully enjoy the visit is to do some research in advance (there are some great documentaries telling the story of this place). If Hampton Court Palace was a restaurant, it would certainly appear in the Michelin book and it would be awarded three stars. 

For more information about visiting Hampton Court, please visit the palace official website