Few buildings in England have witnessed as many momentous historical events as Hampton Court Palace. For over 500 years, it has occupied a starring role in the story of England. Initially built by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the palace became home to King Henry VIII and is one of only two of Henry’s royal palaces that remain in existence.
Today the palace is owned by Queen Elizabeth II and is maintained by Historic Royal Palaces. Hampton Court is home to a sizeable part of Her Majesty’s Royal Collection, the world’s largest private art collection, and many extraordinary items are permanently on display across the site.
A visit to Hampton Court Palace is a journey through England’s dramatic history. Here you will discover the Tudor world and learn all about the notorious Henry VIII and his wives. Have afternoon tea in buildings constructed by Britain’s most famous monarchs and admire the palace’s ornate, historic interiors. Brush up on your Stuart history, and, maybe, even encounter one of the palace’s ghosts!
Hampton Court Palace truly is an unmissable day out for anyone interested in British history, with activities and things to see that will entertain guests of all ages. At John England Tours, we offer a Private Hampton Court Palace Tour that dives deep into the palace’s storied past. Or, if you’re passionate about all things Tudor, you can join us for our popular Private Tudor Day Tour to Hampton Court Palace and Hever Castle.
Hampton Court’s Beginnings
It was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York, that began changing Hampton Court Palace from an ordinary country house into the grand palace we know today. Previously owned by the medieval Catholic Order of St John of Jerusalem, Wolsey took over in 1514 and began spending lavishly (sums that would equal millions of pounds in today’s money).
To this day, Wolsey’s seal and initials can still be found in many parts of the palace. But the figure who draws so many thousands of visitors to Hampton Court each year is undoubtedly King Henry VIII. First staying at the site in 1525, as a guest of Wolsey, Henry VIII was taken in by the palace’s Renaissance-style grandeur, which Wolsey had cultivated to signal to the world that he was as important and imposing a character as any cardinal in Rome.
But Wolsey’s carefree days in his palace were numbered. In 1528, knowing that Henry VIII was unhappy with him, Wolsey gifted the palace to the king. It was, though, too late. Wolsey’s failure to secure an annulment of King Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, (so the king could marry Anne Boleyn), effectively meant the end of his career at court. In 1529 Cardinal Wolsey was stripped of his offices and by 1530 he was dead.
If you enjoy historical fiction, King Henry VIII’s court, including Wolsey, has recently been fictionialised magnificently in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy.
King Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace
It took Henry VIII no time at all to begin redesigning Hampton Court Palace. The king’s court was made up of over 1,000 people, so one of his first changes was to build the palace’s enormous kitchens, unsurprising given the king’s famous fondness for feasting! (His favourite snack after a game of tennis was said to be steak and ale pie.)
In fact, dining was so important to the king that his expansion continued with the addition of the Great Hall. (The last medieval great hall built for the English monarchy). Henry VIII was so eager to see this tremendous banqueting hall completed that he had the masons and carpenters work through the nights by candlelight.
But King Henry’s time at Hampton Court Palace wasn’t defined by revelry. Instead, most visitors will probably associate the king’s time in the palace with beheadings! King Henry’s second wife and queen, Anne Boleyn, lived with the king at Hampton Court before he accused her of high treason in 1536 and had her beheaded. Today, historians almost unanimously agree that all the accusations levelled at her were false. The king wanted an excuse to have her executed as she had not borne him a son, and he had already begun courting Jane Seymour.
King Henry VIII married his third wife, Jane Seymour, at the Palace of Whitehall in 1536. Within a year she would give birth to a son, Edward VI. But within two weeks, Jane was to pass away from complications related to the birth. She died at Hampton Court.
It was also at Hampton Court Palace that Henry VIII is said to have learned of the adultery of his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. While Henry was at mass one day in the palace chapel, he received a letter informing him of his wife’s indiscretions. She was arrested that same day and was beheaded at London’s Tower Bridge within months.
For a more in-depth view of Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard follow bestselling author, Janet Wertman, who also hosts popular book clubs covering King Henry VIII’s other queens and many fascinating characters in the Tudor court.
Haunted Hampton Court Palace
Aside from the Hampton Court Palace’s splendid gardens, priceless artworks, exquisite interiors and fascinating history, there’s an altogether stranger attraction that leads some guests to plan their visit: Ghosts!
In the early 1900s, Hampton Court became one of England’s top locations with ghost hunters to visit. Popular postcards of the period would even feature fake images of ghosts allegedly caught on camera. Today we would say the ghost stories of Hampton Court had gone viral. But was there any substance to the tales? Many believe so.
It is said that no less than two of Henry VIII’s wives haunt Hampton Court. His third wife, Jane Seymour, who so tragically died in childbirth, appears on the anniversary of her son, King Edward VI’s birth. Witnesses have described her spectre as a pale, sad woman wearing white and carrying an unflickering candle. These sightings have taken place on the Silverstick Stairs, which once led up to the room where Jane gave birth and died. She’s also been seen in the palace’s Clock Court.
Meanwhile, visitors to the Haunted Gallery (pictured above) have reported mysterious drops in temperature and heard the screaming of Catherine Howard, Henry’s executed fifth wife. Terrified visitors have told stories of hearing Catherine Howard plead for mercy. Even leading historian and Joint Chief Curator, Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley, a ghost sceptic, has described feeling an odd chilliness in that room!
Explore the fascinating Tudor world further by listening to historian and bestselling author Deb Hunter’s All Things Tudor. A recent edition featured Tracy Borman, historian and Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, discussing an extraordinary newly discovered artefact of particular interest to anyone curious about Hampton Court Palace.
The Stuarts at Hampton Court
The House of Stuart’s association with Hampton Court began in 1603 with the accession of King James I (known as James VI in Scotland) to the throne. With James becoming king, this meant the two sovereign kingdoms of England and Scotland were to be ruled by one king. The gregarious King James had various entertainments staged within the halls of Hampton Court Palace, including a Scottish sword dance for his wife and queen, Anne of Denmark.
With King James’ death in 1625, a much more divisive figure took the English crown. His son Charles I made Hampton Court his regular regal home, but the palace was also to one day be his prison! King Charles’ belief in the Divine Right of Kings, his constant quarrels with the English parliament, and the widespread belief that he was secretly a Catholic ultimately led to the English Civil War and Charles’ execution.
Following victory in the Civil War and the king’s death, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the British Isles, made Hampton Court Palace his home. Fortunately for us history enthusiasts, Cromwell put his Puritan ideals to one side during his time at Hampton Court and left the palace unscathed. In fact, it is said that he rather enjoyed the experience of living like a king.
William and Mary’s Joint Rule
The Stuarts returned to the English throne between 1560 and 1588 during a period known as the Restoration. But their return to power was short-lived. In 1588, King James II was ousted from the crown during the Glorious Revolution, to be replaced by his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange. As with his father, Charles I, James’ closeness to the Roman Catholic Church had made him many enemies at home, leading to a group of Protestant nobles inviting Mary to take the throne.
At Mary’s insistence, she and William were to be joint rulers of the country; to this day, they remain the only English monarchs to have reigned as joint rulers.
Shortly after coming to power, King William III and Queen Mary II began a huge building project at Hampton Court Palace. They enlisted the services of Britain’s most famous architect Sir Christopher Wren and began having sections of the Tudor palace demolished, to be replaced by new buildings in the Baroque style. Creating the King and Queen’s State Apartments, William and Mary replaced the earlier Gothic style of Hampton Court with the grand, imposing style of Wren.
Reading about King William and Queen Mary’s renovations at Hampton Court will leave every fan of Tudor history mourning the loss of so much Tudor-era architecture, but any visitor to Hampton Court Palace today will confirm that Baroque-era buildings are magnificent in their own right.
The Palace’s Recent History
Today, Hampton Court Palace welcomes thousands of guests through its doors each year. And although no monarch has lived in the palace since King George II in the 18th century, the palace’s story has continued to unfold.
Hampton Court has been used as a filming location for many famous films, such as A Man for All Seasons, Pirates of the Caribbean, Sherlock Holmes, and Disney’s Cinderella. Most recently, the palace was a filming location for the successful historical drama Belgravia.
Whatever period of English history interests you, you’ll find there’s a wealth to discover at beautiful Hampton Court Palace. Our guests often report that it’s one of the cultural highlights of their visit to the UK.
If you have any questions about this blog or our tours, please get in touch.