Hampton Court

On The Road Travel Essays

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Hampton Court

Hampton Court, by the banks of the Thames just outside of London, is a delightful place to visit. The palace is nothing like as crowded as Windsor. Its varied architecture, of which more below, is both elegant and charming; its gardens are world famous; you can get lost in the maze; see England's oldest vine; explore the fascinating Tudor kitchens; or simply enjoy the magnificent State Apartments. There are always guided tours going on, which you can simply join. The guides often wear fashions from other epochs in the history of the palace.

Who was Thomas Wolsey?  Thomas Wolsey, the builder of Hampton Court, was the son of a butcher. Through luck and intelligence he rose through the English church hierarchy to become a cardinal. He also became the Lord Chancellor of England - a position roughly comparable to the U.S. Secretary of State, Chief Justice, and Treasury Secretary all in one! To understand how this was possible, keep in mind that in C16 Europe, church and state were inseparable. Often the most powerful figures in government were high-ranking churchmen. Wolsey's own ambition was to use his political influence in England to become Pope. King Henry VIII was still young, and occupied his time hunting, carousing, and drinking. Wolsey carried on most of the business of government himself. Being the Chancellor, he was responsible for the administration of justice, and this gave him plenty of opportunity to make huge profits, with which he built Hampton Court. Wolsey was no more corrupt than most civil servants of his day. A little nest-feathering was the expected custom among people in high office.

Wolsey wanted Hampton Court to be a visible sign of his power and prestige - a power rivalling that of the king himself. But this ambition was dangerous, and for two reasons. (1) There was no tradition in England of a "Prince of the Church" holding vast wealth and political leverage. This tradition really belonged to Italy (where cardinals sometimes ruled their own private republics) and to Germany (where cardinals sometimes shared rulership with the Holy Roman Emperor). The last such "Prince of the Church" in England had been Thomas à Becket, who was murdered by men loyal to Henry II. The whole idea, therefore, didn't sit well with the English people. (2) It didn't sit well with Henry VIII as he reached maturity. Wolsey's dream had to come to an end, but it was glorious while it lasted.

Wolsey employed 500 servants at Hampton Court. Almost 300 rooms were kept permanently furnished for guests. Wolsey entertained foreign ambassadors in high style, and they tended to look to him, not to the king, as the one to deal with.

Henry VIII's jealousy was finally aroused, and he stripped Wolsey of his wealth and titles. Wolsey knew that he was on the way out, so as a final gambit he gave Hampton Court to the king as a gesture of good will. This didn't help, but it staved off the final disaster for a time. Wolsey retired to a country house in York after receiving a general pardon. But he was arrested shortly afterwards, and died while being brought to London for trial.

Why the Palace is Important  Hampton Court is the first major example of English domestic architecture. Until the time it was built, almost the only buildings made of stone were churches and royal castles like Windsor. The idea of private dwellings made of stone was a novelty in C16 England. They had appeared first in Italy, built by the great merchant princes of Florence, Ferrara, and Rome. Then the tradition spread to northern Europe as peace and prosperity freed resources.

Hampton Court is a typical example of a palatial country villa which is Gothic in style, but unlike a real castle, was furnished with some un-medieval comforts inside. The castle-appearance of the building is purely decorative: the thick walls, turrets, moat and drawbridge, small Gothic windows, and battlements. And if you look more closely, you'll see some signs of domestic comfort: the chimneys, for example. The whole roof is a forest of chimneys. They are intricately designed, forming a graceful twisting shape. Why so many of them? Chimneys were still a novelty at the time, having been imported from Italy. This enabled each room, even each little nook, to have its own fireplace without filling the room with soot and smoke. Elaborate stone chimneys were the very epitome of luxury - and Wolsey adorned his mansion with dozens of them. Notice also the circular-shaped stone medallions (called "roundels"), which appear on either side of the gateways. They bear images of Roman emperors; Wolsey's conception of himself was imperial indeed! On either side of the mock drawbridge in front are handsome statues of symbolic and mythological creatures: lions, greyhounds, griffins, unicorns. These were royal beasts having a symbolic importance in the Middle Ages: they represented the magical powers of kingship. The beasts are holding shields on which coats-of-arms are displayed. These shields form a 300-year record of English foreign policy and dynastic intermarriage. You'll see the lions of England, and the lilies of France (England still maintained theoretical claim to the throne of France). Some shields have only one or two coats-of-arms on them. Others have as many as eight. The significance of this is that the shields with many coats-of-arms represent a more complicated lineage, with a greater number of ancestors. Coats-of-arms like this were important to kings and noblemen: it was their proof of legitimate descent. One symbol you'll see is the Tudor rose - two roses superimposed symbolising the union of the houses of Lancaster and York, which was the basis of the Tudor kings' claim to the throne.

Different Architectural Styles at Hampton Court  The front entrance and the buildings around it are part of the original structure, built by Cardinal Wolsey. But as you move farther inside the building, the style becomes Baroque. These newer buildings were designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The stylistic difference is conspicuous: there are large round windows, surrounded by stone wreaths, instead of the arched Gothic windows of the original building. The red brick is brighter in colour, compared to the more faded, orange brick of the earlier part. The colonnades of Wren's design have rounded arches, compared to the pointed Gothic arches. The overall classical style of the Baroque contrasts with the medieval, castle-like design of the older building. These two styles clash most obviously inside the royal chapel. The design of the chapel is Gothic in outline, including the vaulting overhead. But behind the high altar are Baroque columns, and everywhere are ornate, swirling shapes and ornamentation typical of the Baroque. What a difference as you walk into the Great Hall, which is pure Gothic (part of the original building): the design is more severe, with wooden vaulting overhead, stained glass window, and bare walls. Hampton Court is thus a synthesis of two great periods of English architecture: Gothic and Baroque.


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