Henry’s pleasure palace | Suzannah Lipscomb

Henry’s pleasure palace

Article reproduced from Essence Magazine, July/August 2009

Suzannah Lipscomb, author and research curator at Hampton Court Palace, on the endless opportunities to experience the life and turbulent times of Henry VIII

Hampton Court was one of Henry VIII’s favourite houses, out of the 50 or so palaces, houses and castles he owned at his death. Henry spent a lot of time here – whether coming to hunt on lands running to Windsor, or to escape the perennial London plague. With its tennis courts, bowling alleys and lavish apartments, it was his pleasure palace, where he entertained foreign ambassadors and visiting guests.

To mark the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the English throne, on 22 April 1509, Historic Royal Palaces have organized a series of exhibitions, events and activities at Hampton Court Palace in 2009. These include transforming the visitor experience of the Tudor palace, presenting an exhibition of unusual portraits and objects, and hosting a fantastic programme of events, including a series of talks in conjunction with History Today. This is the exciting culmination of a four-year project, which has already seen us represent Henry’s kitchens and unveil the Young Henry VIII exhibition.

The first thing we did for 2009 was to give the palace a face-lift to make it fit for a king! Base Court, which was originally set with cobbles and only grassed over in the Victorian period, has been re-set with stone to take it back to something much more like what Henry VIII would have walked on. In the process, the opportunity to dig under the existing surface produced extraordinary new archaeological discoveries, including evidence of a medieval wooden structure, which takes our knowledge of the site back a further 200 years. The palace’s Astronomical Clock has also been newly conserved, so that the colours are bright and arresting, as they would have been when it was finished for Henry VIII in 1542.

But we’ve also changed the visitor experience of the Tudor palace. Whilst Henry VIII’s apartments have always been magnificent – with the Great Hall’s spectacular hammer-beam roof and the Great Watching Chamber’s gold-leafed ceiling, and the walls in both decorated with sumptuous sixteenth-century tapestries – they previously gave our visitors little sense of what it was actually like to be present at Henry VIII’s court.

Now when visitors arrive at Hampton Court Palace, they get to become courtiers to Henry VIII on one special day – the day of his sixth and last wedding to Kateryn Parr, which took place in the Queen’s Closet at Hampton Court on 12 July 1543. There is every opportunity to get involved; visitors even have a chance to wear Tudor gowns throughout their visit, and see the State Apartment Warders in a stunning new uniform inspired by the red livery of Henry VIII’s servants.

The Great Hall is set up for Henry and Kateryn’s wedding feast, with wonderfully illustrated tablecloths that tell tales about the room and the tapestries, and a gorgeously laid high-table with ornate chairs for the king and queen. The Great Watching Chamber, where people watched and waited for Henry VIII to emerge from his private apartments, is now a place to pass time in games and luxury. Emerging from it, the corridors along which the king processed are re-dressed in rich fabric, just like the tapestries and arras of Henry VIII’s day, making the palace feel lived-in once again.

The highlight, however, is Henry VIII’s Council Chamber. This is where his Privy Council often met in the late 1530s and 1540s and after years of being used as a workshop by the Royal Collection, it has now been opened to the public for the first time. Until 3 August 2009, the Council Chamber hosts a special temporary exhibition called Henry’s Women. This exhibition brings together rarely seen sixteenth-century portraits of all six wives of Henry VIII at the palace most closely associated with him, and in the room where some of the pivotal political decisions affecting Henry’s matrimonial choices were made. Some of these portraits are normally not seen outside private collections, or are particularly important, like the earliest panel portrait of Katherine of Aragon. Each portrait is paired with an evocative historic object relating to the fates of the wives, including Catherine Howard’s letter to her alleged lover, Thomas Culpepper, signed off ‘yours as long as life endures’. These are joined by a portrait of Henry himself, and portraits of Henry’s other women, his children Mary and Elizabeth.

There is also another temporary exhibition at the palace – Henry VIII’s Tapestries Revealed. Henry VIII’s tapestries, including the great 10 piece Abraham set, completed in 1543, were once vividly coloured, with their cloth-of-gold highlights twinkling in the light. Since early 2008, Historic Royal Palaces and the University of Manchester have been painstakingly working to calculate how the original colours of Henry’s Abraham tapestries have faded from this original bright, glittering glory. Using a state-of-the-art cinema projector, this new exhibition shines just the right amount of light and colour onto the front of one of the tapestries to make back the difference and therefore, provide a virtual reconstruction of its original awe-inspiring appearance.

There is also something for gardeners. Using contemporary evidence of Tudor gardens, for 2009, a new Tudor-inspired garden has been created in Chapel Court, with beds of flowers, herbs, topiary and decorated rails. It includes eight specially commissioned wooden ‘Kyngs beestes’ – a bull, dragon, falcon, leopard, greyhound, lion, white hand and a yale – which have been carved in oak, and painted and gilded before being mounted on wooden posts.

Best of all perhaps, our visitors are now able to meet Henry VIII and his new wife – a historical interpreter from company Past Pleasures playing Henry VIII is on site every day, and the resemblance to the old king is striking enough to make anyone want to take a knee!

Finally, there is also a fantastic series of events to celebrate the year, including a flotilla of Tudor barges rowing down from the Tower to Hampton Court to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s coronation, a tournament of jousting on the August bank holiday and for the more academic, a conference on ‘Henry VIII and the Tudor Court, 1509-2009’, organised in conjunction with Oxford Brookes and Kingston Universities.

In addition, in a special collaboration, History Today and Historic Royal Palaces are offering a series of public lectures and panels, The Henry VIII Talks at Hampton Court Palace, held in Henry’s Great Hall between May and October. The speakers are academic and popular historians, historical novelists and professionals, exploring Henry VIII’s continuing significance, his character, how one survived at his court, the Reformation, and representations of Henry on film and stage, including a performed lecture of John Heywood’s The Play of the Weather, a allegorical play about the English Reformation produced for Henry’s court around 1530.

Hampton Court was always Henry VIII’s pleasure palace. Now the stage is set for it to be a place of great enjoyment for other families too – all it needs is people to come and step back in time, and be part of Henry VIII’s court.