Hampton Court Palace’s historic buildings, situated beside the River Thames in Richmond, occupy a site of over six acres, making it one of the largest and most impressive Royal palaces in the world. The Palace has been frequented by thousands of notable people over the centuries and as such its walls have witnessed the unfolding of many historic events. The Palace today consists of a number of architectural styles resulting from a series of alterations and expansions since Cardinal Wolsey began construction of the Palace in 1515. The last major alteration works were carried out by William III and his wife, Mary II, who commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to modernise Hampton Court in the late 17th century. Wren, who was a leading architect of his day famous for designing many churches in London including St Paul’s Cathedral, designed the East and South facades in an English Baroque style. As a result, it is abundant in Classical features, including pediments over the windows, pilasters, and a balustrade which helps to conceal the flat roof – often a feature of Classical buildings. The elegance and formality of these wings contrasts dramatically with the battlements and turrets of Wolsey’s Medieval core.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was initially a friend of King Henry VIII, for whom he served as chief adviser, making him one of the most powerful men in England at his prime. Wolsey led an extravagant lifestyle and his vivacious taste was exhibited in the grandiose architecture of Hampton Court Palace – Wolsey’s way of showing off his power. A key feature of his building work at Hampton Court are the 241 decorative chimneys, the first of their style in England. These chimney stacks display a wealth of brick detailing designs including chevrons, spirals and diamond studs. However, Wolsey’s power was entirely reliant on the King’s favour. He suffered a terrible end after a downfall caused by Henry’s desire to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon due to what he saw as her inability to provide an heir. Henry ordered Wolsey to exert his influence in Rome to convince the Pope to annul his marriage with Catherine, but Wolsey was unable to achieve this as the Pope refused. It was mainly this that led to Wolsey’s demise, eventually being arrested in 1530 on the grounds of treason, and dying on his way to trial. Shortly after this time, Henry VIII began a programme of modernisation and expansion, making Hampton Court one of the most sophisticated and up-to-date in England.
Jumping to the late 17th century we reach the reign of William and Mary, who succeeded the throne in 1689, with building work beginning shortly afterwards. Though their reign was short, they initiated a defining and dramatic change to the appearance of Hampton Court. Wren had grand plans for the building, involving the complete destruction of the existing buildings, saving only the Medieval Great Hall. Fortunately for us today, this plan could not be realised on the grounds of expense, so the sprawling Medieval core was retained. Work on the new wings ceased for a time when Mary died in 1694 – William was devastated – and did not resume again until 1697 due to his involvement in European wars. Work was accelerated by the destruction of Whitehall Palace, London in 1898 by fire. The extension was finally completed by Wren’s deputy, William Talman, in order to save money – Wren’s estimates had exceeded the budget and King William’s efforts to contain King Louis XIV of France had drained resources. Later, Sir John Vanbrugh completed six new rooms in 1717 for George I’s wife, fulfilling the visions of Wren and Talman.
Hampton Court Palace has not been used as a Royal residence since 1737, but its lavish history does not end there. After 1760, the Palace was given a progressive new use – rent-free apartments were let out as ‘grace-and-favour’ residences for people who had contributed exceptionally to the Crown or country. This use continued in to the 20th century, with the last warrant being granted in the 1980s – there are still a small number of grace-and-favour residents at Hampton Court Palace today, but most of the building is open to the public, run by Historic Royal Palaces.
Photo credit: Luke Nicolaides