Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace is one of only two palaces left that were built in the reign of Henry VIII. The other is St James’s Palace.

Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace

We will start the tale with Thomas Wolsey. Was this man ever ambitious? There may never have been a more ambitious man in the whole history of England. He was a wheeler-dealer without equal who makes modern politicians look a bunch of amateurs in comparison. Inevitably he got his come-uppance at the end, but when he was in full cry...

Thomas Wolsey was born in Ipswich in 1470. His father was Robert Wolsey, a wealthy cloth merchant who was later to die at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The young Wolsey attended Ipswich School, Magdalene College School and Magdalene College where he studied theology. He was ordained into the priesthood in 1498. So there he was, twenty eight years old and a priest, a fairly normal life in those days for sons of the relatively well-off. What he did in today’s whizz-kid thinking was to have a career plan that reached for the stars. He decided that he would “really go for it”.

Wolsey became a Master at Magdalen School and very quickly became Dean of Divinity. He was starting to get a grip on the greasy pole.

In 1502 he became Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury and it looked as though he was moving up well. Unfortunately for Wolsey the Archbishop died the following year, and he started again by becoming Estate Manager to Sir Richard Nanfan. When he died in 1507 Wolsey had become sufficiently noticed to be taken into the service of Henry VII and the career progression moved up a few gears.

Ornate Chimneys at Hampton Court
Ornate Chimneys at Hampton Court

Henry VII was distrustful of the nobility and tended to favour the support of those who had proved themselves to be capable from the more modest families. It was the same logic that the mill owners were later to use when they set up Grammar Schools to educate the sons of their workers, proving that there is nothing new and we can learn from history. (Someone please tell the present Government). Thomas Wolsey fitted this to the proverbial “T” and with his drive and organisation ability he soon established himself with the King.

When Henry VIII came to the throne he gave Wolsey a seat on the Privy Council, and he had “lift-off”!

Henry did not keep such a close eye on his counsellors as did his predecessor and Wolsey took full advantage. He became the most powerful man in England and was accumulating great wealth (as they do). In 1514 he purchased the lease on the manor house at Hampton and set about transforming it into the greatest palace in the land.

His ecclesiastical career was also in full flow. He had already reached the high office of Bishop of Lincoln, then to Archbishop of York, and in 1515 Pope Leo X appointed him a Cardinal which meant that in the eyes of the church he held a higher status than the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the early fifteenth century England you really could not get much higher. Direct communication with both the King and the Pope gave almost unlimited powers. So long as his two masters could be kept satisfied Wolsey was the top man. So long as his masters were happy and did not fall out Wolsey had it made. But of course they did fall out. Big time.

Avenue at Hampton Court Palace
Avenue at Hampton Court Palace

Wolsey wheeled and dealed. He even brokered Henry’s sister Mary in marriage to Louis XII to secure a treaty with France. When Louis died Wolsey then pursued an alliance with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire to fight against the French. When this went wrong Wolsey then set about renegotiating another treaty with France which resulted in probably his greatest diplomatic triumph, “The Field of the Cloth of Gold” in 1520. On the face of it this gave England a new arrangement with France, but Wolsey was more duplicitous than that and used the opportunity to play the French off against the Spanish. As soon as everyone had gone home thinking that all was well between England and France, our friend Wolsey had done a deal with Charles V of Spain.

France did not accept this with a Gallic shrug, light up a Galloise and say “C’est la vie”. They set about an alliance with the Scots to cause as much trouble as they could on England’s northern borders.

All went well for a few years until France and Spain agreed a peace treaty that left England once more on the sidelines.

I do hope you are keeping up with the plot because it is going to start getting a lot messier. We have the battles for power, we have the money, we have the Church, and so what is the only thing need to complete the tinder box? Right; a woman.

Henry had married Catherine of Aragon to reinforce the treaty with Spain, Catherine being the aunt of Charles V. The marriage had only produced a daughter, Mary, who was destined to cause a fair amount of mayhem herself in her adult years. The one thing about Mary that Henry was sure of was that she would not be accepted as the unopposed ruler on his death, and that all the old rivalries that had caused the “Wars of the Roses” would resurface once more.

To Henry there was a simple answer. Get the marriage to Catherine annulled and marry the lovely Ann Boleyn who would straight away produce a son and heir. Job done. Wolsey could probably fix it before lunchtime.

Wolsey had a big problem. Even the most expert “spin doctor” was going to have an impossible job justifying the sort of “trumped up” nonsense that Henry was coming up with as valid reasons for the annulment. Charles V was not going to agree in any way with the annulment of his aunt’s marriage. Pope Clement VII was on a loser whatever he did. He could either upset Henry or Charles and he could not afford to do either. So he did what all politicians have done throughout the ages when faced with a similar predicament, he did nothing.

Henry went ballistic and blamed Wolsey for everything. Wolsey’s world came crashing down around him. Henry stripped Wolsey of his Government Offices and all of his properties, including the palace, which Henry took for his own residence. He allowed Wolsey to keep the office of Archbishop of York and the Cardinal headed north in disgrace. When he arrived there he was accused of treason and arrested by the Earl of Northumberland to be taken to London. Wolsey was distraught. He had done everything for his King but one final, impossible demand. On the journey to London he fell severely ill and died at Leicester on November 29th 1530.

Henry was delighted with his new “acquisition” and moved his residence from the Palace of Westminster to Hampton Court. He continued to extend the building, adding the Great Hall and also the celebrated “Real Tennis” Court.

Hampton Court Palace, Rear View
Hampton Court Palace, Rear View

Between 1689 and 1694 during the reign of William and Mary the palace was subjected to a huge renovation project and half of the original works were replaced. The architect was Sir Christopher Wren who was responsible for the south façade and the addition of two wings to the palace. Further renovations were later carried out by George I and George II.

George III did not share his predecessors’ love of Hampton Court, and from then on the palace ceased to be a royal residence, the monarchy preferring other London homes.

The palace is allegedly haunted by the ghost of Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, who is reputed to walk the area known very appropriately as “The Haunted Gallery”. In 1541 Catherine was accused of adultery and placed under house arrest at Hampton Court. The story is that she escaped from her guards and ran down the gallery looking for the King so that she could plead for her life. She was caught by her guards who dragged the screaming Catherine back along the gallery to her rooms. Over the years unidentified screams have been reported from the gallery, and several visitors have claimed to have been affected in some way whilst in the gallery. In 1999 two female visitors fainted in exactly the same spot on the floor of the gallery just half an hour apart.

Inevitably Jerome visited Hampton Court Palace on his journey up the Thames, and tells us the story of Harris and the maze.

Writer at the Centre of the Maze
Writer at the Centre of the Maze

The maze was planted sometime between 1689 and 1695 by George London and Henry Wise as part of a wilderness garden for William of Orange. The maze was originally constructed of hornbeam, but has been replanted several times over the years. The current maze is built with yew hedges. There are over half a mile of paths in the maze.

Jerome’s character Harris assured everyone that it was but just a few minutes to solve the maze, all you had to do was to keep turning right. Harris was almost correct, for the maze can theoretically be negotiated by the relatively simple means of always ensuring that you keep the hedge on your right, and turning accordingly. This will get you into the centre and out again with only a few short diversions. So much for the theory, I just had to try it out in practice, and I am delighted to say that it works a treat.

Tijou Screen
Tijou Screen

Shortly after passing the palace buildings I come to the rather splendid 18th century screen by Tijou that allows me to see into the privy garden and across to the south wing. The screen unfortunately, is somewhat obscured by protective railings, no doubt essential to afford protection against the aerosol paint sprayers of the area.

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