Hampton Court: A Social and Architectural History by Simon Thurley - review by Tim Heald

Tim Heald

Another Man’s Palace

Hampton Court: A Social and Architectural History


Yale University Press 450pp £35

HAMPTON COURT IS a magnificent palace: sprawling, sumptuous, packed with beautiful pictures, steeped in history, archaeologically and architecturally fascinating and of sufficient general interest to be able to attract paying punters in commercially viable numbers. It is fitting therefore that a book which celebrates such a famous and important British landmark should be in many respects its literary equivalent.

Simon Thurley, now Chief Executive of English Heritage, was, in a previous incarnation, the Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, the organisation responsible for a clutch of regal edifices including the Tower of London and Kensington-palace as, well as Hampton Court, where it has its headquarters. Not only has he worked at Hampton Court, he has evidently studied it in great detail. He is also the author of The Royal Palaces of Tudor England, a Visiting Professor at Royal Holloway college and the presenter of a TV series called The Lost Buildings of Britain. Given such qualifications it is not unreasonable to expect an authoritative work, and in many respects this compendious volume is just that. We begin in the early Bronze Age, continue with the Hospitallers and Lord Daubeney, and then learn about the construction of Cardinal Wolsey’s sixteenth-century palace – the last great ecclesiastical mansion in Britain– and its hijacking by his venal lord and master Henry VIII. We take in the massive additions to the building carried out under William and Mary at the end of the eighteenth century and we finish in the present day when, though sometimes still used for royal and state occasions, the palace has become, essentially, a tourist attraction, meticulously and expensively restored, partly through the efforts of the author himself.

The delight of this book is in the detail. We learn, for example, that the palace’s Base Court is 140ft by 166fi compared with the much larger quadrangles at Eton (230fi square) and Wolsey’s own Oxford college, Christ Church, which is 276.5fi by 271fi. William and Mary, ‘the great gardeners of Europe’, planted 304 yews and 24 hollies, and Mary’s amazing collection of exotic plants was supervised by someone called Casper Gamperle and a Dutch carpenter named Hendrick Floris. In 1846 a forty-year ‘Tudorisation’ of the Master Carpenter’s Court and kitchen areas was conducted for Admiral Sir George Seymour. The result, says Thurley, was astonishing and of a far higher standard than it would have been if the work had been carried out in Tudor times. As he puts it, ‘A Victorian Admiral of the Fleet demanded a richer rendition of the Tudor style than the officers of the Pastry House could have ever hoped for in the sixteenth century.’

The book is described as a ‘Social and Architectural History’, but while it appears encyclopedic on the architectural front I was disappointed on the social side. I would like to know, for instance, more about Admiral Seymour and about the Dutch gardeners imported by William and Mary. The whole grace-and-favour setup under which the palace effectively became a sort of retirement home for elderly courtiers and their widows is alluded to but never fully explored.

Nor is the Royal tennis court given its due, even though the metal nameplate still on Prince Albert’s changing-room locker is illustrated. I should declare an interest, for I have been a member of the real tennis club at Hampton Court for many years. Under the leadership of the former world champion Chris Ronaldson and his family the club and court have been transformed, and both have helped to popularise the game throughout Britain as well as in France, the USA and Australia.

These are mere cavils. Like the palace, this book is very beautiful and well worth exploring over a long period of time.

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