by Essy S. Dean
When I was in sixth grade, I fell in love with a book. It was called Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor by Kathryn Lasky. This was the moment that started my passion for Tudor history. From when I first read it, I knew Elizabeth I was one of my favorite female characters from history. She wasn’t like any other woman of the sixteenth century. Never marrying, defeating the Spanish Armada and ruling in her own right for forty-five years – one of the longest reigns in English history. Since then I have expanded my knowledge to the four Tudor monarchs preceding Elizabeth and the Plantagenet era. I knew the closest I could ever get to going to Tudor England would be visiting the palaces.
While I was in London, I left breakfast with friends around 10:15am and went to London Waterloo (one of the main train stations) via the Tube (Subway) to go to Hampton Court Palace, one of two palaces that have survived from the reign of Henry VIII. I had been planning on going the week before, but it was Easter and the Chapel Royal is still used for services. Not wanting to deal with people coming for one of the holiest days of the year or being turned away from parts of the palace, I decided putting it off for a week would best.
After walking through a set of open iron gates attached to red brick walls and topped with statues of horses and the Welsh dragon (Henry VIII’s paternal grandfather was Welsh), I bought a ticket and began to wander. There was an option to rent an audio guide like there are at many museums around the world, but I know so much about the characters who had walked these hallways and courtyards 500 years ago, I didn’t see a need for it nor did I want one. I imagined the people who had ridden through this gate in triumph and the courtiers who had been banished, slouching through, then turning back for a last glimpse at the palace where lives were made and could be ripped apart on the whim of one person.
I wanted to remember the moments, joyful and sad, that had happened here. It was here where Henry VIII got the heir he had wanted for so long in October 1537, but twelve days later, his beloved wife, Jane Seymour, had died within the same walls. It was here his daughter, Mary had kept alive the hope that she was pregnant for fourteen months, before admitting it had been a phantom pregnancy. I had spent nights since middle school reading about this place and the rest of Henry VIII’s palaces.
There are two parts of Hampton Court. There’s the Henry VIII half that includes the kitchens, the Great Hall and the Chapel Royal and the William III half. Personally, I was more interested in the Henry VIII half, partially because of my knowledge of that era and partially because of my opinions about building styles. To me, the dark red and brown brick and well-spaced windows of the Tudor half will always be more beautiful than the orange-red and close together windows of the William III half.
I walked through the courtyard under a large clock. It felt like a step back in time. Like the City of London had disappeared and I was in the era when jousting and archery were commonplace and ladies were consumed by thoughts of family life. After the courtyard, I could continue straight and go to the William III part or take a left, go up a flight of stairs and go through the Henry VIII part first. I chose left.
One of the first rooms I went in was the Great Hall. The Great Hall was one of the centers of Tudor court life. Not only was this where meals were eaten, but during and after the meals there was often dancing, music and other forms of entertainment. Standing at the bottom of the hall – the main entrance – one had the view of a courtier looking up to where Henry VIII would’ve sat with his current wife. The only queen who never got the honor of sitting in the Great Hall of Hampton Court was his first wife, Katherine of Aragon.
Hampton Court had previously been known as York Place and originally it hadn’t been a great palace of the Crown. Instead, it had been one of several houses owned and built by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey was Henry VIII’s chief administer for nearly twenty-two years. Henry VIII was notorious not only for his wives, but also for his hatred of paperwork. The result was that much of it fell to Wolsey and he became one of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom. When Wolsey fell out of favor in 1530, (partially due to Anne Boleyn and her faction rising in favor) he was arrested for treason and men were sent to bring him to London. Fortunately or unfortunately, Wolsey died before he arrived. Wolsey would’ve faced imprisonment in the Tower of London had he survived the journey and likely would’ve met his end on the block.
I scooted my way through crowds of people, all talking and making their opinions known. They asked questions in a variety of tones, in a variety of languages. The place hasn’t changed in the 500 years that have passed. The tones are still there; the languages are still there. Only the conversations have changed. Now people gather here to learn and to remember, to discover and to walk through the rooms, marveling at the details. Then people would use these rooms to speak of politics, of which countries were about to go to war and whom was going to marry whom to create the dynastic alliance every ruler dreamed of.
The ceiling is a beautiful ornamental wood in the style of the time with the wood beams on display. Carvings that can’t be seen from the floor decorate the beams, showing off how proud first Wolsey, then Henry VIII were of this room. The walls are covered in beautiful tapestries that likely depict moments of success for the kings of England. In the fifteenth century, tapestries had a dual purpose: they were decoration, but they were also to provide warmth, as England was going through a mini ice age at the time and candles could only provide so much warmth.
The moment I stepped into the Great Hall, I had an overwhelming urge to kneel or bow, do something in honor of the people who had once lived there. I pushed the thought away. I felt the power that still radiated from the top of the hall as I wound my way through the other tourists, taking photos, documenting this trip, but knowing at the same time that I wanted to return. I could feel the waves of fear as well. That people had at one time been scolded in this place by their king. Most of the scolding had happened in the privy chamber, and though I hadn’t read about any specific instances, from my knowledge about Henry VIII, it wouldn’t have surprised me if something had happened here.
The Chapel Royal is a beautiful spot. When you stand in the gallery, you’re standing where the king and queen would’ve sat, listening to the service, their favorite courtiers around them. (Unless you’re Henry VIII, in which case you could be signing someone’s death warrant while the priest is talking of forgiveness.) I stood there, thinking about the irony that must’ve played out here on near every Sunday of Henry VIII’s reign. He hated paperwork, even later in life and sometimes he had no idea what the papers he was signing meant or were for. It made me wonder if he knew whose death warrant he was signing when. Was he aware when he did it to Anne Boleyn? Catherine Howard? Cromwell? More? Fisher? Was he aware he was signing away the lives of people who had helped him govern the country?
I left the gallery and re-entered at the nave level. As I stood near the altar, I heard the woman next to me ask:
“I wonder where the rest of Jane Seymour’s body is if only her heart is here?”
“It’s in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle,” I replied quickly. I couldn’t help myself. I had the information this woman was seeking and the guard was standing on the opposite side of the room near the entrance.
When Jane Seymour died at Hampton Court in 1537, Henry VIII ordered that her heart be removed and buried under the altar. Her body was buried in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor three weeks later.
The woman looked at me and nodded. Her head was still bowed over the pamphlet where she’d read the information about Jane Seymour’s heart. “They should put that in here.”
“Yeah, they should,” I replied. I hadn’t even read the pamphlet I’d been handed with my ticket. It was still in my bag along with a map I had yet to look at either. I wanted to wander, see what I could find on my own without looking at where I was. My instincts sent me a bit of a strange path, having never looked at a map of Hampton Court.
“Thank you,” said the man standing next to her.
“Of course,” I replied, before sliding through the groups of tourists clambering for their chance in the Tudor chapel towards the exit.
While some go to the chapel to do their thinking, I picked a long empty corridor, it’s walls lined with paintings I don’t remember the contents of. I sat on the floor, cross-legged, thinking about the people who had walked through here. That it must’ve been here where Catherine Howard made her infamous escape from her guards in February 1542, screaming for Henry VIII, screaming that the accusations against her about her liaisons with men weren’t true. She still believed he would have mercy on her. Legend says that her ghost haunts one of the hallways at Hampton Court.
I had a bit of a hard time finding the kitchens. It was a part of the palace that I really wanted to see, because it was one of the parts that had been kept in the style of the Tudors. I was determined to not leave until I had found them. In the meantime, I went outside to see the gardens. They were part of a 1689 redesign by William III. While the interior and exterior were not to my taste, I found the gardens much more so. I spent a happy half hour or so wandering through the gardens and then found a spot to sit and read. I didn’t have lunch that day. I could’ve gone to one of the cafes, but I was too busy enjoying a place I’d had the intention of visiting since February. I was in my own space and mind, thinking about the past for much of it. To quell the hunger, I bought a mint chocolate chip ice cream from a vendor in the gardens and ate it as I explored the surrounding area.
I returned to the palace and after a bit more wandering I finally broke down and pulled out the map. With my knowledge of the palace from that morning’s wander, I was able to trace a path to the kitchens from my current location in a hallway beside a courtyard visitors weren’t allowed in.
Walking through the maze that is the Tudor section of the palace, I had to walk through the serving chamber and Henry VIII’s wine cellar to get to the kitchens. The wine cellar is still stacked with barrels. I doubt there’s still wine in them. It made me think about how much wine there must’ve been in the room in the sixteenth century and how they could’ve drunk it all. There are a few details one must remember, though. The water wasn’t safe to drink. There were hundreds of nobles at Court at any time, some of them staying with the Court permanently, others for a night or two and then there would’ve been the guests, the ones that came from Europe to negotiate with Henry VIII on behalf of their rulers. Meals lasted longer and people spent more time at the tables after dinner talking, drinking, dancing.
Before I got to the kitchens I walked through an open-air passage that was all in the original brickwork and wood from the fifteenth century. The floor was of the stone that lined both the floors of many houses and most streets in the cities and towns. The brickwork was so beautiful that I took a few more moments than I had been planning on to look around and admire it. The patterns of brown or grey standing out against the deep reddish-orange, turning different colors from the age.
When I reached the kitchens, it was warm. Fireplaces lined several of the walls. One had a fire crackling inside and in others were sixteenth century cooking implements. A group of people were gathered around the one with a fire burning. A row of worn wooden table was stacks of plates, a few with food on them, with goblets and half burnt candles. As if servants had just finished clearing the tables in the Great Hall. As I walked in, two men in sixteenth century dress were asking for volunteers to spin the spit. I wanted to try my hand at it. I took a few photos, then walked over to the group. The men had put several chunks of raw meat on one of the rods and had balanced it between rods on either side, the men turned to crowd that had gathered.
“Who wants to try?” asked one of the men.
I secured my camera in my bag and raised my hand. “I’ll give it a try.”
The man nodded and beckoned me forward. I shifted my bag out of the way. He fixed the rod used to turn the spit. “Hold this and spin it slowly in a circle.” I nodded and began to spin. The smell of roasting meat rose through the air. The scent flowed into my nose. I found the rhythm. The fire blazed in the hearth. I felt the heat on my face. The meat slowly browning as I watched. I could’ve kept going. There was a rhythm to spinning the meat. Too slow, the meat would burn. Too fast, the meat might fly across the room. I don’t know if that has ever happened, but I was amused when I was told this and it wouldn’t surprise me if at some point in history, someone hadn’t listened and meat had flown. I could feel the flames from the fire, their heat licking at my face. Some people might have jumped back, letting go. I stayed close. I let the fire do its part in adding to my experience.
One of the men touched me gently on the arm. “Let someone else give it a try,” he said.
I nodded, and let go. The man took the rod to keep it in place. I shifted my bag. “Thanks,” I said. “It was fun.”
The men nodded to me.
I walked out of the kitchens, through the corridors, and back to the gift shop. Most of the books I saw, I already had. While looking through the books, I noticed a woman knocking over one that was displayed on a plastic support, so people could see the front cover. She struggled with getting the book and support upright again. A few minutes later, I was struggled with the same thing.
“They should have a better support system,” said the woman, noticing me struggle as well.
I found Tracy Borman’s Thomas Cromwell, one of the most important of Henry VIII’s advisors. Cromwell fell from favor after the Anne of Cleves marriage debacle. Henry VIII thought she was as ugly as a horse (he supposedly said: “I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse” after their first night together). He quickly divorced her for the seventeen-year-old Catherine Howard. Anne of Cleves was allowed to stay in England. She was given the title of the King’s Sister, several manor houses (including Hever Castle, the family home of Boleyns), and a settlement.
While wandering through the rest of the gift shop, a quote caught my eye: “If someone is ill mannered by ignorance let it pass, rather than point it out.” I tugged at the edge of the fabric and pulled it out. Out came a white table covering, the designs in black and red, the writing in simple black italics. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but I checked the price, doubled it and with a book and a table covering under my arm, I joined the check out line.
I returned to the gardens and found a grassy patch near the fountain under a tree. I settled down to read. The people in the past had walked through these corridors, living their lives, speaking loudly of politics and whispering about private matters. I found myself looking up every few minutes to make sure this was still my reality. That I wasn’t in my dorm room in Pennsylvania or my room in parents’ house in Massachusetts. It was real. The gardens were the way they had been made in early 1700s, the fountain still sprayed water up into the air, people were still using the gardens for entertainment, laughing and talking in different languages. The content of the conversations might have shifted, but Hampton Court is still being used the way it was meant to be: as a gathering place and a place to create new memories.
Read an interview with Essy here.