History remembers England’s King Henry XVIII for his notorious excesses – excess wives, excesses in food and drink and excessing the Catholic church. At Hampton Court, Henry XVIII’s favorite residence, you can still see where he lived, loved and died.
Hampton Court is about 10 miles south west of central London on the river Thames, and makes for an easy day trip from the city. The palace was built in 1515 by Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s chief minister-for a time. Henry liked Hampton court and visited frequently in the summers, with almost 800 courtiers in tow. Wolsey spent lavish amounts of money and made Hampton Court the grandest palace in England. So it’s no surprise that when Wolsey fell out of favor with the king and died, Henry seized the property for himself and enlarged it, especially the kitchens.
For Henry, the meals he served his court were not just about eating, but also about showing the wealth and power and magnificence of his monarchy. The kitchens had to produce enough food to feed 600-1000 people each day, twice a day. And Henry was known for having lavish seven hour or longer feasts. All the needed food was brought in and closely managed for efficiency and cost. The raw food came in one end of the kitchens and the finished meals came out the other end. The court cooks and diners had a surprising variety of choices and flavors imported from distant lands- citrus fruits, almonds and olive oil from the Mediterranean, sugar from Cypress and spices from China, Africa and India. The royal diners also enjoyed a luxury for their time-fresh meat. The Hampton Court website lists the following annual consumption of meat: 8200 sheep, 2330 deer, 1870 pigs, 1240 oxen, 760 calves and 53 boar. Keeping all this food cold made use of an ingenious bit of architecture. The Fish Court, the narrow alley connecting all the storerooms, was built running north to south so that it gets little sunlight and therefore stayed cooler. Cooking all of this meat was done mostly on roasting spits in enormous fireplaces that used up about a ton of fuel each day. Also, running water was piped in to the kitchens from springs three miles away. But water was not for drinking. Huge quantities of wine were imported from Europe and stored in large wine cellars. Even greater quantities of beer (600,000 gallons a year) were brought in for both servants and guests.
All this revelry took place in the imposing Great Hall – built as a token of love for wife number two, Anne Boleyn. The ornate carvings included his and hers initials (A and H) entwined with lover’s knots. But when Anne fell out of favor and lost her head, Henry ordered all traces of her to be removed. All the initials were carved off, except for one which was missed-see if you can find it. One little quirk about the magnificent carved ceiling – little carved figures sit on the eaves looking down at the diners. They were called “eves droppers” and were put there to remind courtiers that everything in this hall could be overheard, and so not to gossip.
The tapestries in the Great Hall are original from Henry’s time and tell the biblical story of Abraham. Henry commissioned these extravagant tapestries to celebrate the birth of his son, Edward, and they cost a fortune – the same as the cost of a warship.
Next door to the Great Hall is the Great Watching Chamber where people stood and waited to catch a glimpse of their monarch. Henry built this especially for wife number three – Jane Seymour.
Unfortunately, Jane Seymour died of complications from the childbirth of Henry’s son, Edward. It is said that her heart and lungs are buried in a lead box underneath the altar of the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court. This chapel is where Henry attended mass, where his son Edward was baptized and where he married wife number six – Catherine Parr. Today the chapel is open for services to all that wish to attend, and at the two Sunday masses and evensong you can hear the chapel choir.
Sadly, this is all that remains of the Tudor period inside the Hampton Court Palace. By 1689 when William and Mary took over the monarchy, the decor appeared dated and was out of style. They started on a massive renovation project that was supposed to convert this Palace to a likeness of the one at Versailles. Fortunately, they ran out of money, and as a result, we now still have a glimpse into the life of one of England’s most notorious monarchs.
To get to Hampton Court from London, take the train from Waterloo Station to the Hampton Court Station, and walk across the Hampton Bridge to get to the Palace entrance.
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