Friday, April 23, 2010

Brenda Rickman Vantrease on Why I Love Hampton Court Palace

While doing early research for what was to become my third novel (The Heretic’s Wife, St. Martin’s Press, April, 2010), I made my first visit to Hampton Court Palace. Although I had visited England several times over the decades of my life, I am ashamed to say I had never taken the time to explore what the guidebooks call “the finest and grandest Tudor building in England.” I prefer poking around old ruins where my imagination is free to shape-shift with floating spirits, ears attuned to history’s echoes, over the guided tours of sterile museums. The lure of an ancient cemetery, a crumbling abbey, or a splendid medieval cathedral stirs my sleepy muse. Even a crumbling Roman ruin can ignite my imagination. I assumed whatever emotional resonance might have once been present at Hampton Court Palace had long been erased by centuries of renovation and preservation. But in the early fall of 2005, I was once again in London, and now was the time to test that theory. If I was going to write about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and Archbishop Wolsey and Thomas More, I needed to visit the most splendid palace in all of Tudor England. Wolsey built it. Nobility coveted it. Henry claimed it—and I needed to see it. Books and websites simply would not do.

“It’s only a twenty minute train ride,” the concierge said, “or a short boat ride.” I chose the train thinking it would be quicker. I had a 3:00 appointment back at the hotel. My agent had arranged it and I did not want to be tardy. I left the hotel early, braving the rush-hour traffic in Waterloo Station. I should be back at the hotel in plenty of time to change into something suitable for my appointment. But what the concierge neglected to tell me was that the train only runs on the hour. Two hectic hours later, I disembarked at the lonely station beside the Thames, marked the last departure time in my head that I could reasonably make it back, and looked up with a gasp to see Hampton Court sitting proudly on the shoulder of the Thames—as it would have appeared to Sir Thomas More arriving at the jetty from his beloved Chelsea.

View from the bridge

With the clock ticking inside my head, I sprinted across the bridge, through the trophy gate, past the parking lot, and into the ticket office where I bought a book to facilitate the best use of my limited time. Spurning the main entrance for the maze and gardens on the left, I spotted a sign promising the kind of convenience I needed most after my hurried morning’s journey. I guess one could say that my first real encounter with Hampton Court was a colorful sign on the door of a toilet stall informing me of the much coveted appointment to the fortunate lord who was named “Groom of the Stool.” Boundless ambition required, I thought, as my mind conjured Henry VIII’s ample bottom ensconced upon a more mundane throne. But I quickly banished that image as I was looking for another Henry, a younger Henry still in his prime.

The maze slightly behind and to my left tempted. Had Henry walked with Anne Boleyn there? But all I could afford was a peek. One could lose time and oneself in such a place. Maybe Anne had lost something else there and that thought set my imagination into overdrive as I moved on past the royal tennis courts, through the East Front Gardens, wondering as I wandered at how empty and vast the grounds appeared.
The Great Fountain Garden was replanted with these clipped yew trees during Queen Anne's reign.  In Henry's time it would have been a horse paddock.
One lone tour guide in period costume held forth with her clutch of listeners in the Clock Court. Shunning this group experience, I followed the signs to the Tudor Kitchens, blissfully empty. Oh joy! It was like wandering through time to stroll the tiny rooms and cavernous halls that once comprised the kitchens of Henry VIII’s grand Renaissance Court. In these very rooms a horde of servants would have prepared food for 600 or more at least twice a day. I inhaled deeply, awakening my senses to imagined smells. The smoke from the fires in the many open hearths stung my nostrils as grease dripped, hissing, from the turning spits. The smell of bread baking in the small wood ovens along one wall sweetened the smoke, and the sharp smell from baskets of herbs and spices resting on the floor pricked the heavy haze.

A couple of roasted peacocks redressed in their plumage awaited on a ledge in the dressage room for the liveried footmen who would deliver them to the great hall. Suddenly I was surrounded by a cacophony of shouts, as servers and cooks collided and cursed, “more wood. We must have more wood for the ovens,” and “Your Eminence, I would have a word?” Was that Sir Thomas More following Cardinal Wolsey into the cellar rooms where big fat wine casks rested like giant larvae on the stone floor. What could possibly bring these two worthies into the kitchen? And who was that burly man stoking the bake ovens as he whispered with Sir Thomas More? Why would the king’s great lawyer be plotting with a common laborer in the Tudor kitchens?

Footfalls on the stone floors, real footsteps, and the guide’s high-pitched voice, returned me to the present with its attendant time pressure. I made a quick decision. The centuries had done their work, each monarch in his turn tearing down and rebuilding to the whimsical tastes of the era—William III and Mary II being the worst offenders—until little of the original survived. Touring the whole palace would be like a tour through English history, but I only had time today for the Tudor rooms. The Clock Court now being vacant, I crossed it and climbed the staircase under Anne Boleyn’s Gateway (below the Astronomical Clock the guidebook instructed) to the Great Hall. It is a splendid hall, its most striking features being the hammer-beam roof that in Henry’s time would have been gilded and the Flemish tapestries commissioned by the king after he took possession. I wondered idly if the Cardinal who had first dreamed the palace would have approved Henry’s improvements. But this room did not speak to me as the kitchens had. I moved on through The Horn Room, (decorated with stag antlers) originally a waiting place for the servants carrying dressed peacocks and subtleties from the kitchens below, and the Great Watching Chamber, the only chamber of the sixty or so palaces and lodges belonging to Henry that survived in anything like its original form. But even here, where the yeomen of the Guard were stationed to control access to the king, the muse did not speak as in the Tudor kitchens. Perhaps it was because Sir Christopher Wren’s “modernizing” had swept away the echoes for which my imagination listened. Or perhaps it was the clock that was ticking inside my head. A quick tour of the rest of the state apartments, the Haunted Gallery, named for Catherine Howard who was kept under house arrest at Hampton before her beheading, and the Royal Chapel, both spaces, which given the themes in all three of my books, should have called to me. But the real time in which I moved and the many modifications had chased my muse away. I hurried through the rooms at the top of the stairs, the Wolsey rooms, named for the infamous cardinal who lost everything to his king, pausing to admire one of the few remaining features, the original and exquisite linenfold wood paneling.

Probably the window through which Wolsey watched Anne Boleyn plotting
with his enemies in the garden below.

Then I exited, pausing only to take one last photograph—one of Henry’s many pond gardens before William and Mary transformed it into a baroque paradise.

By 3:00 I was sitting in the lounge at my hotel hoping that the meeting I was about to have was worth what I had given up. But whatever the outcome of the meeting, I was fairly certain I had enough to inspire a Tudor story. As it turns out, I was right. That Tudor story is The Heretic’s Wife, in stores now.
It contains many of the scenes I first imagined as I wandered alone through the Tudor kitchens of Hampton Court.


  1. What a lovely post - I love it too

    Bon weekend


  2. Lovely post (now I want to go!) and LOVELY novel.

  3. Oh wow! This bring back memories. The day I went to Hampton Court, I had met an Aussie friend who was on a very tight schedule, and it was raining, but we thought it would okay. By the time we came out there was a flood in the nearby underpass and traffic chaos everywhere nearby. I had a very hungry baby in the car who just screamed and screamed until we finally moved and I got somewhere we could stop.

    Thanks for a fabulous guest post.

  4. Great post, thanks for the tour! wonderful photos. And best of luck with the book!

  5. That sounds like a wonderful trip - I would love to go there. It looks so beautiful. Can't wait to read the book!

  6. Brenda's photos and story about her visit makes me want to go! I hope I can get there one day.

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