Of all the locations associated with King Henry VIII, himself perhaps the best known and most notorious of English monarchs, none is more evocative of the Tudor age than Hampton Court Palace. But its grandeur, beauty and red-brick charm was the work of another man – Cardinal Thomas Wolsey – who began building his palace in 1515, 500 years ago this year.
The son of a butcher, Wolsey took the surest route to wealth and power open to able and ambitious commoners of the time: he joined the church. His administrative skills and political cunning ensured rapid advancement and by 1514 he was both Cardinal and Lord Chancellor of England. Wolsey had arrived on the European stage and it was time to demonstrate that in tangible form.
Wolsey paid £50 for a 99 year lease on land southwest of London belonging to the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem and spent the next 7 years building a lavish palace. Exteriors of striking red brick enclose luxurious apartments panelled in wood from the Order of St John’s forested lands north of London in an area known to this day as St John’s Wood. Wolsey was determined to impress his important new friends – the princes, cardinals and bishops from the continent of Europe. He followed the precepts of Paulo Cortese’s De Cardinalatu, a manual on how to be a cardinal, including what to wear, what to eat and where to live.
The result was the elegant, comfortable and (at the time) modern palace known as Hampton Court. Wolsey ensured he had room for up to 280 guests at any time, occupying over 40 apartments around a large courtyard and bristling with individually-decorated chimneys promising many fireplaces in the warm rooms below. Each apartment was equipped with an indoor “closet” (emptied daily by servants) for the use of privileged guests. Those of lesser status were obliged to use a separate block of closets known as the Great House of Easement – still preferable to the normal practice of resorting to the nearest dark corner, indoors or outdoors.
Sadly Wolsey did not have long to enjoy his new palace. His failure to secure the annulment of Henry VIII’s first marriage led to his downfall. His attempts to return to the king’s favour included gifting him Hampton Court Palace, but it was all in vain. Wolsey decided to absent himself from the royal court, hoping his luck would change. It didn’t. He was summoned back to London from York in 1529 but died in Leicester on the way.
Henry VIII greatly expanded Hampton Court for his own use, building the largest kitchens in Europe to feed his enormous household. He also ordered that any signs of Wolsey’s ownership be removed. Luckily this order was inefficiently carried through, as after Henry’s own death an intact emblem (above) bearing Wolsey’s arms was discovered over the entrance to Clock Court, where it can be seen today, 500 years later.
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