In the 16th century, courtesans, diplomats, and heads of states boarded boats along the Thames River for the long ride up to Hampton Court Palace, the residence of one of England's most notable kings, Henry VIII. He had them brought to his palace to make deals and sign treaties that would improve England's political position.
A lot has changed since then, but one thing is for sure, the palace, itself, is even grander than in Henry's day, thanks to William and Mary and Sir Christopher Wren. Today, you'll board a riverboat built for maximum viewing as you cruise for nearly four hours up the Thames towards Henry's palace following the route of the royal barges, passing through locks as the river winds its way past the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and historical Richmond. For a great range of London deals on tours and things to do and see in the capital, check out Deal Zippy.
Bishop Thomas Wolsey transformed the grand private house at Hampton Court into a sumptuous palace in which to entertain diplomats. He added new private chambers for his own use, as well as three suites for the new royal family — one each for King Henry VIII, Queen Katherine of Aragon and their daughter Princess Mary. A grand processional route led from all these grand apartments to an imposing two-story chapel.
Wolsey had a large outdoor courtyard, known as Base Court, built to house his guests. Originally, the courtyard had been cobbled and the gatehouse was taller, but the 40 guest lodgings, each with an outer room, an inner room, and a lavatory remain as they were in Wolsey's day.
Throughout the 1520s, Hampton Court hosted important European delegations. These were occasions for ostentatious displays of wealth and conspicuous consumption, for which Henry VIII criticized him. But this wasn't caused Wolsey to fall from Henry's grace. Instead, it was more that he refused to grant Henry a divorce from his first wife, Katherine, who had failed to provide him with a male heir.
In 1528, King Henry took Hampton Court from Wolsey. Of the over 60 houses that he owned, none topped the grandly decorated palace at Hampton Court. By the time Henry finished his remodeling of the place in 1540, it was one of the most modern and sophisticated in England.
To the main palace, Henry added tennis courts, bowling alleys, and pleasure gardens for recreation, a hunting park of more than 1,100 acres, kitchens covering 36,000 square feet, a fine chapel, a large communal dining room, with its hammer-beam ceiling, and a multiple lavatory, known as the Great House of Easement, which could seat 28 people at a time. To honor his second wife, Ann Boleyn, he build a special gateway with a 16th-century astronomical clock that tells the high-water mark at London Bridge He even had water brought to the palace from Coombe Hill in Kingston, three miles away, through lead pipes.
Henry rebuilt his own living quarters at least six times and provided suites of rooms for each of his children and for a large number of courtiers, visitors and servants. In 1546, Henry hosted the French ambassador and his entourage of 200 gentlemen, plus 1,300 members of the king's own court, for six days in an encampment of gold and velvet tents surrounding the palace.
A year later, Henry died, leaving three surviving children — nine-year-old Prince Edward and his older sisters Mary and Elizabeth. Each would in turn rule England, and Hampton Court would continue to play an important role in the lives of England's monarchs.
The gardens at Hampton Court are almost as spectacular as the palace, itself. The Great Vine, King's Privy Garden, Great Fountain Gardens, Tudor and Elizabethan Knot Gardens, Board Walk, Tiltyard, and Wilderness are open daily year-round free of charge.
You can stroll through Hampton Court's apartments today, filled with porcelain, furniture, paintings, and tapestries. You'll discover old masters paintings, on loan from Queen Elizabeth II, in the King's Dressing Room. For a truly Elizabethan experience at Hampton Court, be sure to get lost in the serpentine boxwood maze in the Tudor garden.