My two children are really into history so we often try and explore historical sites when we’re travelling. We’ve found out about the Ancient Romans in Provence, learnt about King George IV’s huge appetite in Brighton and wandered around the home of the Minotaur in Knossos.
They’re particularly keen on the Tudors and King Henry VIII has always been a favourite. It’s no surprise why: the six wives, the beheadings, the jousting, the jewels and the hordes of servants including the wonderfully named Groom of the Stool whose job it was to wipe the Royal bottom after he’d been to the toilet. The stories are endlessly entertaining. One of the best places to find out more about the original Horrid Henry is Hampton Court Palace in Richmond-upon-Thames, just outside London.
Hampton Court was King Henry VIII’s favourite palace. This was the place he brought his royal court to hunt, feast and party. He spent more time here than anywhere else and this year they’ve been celebrating its 500 year anniversary.
As soon as you walk towards the Great Gatehouse you’ll find the King’s Beasts – ten statues of animals standing on the bridge over the moat. We’re big fans of magical creatures and loved the dragons, panthers, unicorns and lions. As you wander around the palace you can find more amazing animals in the tapestries, stained glass, paintings and ceilings. Look really close and you’ll see griffins and phoenixes as well as lions and dragons.
Our first stop was the Information Centre where we all chose a velvet cloak to wear as we wandered around. It’ll keep you warm if you’re coming in the winter and there’s nothing quite like a colourful velvet cloak to make you feel more royal and worthy of being in such a splendid palace. The Information Centre is also the place to pick up one of the excellent family trails and audio guides for adults and children.
The best place to start your Tudor trail is in the Great Hall which really gives you an idea of the grandeur of the palace. It took five years to build – Henry VIII was so impatient for it to be finished that he insisted that the carpenters be given candles so that they could work into the night on the new ceiling.
It really is splendid. The walls are hung with Henry’s most sumptuous tapestries, The Story of Abraham. They cost him about £2,000 which was the same price as a fully-equipped warship and they were made with real gold and silver thread. Definitely bling, Tudor style.
The Great Hall was used as a dining room and a theatre – William Shakespeare performed here for King James I over the Christmas of 1603.
Now walk through into the Great Watching Chamber. This is where the most important people sat to eat and where people waited to speak to the king. The ceiling is covered in real gold leaf and the walls hung with another gorgeous tapestry. Henry VIII loved tapestries so much that by the time he died he owned over 2,000. You’re more than likely to find characters dressed up as Tudors as you walk round, acting out little plays so you can almost believe you’re there at the time of Henry himself.
From here, make your way to the Processional Corridor and the Haunted Gallery, so called because so many people believe it to be haunted by the ghost of Queen Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of King Henry VIII.
The story goes that when Henry ordered her arrest for cheating on him with another man, Catherine dodged her guards and ran screaming down the corridor to beg the king for mercy. Henry didn’t listen and had her beheaded in the Tower of London. Her ghost, a figure dressed in white with long flowing hair, is still said to visit the gallery. Staff and visitors have reported hearing screams and feeling cold as they walk through.
The Chapel Royal at Hampton Court has been used for 450 years and you can still go to services here. Kings and queens used the private pew which looks down into the chapel. Here you’ll find the recreation of the stunning crown that Henry VIII always wore on the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th when he would process to the chapel to offer gold, frankincense and myrrh in celebration of the visit of the three kings to baby Jesus.
The crown was decorated with over 300 precious stones: diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and pearls and it was used in the coronations of all three of his children: Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth.
Along the corridors leading to the chapel, my two loved seeing the portraits of the royals particularly the one of Henry VIII with Jane Seymour, his favourite wife, and all three of his children. Even his favourite jester is in the painting with his pet monkey.
If you make your way back to Base Court you can visit Henry VIII’s Kitchens. These were the biggest kitchens in Tudor England. They needed to be. When the royal court came to Hampton Court, 600 people would need feeding. Here you can see where the fresh food arrived and you can walk down the alleyways and peer through the doorways where the food was stored.
In the Boiling House you’ll find a giant cooking pot where meat was boiled for pies and stews. People loved their meat in Tudor times. In one year at Hampton Court they ate their way through 8,200 sheep, 2,300 deer and 1,870 pigs. For special feasts they ate roasted peacock, swans and herons.
In the Great Kitchen the massive log fire is lit and the walls are blackened with hundreds of years of use. You can see where the meat would have been roasted on a giant spit. It’s still used to prepare Tudor meals today. Further along is the Serving Place where the food was arranged on the best pewter dishes and taken up to the Great Hall.
Don’t leave Hampton Court without visiting the most famous maze in the world and one you can really risk getting lost in. The 60-acre formal gardens are beautiful throughout the year and the perfect place for letting off steam and playing hide-and-seek.
There are lots of family activities going on at Hampton Court over Christmas and into the New Year. From December 27th until January 3rd you can join a team of cooks as they prepare a lavish Tudor-style banquet for ‘Henry’s Feast’. Children can take part in workshops to make Tudor decorations on December 19th and there’s an ice-skating rink at the palace until January 4th.
Hampton Court Palace is open daily (closed December 24, 25 and 26). A family ticket costs from £43.50.