With just over five hundred years of history, it should come as no surprise that there are plenty of secrets of Hampton Court that few ever find out about. Sure, there’s the ghost of Catherine Howard in the Haunted Gallery, the six oversized fireplaces in the Kitchens, and over a thousand other rooms to explore. But what about the intersection where the visitor route ends and the hidden gems of Hampton Court Palace lie in the shadows? Here’s a peek behind the scenes…
Please note that while I was kindly invited to a behind the scenes tour of Hampton Court Palace by Historic Royal Palaces. However, all opinions, photos, and spider phobia remain my own!
Henry VIII Stained Glass Window
Tucked away in a small storage cupboard next to a lift that was specially adorned in a Fleur de Lys pattern for a Queen’s visit, you’ll find the final vestiges of a stained glass window frame that once presided over the place where King Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey would have attended services.
You see, when Queen Anne moved into the Palace, she set about adding her own touches to the Royal Residence, and this inevitably meant transforming the Hampton Court Chapel Royal into a Baroque masterpiece. For the task, Queen Anne employed none other than Christopher Wren (who also worked on St Paul’s Cathedral and St Dunstan in the East).
During the Reformation, when monasteries and churches up and down the country were ripped apart, their fine furnishings, rood screens, and carvings destroyed, the double window of the Royal Chapel was allowed to remain intact. And there is stayed until it was destroyed during the Commonwealth. It’s thought that the glass would have contained portraits of Saints such as Saint Thomas Becket and King Henry II, among others.
Graffiti on the King’s Staircase
Of course, no ancient and historic location would be complete without a little bit of graffiti about the place (just look at Pompeii in Southern Italy)! In Hampton Court, the most historic of graffiti can be found on the King’s Staircase, presumably the result of many a bored guard over the centuries! Of particular note is the ever-so-delicate Tudor Shoe and the bread and butter of graffiti: people’s own names!
Prince of Wales Suite & The Midnight Flit
The most interesting façade of the Prince of Wales Suite is not the set of sumptuous rooms, lavishly decorated and overlooking the Yew Trees planted during the Reign of Queen Anne. Nor is it the ornate marble staircase complete with wrought iron railing leading up to the chambers.
Instead, there’s a story associated with the most notorious resident of the Suite that I’m sure you’ll want to hear. Known simply as ‘the Midnight Flit,’ the story goes that Frederick Prince of Wales hated his father (George II) so much, that when his wife, Augusta went into labour he decided that his future heir simply could not be born in Hampton Court Palace.
Frederick was, by no accounts, a nice person. He had a reputation for gambling, having affairs (often in front of his wife’s nose), and his own mother Queen Caroline is alleged to have once said “the greatest ass and the greatest liar and the greatest canaille and the greatest beast in the whole world…and I heartily wish he were out of it” of him.
When Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha went into labour during dinner, Prince Frederick waited until the middle of the night when the couple had returned to the Prince of Wales Suite. At that point, he bundled his 16-year-old wife into a carriage and set off for St James Palace. Miraculously, the baby was not born en route, but in the palace. Alas, when the baby arrived, it turned out to be a girl, who would never be eligible as an heir!
Queen Anne’s Bed
Hidden away in a corner of the palace that few visitors get to explore on the account of its out-of-the-way and off the visitor route location, Queen Anne’s bed is one of the finest examples of a centuries-old English bed to be found anywhere in the country.
Queen Anne is an often forgotten monarch of the UK. When people imaging Hampton Court Palace, they likely picture the Tudor Palace rather than the Baroque additions where Anne would have resided. Hidden away within the Prince of Wales Suite, it’s thought that Queen Anne only ever got to sleep in her specially-commissioned bed once before she died.
In a somewhat ‘Princess and the Pea’ scenario, the Queen’s bed is formed of no less than 11 separate mattresses stacked on top of one another, each a finer material than the last (ranging from horse hair on the base to silk on the top later). No doubt Anne would have required a set of stairs to have been able to climb into bed! It’s estimated that conservation work on the bed just a few years ago clocked up around 150 hours!
The Largest Vine in the World
Truth be told, though many people are drawn to the maze on their first (or even five hundredth) visit to Hampton Court Palace, the real hidden gem of the gardens is the largest vine in the world. The vine is alleged to date all the way back to 1768 when the gardens were managed by none other than Capability Brown (Blenheim Palace, Sherborne Castle, and Chatsworth being just a few gardens he designed!)
Wander inside now during opening hours and you’ll soon spy a World Guiness plaque on the wall, declaring this vine (official name: Vitis vinifera) is well and truly certified as the oldest vine in the world. But no, before you ask, you can’t make wine from this variety of dessert grape! Instead, the grape harvest yield depends entirely on the weather, with the grapes produced each year sold in the Palace Shop for three weeks in September.
The Cardinal Spider
Arachnophobes look away now! Hampton Court Palace is home to one of the rarest (and the very largest) house spider to be found anywhere in the UK, the Tegenaria parietina. Rare in Europe and only really found in this area of Surrey when it comes to the UK, no one is quite sure exactly why the Cardinal Spider is so-called.
While some suggest that the arachnid’s name derives on account of Cardinal Wolsey being so terrified of the creatures, others theorise that the Cardinal actually thought that they brought him luck. Either way, with that being said, as Henry VIII grew so jealous of the Palace that he confiscated it for himself, no doubt the Cardinal spider didn’t bring Wolsey enough luck!