King Henry VIII was quite the king. All those wives and the drama with the Catholic Church and the fantastic Holbein portraits. Yesterday I went to see where he used to live.
Hampton Court Palace is about 15 miles up the Thames from London and claims to be the largest medieval palace in Europe (certainly in England). It dates back to the early 1500s when Cardinal Wolsey expanded a more modest manor house into the grandest palace in the land. When Wolsey fell from grace, he “gave” it to Henry and then died.
Henry expanded the palace and made it one of his royal residence. Apparently red brick was a new building technology at the time, and it’s still quite striking.
The great hall is particularly remarkable with its hammer-and-beam ceiling (makes me think of Hogwarts) and sumptuous tapestries (cost more than a warship at the time). My favorite, though? The little faces peeping down from the ceiling beams. They’re both whimsical and creepy, and apparently give us the term “eaves droppers”.
After Henry, William and Mary had the greatest impact on the palace. They knocked down half of it and put up a baroque palace in its place. Fortunately they didn’t finish the project, so now it’s a terrific hodge-podge of Tudor and Baroque styles. (Poor King William, who was dogged by rumors of homosexuality didn’t help his case by painting a rather homoerotic mural right above his royal bed…)
The royals left off using the palace after the 18th Century and it sat unused until Queen Victoria opened it to the public in the 19th Century. The buildings are impressive, but you can tell it’s been out of use for a long time–lots of empty rooms that just aren’t that interesting. But what I really loved were the grounds. As I explored the grounds, I found myself wishing I had waited to come in the summer when the gardens would be at their peak.
The highlights? The world’s oldest living hedge maze (dates back to the 1600s) which was actually really fun and hard to get through. All the 300-year-old topiary yew trees. Much younger topiaries that are pruned with such precision they seem hardly real. The world’s largest grape vine, and the (to me) more impressive wisteria vine next to it.
Oh, and I almost forgot: the toilet! What could possibly go wrong with a velvet-covered toilet seat?
When the palace closed at 4:30, I hopped back on the train to London (about a 30 minute ride, perfect for a call with Justin). The train brought me to Waterloo station, which I had thought would celebrate the Waterloo victory over Napoleon but instead memorialized the war dead from WWI). I had just enough time to grab a quick dinner (fish cakes!) and then walk over to the National Theater for a performance of Annie Baker’s play John.
I hadn’t known anything about John going in, which made for a really delightful evening. All I knew was that Annie Baker is kind of an “it girl” among contemporary playwrights, having recently won a Pulitzer, and that the play would be nearly 3 1/2 hours long. Turns out it was weird, wonderfully acted, sometimes creepy, and very thought-provoking. (The critics liked it too — here’s what the Guardian said, and the New Yorker.)