Gareth Russell is a historian, author, and broadcaster. He hosts the podcast Single Malt History. After completing his degree in modern history at Saint Peter’s College, Oxford, he pursued a Master’s degree in medieval history at Queen’s University, Belfast.
Below, Gareth shares five key insights from his new book, The Palace: From the Tudors to the Windsors, 500 Years of British History at Hampton Court. Listen to the audio version—read by Gareth himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Hygiene wasn’t as bad as you think.
There is an enduring idea that the lives of those in the medieval era were an unending litany of the rancid and the repulsive. Certainly, hygiene levels were a lot lower than they are today, but the long-standing legend that people never really washed is just that—a legend and a myth. The servants lived by very strict guides on how to dispose of leftovers of their food, how to go to the toilet, and made sure their breath didn’t stink. Morning breath reeked as badly in 1503 as it does in 2023, and nobody liked it then, either. The servants slept in dormitories, most of them in what we would call sleeping bags. They were then laid on bundles of rushes that are surprisingly comfortable if you put them together in the exact way that medieval and Tudor domestic guidebooks tell you to.
True bathing, full immersion or in a bathtub, was quite rare, but that was partly due to the limits of plumbing and the difficulty in heating water. During her time at Hampton Court, the impossibly chic Queen Anne Boleyn did have a personal bathtub installed with hot and cold running water. The water for her baths was heated on the other side of the bathroom wall by coal-carrying servants, who then pumped the hot water up and through the faucets.
Obviously, that was going to be quite difficult to replicate for hundreds of people, so the servants’ dormitories were segregated into male and female. Every morning, in each of the dormitories, cold, clean water would be provided for them to sponge themselves and exfoliate with. They also had two layers to their clothes. The heavier and harder-to-clean outer garments went to the palace laundries far less often, but to prevent them smelling, everyone would wear linen undergarments that would be put between their bodies and the heavier outer garments. You could launder the linen a lot more quickly and, therefore, more often, thereby cutting down on smells. Chalk, salt, or charcoal were also provided in the dormitories for the staff’s dental hygiene.
If you ever visit Hampton Court, one of the places you should start is the kitchens. Most of them date from the reign of King Henry VII, who ruled from 1485 until his death in 1509. During that time, Hampton Court was the country retreat of Henry VII’s friend and court official, Sir Giles Daubeney; the kitchens that you will see are Daubeney’s brainchild. Apparently, in winter, servants kept trying to find an excuse to sleep in the kitchens rather than the dormitories because the kitchen stayed so warm throughout the night. Come summer, however, all the kitchen staff were trying to find an excuse to sleep elsewhere for the very same reason.
2. The ghosts of Hampton Court.
There are several ghosts, including one of Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting, Sybil Penne, who died at the palace in 1562. Another that staff today say leaves a scent of chocolate as she sails by, which could be the specter of Georgian chocolatier Mrs. Grace Tosier.
By far, the most famous of the palace’s ghosts is said to haunt a corridor called the Haunted Gallery. It is believed that the unhappy revenant of King Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Queen Catherine Howard, recreates the trauma of her downfall in the winter of 1541. Queen Catherine was about 18 or 19 years old (no one is sure of her exact age) when her position as England’s Queen consort was upended. The testimony of a former family servant revealed that the beautiful Queen Catherine had not been a virgin when she married King Henry. This was not a crime, but it was a scandal. Particularly so when a discreet investigation by the King’s men at Hampton Court revealed that Queen Catherine had hired her former lover to be one of her household staff at the palace.
“Whether or not Hampton Court is haunted by the ghost of Catherine Howard, it is certainly still haunted by her story.”
Acting on this information, the King ordered that his wife be detained in her apartments. Realizing that she was in terrible danger, Queen Catherine broke past her guards and ran screaming down the corridor, trying to reach her husband, who was praying in one of the rooms nearby. She planned to beg him for mercy, and she very nearly made it until the guardsmen caught up with her and dragged her, screaming in terror, back to her rooms. It’s either the sound of Queen Catherine’s screams or, more often, a chilling feeling of dread that permeates the haunted gallery.
Increasingly suspicious of her levels of panic, the King ordered a second investigation, which included a complete search of Hampton Court. It uncovered a love letter that Queen Catherine had written to a handsome courtier called Thomas Culpepper, one of her husband’s favorite attendants. It was written after Queen Catherine’s wedding, at which point the scandal became a crime. Catherine was removed from Hampton Court under house arrest and later beheaded on her husband’s orders, as was Thomas Culpepper. Whether or not Hampton Court is haunted by the ghost of Catherine Howard, it is certainly still haunted by her story that saw her dead on her husband’s orders at about 19 or 20 years old.
3. Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Attitudes to sex were a bit more relaxed in the next century when King James I, Mary, Queen of Scots’ son, who inherited the English throne in 1603, spent his first Christmas as English King at Hampton Court. King James and his glamorous Danish wife, Queen Anna, turned Hampton Court into the partying hub of the British Isles, deliberately using its magnificent spaces to proclaim a confident new era for the monarchy with the arrival of the Stuart dynasty. In the Great Hall of the Palace, the King and Queen commissioned many entertainments that Christmas. Included were some from an up-and-coming playwright, William Shakespeare, who performed Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Henry V for the Christmas party guests.
Among those given starring roles in the productions in the Great Hall was the dashing Lord Philip Herbert, a stunningly good-looking nobleman who was described as being as handsome as he was stupid. Lord Philip took no offense at that. By his own admission, he only cared about hunting and parties and how to attract the new king. Starz Network is currently producing a drama about James I’s love affair with George Villiers, starring Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzin. James’ list of English lovers began at Hampton Court with all muscle-less brain Lord Philip, who appeared at a court ball in the Great Hall wearing so many of the jewels given to him by the King that he couldn’t complete a dance because of the sheer weight of his outfit.
“Blackmail, illegal imprisonment, sensational public trials, and several broken hearts and lives all began with a glittering Christmas at Hampton Court.”
Soon, however, the King fell seriously in love at Hampton Court with a fellow Scotsman called Sir Robert Carr. Carr was handsome like Philip, again not an intellectual, but loyal, devoted to the King, and apparently great fun. Robert Carr became the love of King James’s life until he was ousted by George Villiers. The love affair between the king and the knight had already by then been put under pressure through the threat of blackmail from a diplomat who knew a little too much about Sir Robert. That quickly escalated into one of the greatest scandals of the 17th century: one of suspected murder via a poisoned tart. Blackmail, illegal imprisonment, sensational public trials, and several broken hearts and lives all began with a glittering Christmas at Hampton Court.
4. America’s last king was also Hampton Court’s, in a way.
How did this fabulous center of monarchy, politics, and authority suddenly, almost overnight, cease to be a working palace? Why do the royals not still live there?
In 1760, young Prince George succeeded his grandfather to become King George III. A year later, he bought a mansion in London from the Duke of Buckingham’s son. The property was called Buckingham House, which George III gifted to his wife, Queen Charlotte, and subsequently revamped as Buckingham Palace. He then declared that, unlike his ancestors, he had no interest in living at Hampton Court and instead had some of its art and furniture removed to decorate Buckingham Palace. He also opened the Hampton Court Gardens to his people as a tourist attraction, and he subdivided the empty palace’s rooms into self-contained apartments, which he later gifted to relatives fleeing the French Revolution, retired servants, or widowed aristocrats. Later, George III’s granddaughter, Queen Victoria, extended her grandfather’s policy by opening up the palace’s major rooms to tourists, making Hampton Court the most popular museum in Britain.
Why did George III leave the splendor of Hampton Court so definitively and dramatically then? Well, we now know, thanks to the testimony of one of his sons, Prince Augustus, who revealed, tragically, that it was a case of domestic abuse at Hampton Court that turned George III against it. As a teenager, still grieving the death of his own father, Prince Frederick, the future George III was invited to spend time at Hampton Court with his spectacularly unlikeable grandfather, King George II, who had a notoriously foul temper. One afternoon, amid the Baroque magnificence of the rejuvenated east wing of the palace, Prince George said something that his grandfather didn’t like. The King then proceeded to beat his grandson so cruelly and unfairly that George III thereafter regarded it as one of the most distressing days of his life. When the time came that he was king, he couldn’t bring himself to spend time at Hampton Court again.
Knowing that Hampton Court was so artistically, architecturally, and historically important, King George couldn’t, however, bring himself to let it rot, hence why he found another purpose for it. Nonetheless, his trauma ended Hampton Court’s career as a royal residence, and by the time George III died after sixty years as monarch, time had moved on, and the royals never again went back there to live. That’s not to say that they never went back. They didn’t live there, but they still visited from time to time. In 1953, young Queen Elizabeth II was invited as the guest of honor at a ball in the Great Hall to honor her coronation. Among her fellow guests were Captain Johnny Spencer, later father of Elizabeth’s daughter-in-law Diana, Princess of Wales; Elizabeth’s husband Prince Philip, and her sister Princess Margaret. However, their mother wasn’t there, and neither was one very important guest.
5. The complicated traditions around marriage and divorce.
Fans of modern royal history and/or the hit Netflix show The Crown may remember the season one plot line inspired by Princess Margaret’s desire to marry. She wanted to marry her late father’s best friend, Group Captain Peter Townsend, who, after the old king’s death in 1952, stayed on working in royal service as controller of the Queen Mother’s household. The Queen Mother liked her late husband’s friend, and she sympathized with him over the breakdown of his marriage after his wife, Rosemary, allegedly had an affair with a London businessman. What the Queen Mother did not initially know, however, was that Peter had started a romance with her youngest daughter, Princess Margaret, and when she found out, she was horrified for a couple of reasons.
“The Queen Mother never did anything in a straight line.”
Firstly, it’s not true that the Queen Mother had a profound revulsion or abhorrence of divorce, as is often claimed. Her niece Anne had been divorced and the Queen Mother celebrated Anne’s marriage to an also-divorced Danish prince. However, when it came to senior members of the British royal family, she still had painful memories of the abdication crisis of 1936 when her brother-in-law, King Edward VIII, had relinquished the throne ostensibly to marry a divorcee. When Margaret announced her intention to marry Peter Townsend, the Queen Mother allegedly worried that her daughter would have to renounce her place in the line of succession, her public work, and that she might be expected to live abroad for a while. We also now know that, privately, the Queen Mother was worried about the dynamic of the relationship. Margaret had become engaged to her dead father’s friend not long after her father’s funeral, and this might be a grief-forged relationship that would require a lot of sacrifice from Margaret, which she might one day come to regret.
From what we can tell, the Queen Mother, years later, felt that that might have been an overly harsh assessment of the relationship, but it does seem to be what she and quite a few other people in the royal household thought at the time. The Queen Mother never did anything in a straight line, so she tried to hide her distress and disapproval behind her relentless good manners. At the Hampton Court Coronation Ball, rather than run the risk of Peter waltzing around the Great Hall in the arms of Princess Margaret and the romance growing stronger, the Queen Mother suddenly announced that she and her household would be attending a different party. They would go to a military veterans’ Air Force ball in London on the same night as the Hampton Court Ball.
The joke was that the Queen Mother was subtly doing everything to make sure the romance petered out as soon as possible. Instead, the glamorous Princess Margaret attended the Hampton Court Ball and the Midnight Candlelight Supper in the Palace Orangery. She danced with the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, movie stars, and cavalry officers and chatted with Winston Churchill. Margaret, in fairness, had such a good time that she didn’t arrive back at Buckingham Palace until sunrise with her sister, Elizabeth II, who had been dancing in the Great Hall with her husband until three o’clock in the morning.
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