Renowned the world over as Henry VIII's great palace, today's Hampton Court Palace bears little resemblance to the opulent Tudor residence created after Cardinal Wolsey gave the King his substantial medieval residence. The King's apartments were completely demolished, and much of the remaining palace was extended and remodelled during the 1700s. But the heart of Henry's palace has survived remarkably intact - the Great Hall, with its elaborately crafted hammer-beam roof, which provided an impressive entrance to his state rooms. One can only visualise the astounding scene when the hall was bursting with merriment and feasting, and the vast complex of kitchens were bustling with the preparation of endless meals to set before the royal tables.
During his time at Hampton Court Palace, Henry VIII had his own apartments changed on several occasions, and lavish new lodgings were built for each of his wives. The Chapel Royal, with its amazing vaulted ceiling, also featured strongly in Henry`s personal life. His son Prince Edward, was baptised in the Chapel in 1537, and it was here that he learned of Catherine Howard's unfaithfulness. Along the corridor leading from the Chapel, ghostly sightings and blood-curdling shrieks have been witnessed, said to be those his wife whilst being dragged back to her rooms. Adjoining the Chapel is the Queen's Closet, and this was where Henry married his last wife, Catherine Parr. Apart from his many wives, Henry VIII was a great art collector, and some of the 2,000 priceless tapestries he acquired still hang in the Great Hall, and more in the Great Watching Chamber. By 1540 Hampton Court Palace was rated among the most magnificent palaces in England, and for the next 250 years it continued to be a popular venue with the Royals who were attracted by the hunting offered in its 1100 acre park.
At the end of Henry's reign, other Kings and Queens inhabited Hampton Court Palace but left little trace of their existence until the time of William and Mary. The Royal apartments that survive today are the work of Sir Christopher Wren, who was commissioned to rebuild them in the beautiful Baroque style, and they remain elegantly furnished from that period. Before Wren was able to complete his plans, Queen Mary died and, with building works stopped, several rooms were left as no more than brick shells with plastered ceilings and wooden floors. The present shape and form of Hampton Court Palace is due almost entirely to these substantial developments but William III never lived to see the work completed.
In 1732 the last Royal rooms were created by William Kent, and these comprise the Cumberland Suite. Contrasting sharply with the richness employed in the earlier building, the Georgian rooms were quite sedate and plain. Only five years later, Royal life at Hampton Court Palace had all but ceased, and over the next four decades furniture was removed from the state apartments, and some areas of the palace were converted into grace-and-favour accommodation. In 1838 Queen Victoria opened other parts of the house and grounds to the public, although several phases of restoration work and repairs have been undertaken on a regular basis ever since.
Visiting Hampton Court Palace is a wonderful experience, almost like walking through a living history book that gradually reveals snippets of information about the former occupants, their lifestyles, changing fashions and ideas, and the different phases of architecture. With beautiful gardens, and the famous maze, it is easy to spend a whole day exploring this majestic building standing on the banks of the River Thames.