Friday, May 02, 2008

Throne for a Loss

On Sunday, we packed Godwin, Bella, and me into the back of Steven’s VW to head to Hampton Court Palace in Surrey. It was at one time where the British Royals hung out from the time of Henry VIII to George II. The drive—only 19.4 miles as the crow flies (says Google Maps)—took several hours.

A word about London traffic: “Ahhhhh!!!!!” Now, I absolutely love London. Of all the cities (predominantly American) I have visited, London is by far my favorite. If I were ever to live in London (and don’t think I haven’t ruled out the possibility), and if I were to have to drive, I would probably jump off the top of the London Eye. London traffic is absolutely brutal. It makes Los Angeles look place where there isn’t a lot of traffic (metaphors fail me). Part of the problem is that, unlike U.S. cities, London—or England in general—has no equivalent to the interstate system, or those high-speed bypasses you get in U.S. cities that let you zip around them. So in London, you are always on surface streets, stopping for lights, trying to maneuver around buses and lorries loading and unloading things into shops, and so on. So getting anywhere takes forever.

The story of London’s Congestion Tax is worth mentioning, especially as Mayor Bloomberg attempted to replicate it in New York City. In order to drive into Central London, you need to pay a fee—£6 for a passenger car (SUVs are about £20, although I saw very few SUVs in London). The theory was that this would spur more people to use public transport. A nice idea, except that the money was supposed to have been used to expand public transport, which didn’t happen, so the buses and trains got more and more crowded and less and less reliable—and more and more frustrating. (It also tended to punish those who commuted in from areas outside London that are unreachable by public transport.) In a word: the congestion tax didn’t really help all that much. Or, if it did, I would hate to have tried to drive there before the tax!

By the way, today is the London mayoral election and Ken Livingstone, the incumbent, is the one who had initiated the Congestion Tax and, in many ways, the mayoral race is kind of a referendum on it. (As I look at today’s BBC Web site, Labour—Livingstone’s party—is having a bad time so it doesn’t look good for Livingstone.)

Anyway, back to our journey. We passed over the Blackfriars Bridge south of the river, drove past Waterloo, Elephant & Castle, Clapham Junction (“I never thought it would happen with me and the girl from Clapham...And so it’s my assumption I’m really up the Junction” —Squeeze), Brixton (“You can crush us/You can bruise us/But you’ll have to answer to/Oh, the guns of Brixton” –The Clash), Wimbledon, and, after several hours, we finally arrived in Kingston, a posh suburb, and decamped to Pizza Express for lunch, then headed over to the Palace.
By the way, they did not allow photography inside the palace, so my apologies for the sparsity of pictures.

The earliest buildings that comprise Hampton Court originally belonged to the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, a religious order founded in the 11th century. They acquired the manor of Hampton in 1236 and used it as a storage and administrative center for their various agricultural estates. As it happened, the Hampton estate was located between two royal palaces, and it wasn’t long before royals began dropping in, and Hampton Court soon became a rather posh guest house.

By the early 1400s, though, the royal palace at Byfleet was abandoned, and Hampton Court saw a drop in royal visitation. The Knights Hospitallers started renting out Hampton Court around this time. One of the first tenants was Giles Daubeney, a courtier who rented Hampton Court in 1494. Daubeney would become Lord Chamberlain to King Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Henry VII and the queen visted Daubeney at Hampton Court and soon there was no getting rid of them.

After Daubeney’s tenancy was up, in 1514, the Knights Hostpitallers granted a 99-year lease to Thomas Wolsey, then the Archbishop of York and soon to become a Cardinal and Lord Chancellor of England. He was also a close friend of the new king, Henry VIII, although historians are unsure if it was Cardinal Wolsey who procured giant turkey legs for Henry VIII. (It should be pointed out that Henry VIII was actually quite fastidious in his dining habits and was likely not in the habit of clutching giant turkey legs, as he is usually depicted.) Anyway, Wolsey built a large palace complex at Hampton Court, adding private chambers for himself, as well as for Henry VIII, Queen Katherine of Aragon, and their daughter Princess Mary. Wolsey knew which side his bread was buttered on... He also added a large chapel (well, he was a Cardinal).

Poor Wolsey. Although he was criticized for his lavish lifestyle (the Catholic Church being known for its spartan and humble trappings, of course), he had the bad luck to be a high-ranking Catholic during the wrong reign. We all know the story: by the late 1520s, Henry VIII was eager to divorce his wife, as she seemed unable to provide Henry with a male heir, though not for want of trying (and we’ll let the imagination run wild on that one—better get the airsickness bag...). The Pope didn’t grant the divorce and in 1528 the King broke with the Church and took Hampton Court and York Place from Wolsey.

Henry poured the then-equivalent of millions of pounds into making Hampton Court his palace. The official Web site tells us:
There were tennis courts, bowling alleys and pleasure gardens for recreation, a hunting park of more than 1,100 acres, kitchens covering 36,000 square feet, a fine chapel, a vast communal dining room (the Great Hall) and a multiple garderobe (or lavatory) - known as the Great House of Easement - which could sit 28 people at a time. Water flowed to the palace from Coombe Hill in Kingston, three miles away, through lead pipes.
All of Henry’s six wives came to the palace—though ostensibly not all at the same time, which would have been awkward, especially since some of them had had their heads removed.

In 1547, Henry died. His three surviving children—the 9-year old Prince Edward, and his older sisters Mary and Elizabeth—would each rule England, and would each occupy Hampton Court. Fortunately, Henry had done so much work to the place that the remaining Tudor monarchs had little need to expand on it.

James I was the first Stuart monarch, ascending to the throne in 1603, and was a bit more happy-go-lucky than Elizabeth, which isn’t all that hard I wouldn’t think.
The palace served as a venue for plays, dances, banquets and court masques and amongst the assembled guests was one William Shakespeare. He was booked as one of the newly liveried ‘King’s Men’ to produce his plays in front of a royal audience. The early Stuart court was notorious for increasingly lavish theatrical entertainments: for intoxicating, and occasionally intoxicated, revels.
James’ son Charles (Charles I, who ascended the throne in 1625 and ruled until his reign ended, um, abruptly) revolutionized the royal collection of paintings and sculpture with major acquisitions from Europe. Alas, in 1647, he was deposed by Parliament and brought to Hampton Court as a prisoner. I guess a gilded cage is still a cage. He eventually escaped (why would anyone want to escape from Hampton Court Palace?) but had his head removed in 1649.

Bloody Puritans. They seized the palace in 1645 also removed all the finery from the Chapel Royal. Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector reserved the palace and some of its principal treasures for his own use and enjoyment.. Of course he did.

In 1660, the monarchy was restored during what was cleverly called the Restoration, and Charles II ascended the throne in 1660. He preferred Windsor Castle, but sometimes deigned to go slumming at Hampton Court. He built a set of lodgings at the south-east corner of the palace for one of his mistresses, Barbara Villiers, and her illegitimate children by him. (No word on whether the builders shopped at Restoration Hardware.)

William III (who became king in 1689) and Queen Mary II (together they were William and Mary, who have won several NCAA championships) commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to rebuild Hampton Court. Jeepers, Christopher Wren must have been the hardest working man in architecture in the seventeenth century. Is there anything he didn’t design?

Wren originally wanted to demolish the entire Tudor palace, except for the Great Hall. Alas, there wasn’t time or money, and Wren had the rest of London to build, so he had to be content with rebuilding the king and queen’s main apartments. William wanted rapid results, as he wanted to have his friends over to watch William and Mary play football on Thanksgiving, but, because of the speed of building and the crappy quality of the mortar used, a large section of the building collapsed, killing two workmen and injuring 11. “The subsequent inquiry deteriorated into bitter squabbles.” I can imagine.

In 1694, Mary died, and William was devastated. (Also, William and Mary had lost the Atlantic 10 championship, which didn’t help). Work on the palace thus stopped, leaving the new buildings as an empty brick shell with bare walls and floors. Finally, in 1697, William rededicated his thoughts and money to palace building, this time with less carnage. And thus Hampton Court was transformed into a Baroque palace.

O, cruel fate: William did not live to enjoy his new palace. After a bad fall from his horse in Hampton Court Park in 1702, he died.

His successor Queen Anne was primarily attracted by the hunting at Hampton Court Palace. Anne, though, preferred Windsor Castle, but she did have work done on Hampton Court for her consort, Prince George.
Anne did have time to introduce some startling new paintings, showing a semi-naked George disporting with sea creatures, into the Queen’s Drawing Room.
OK, then.

Alas, George died in 1708, and work stopped.

The Georgian kings (George I and II) were the last to use Hampton Court as a royal palace, 1737 being the last year that a royal family used the palace.

When George III decided not to avail himself of Hampton Court, everyone said he was mad. Little did they know...

For a while, Hampton Court served as “grace and favor” apartments for people who were in good with the monarchy (well, I guess it beat the Tower of London, which was typically the other alternative...). In 1838, Queen Victoria ordered that Hampton Court Palace “should be thrown open to all her subjects without restriction.” And she was not amused.

Today, “Conservation and restoration of Hampton Court Palace continues. The vast majority of the palace buildings are now either open to the public or used as office space and store-rooms, although a small group of grace-and-favour residencies remain.”
So there.

By this time, it was getting late, and we still had the 19-mile, two-hour drive back home, during which we all slept.

To be continued...

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