I’ve heard of a man’s home being his castle, but Hampton Court, with its thousand or so opulent rooms, is downright overkill.
The massive fortress nestles alongside the River Thames, 19 kilometres southwest of central London.
Its history spans 500 years, during which time it was home to a number of royals.
On a visit, while wandering from courtyard to cloister, we’re able to peek into a few of these past lives.
We gather with others in the Clock Courtyard, a cobble-paved focal spot that was intentionally super-sized to intimidate unwanted visitors. This open arena also ties together a few architectural eras.
On one side is a wing, decked out in Tudor attire for Henry VIII, the first royal homeowner who had a notorious reputation for killing off wives.
The adjacent wing is made up of Baroque belongings for later live-ins, initially for William III and Mary II, then remodeled to suit the whims of George II and his lovely lady, Queen Caroline.
It’s all quite the historical hodgepodge, but with the help of costumed guides and audio headsets, we somehow make sense of it all.
Like a mesmerized flock, we’re led to The Great Hall, a Cardinal Wolsey classic, that’s immersed with period piece décor.
Panes of stained glass, gold-woven tapestries and prize-winning trophy heads all pose beneath the cathedral-like dome.
“The royal resident, Henry VIII, loved this impressive era of chivalry,” we’re told by our story telling leader, “even though he was unlucky at love.”
His sketchy nuptial history commenced in 1509, when he married Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow. He wanted a son, heir to the throne, and instead of a male, along came Mary.
She just wouldn’t do.
After a lengthy divorce, he wed his mistress, Anne Boleyn, a gutsy gal who didn’t toe the line.
Not only was she unsuccessful in producing Henry with that much wanted male, she was accused of adultery, treason and incest.
Off with her head was Henry’s solution and, in spite of putting up a darn good fight, off it came.
He moved on to her lady in waiting, Jane Seymour, who finally provided him with that precious boy.
A painted masterpiece depicts young Edward next to his proud parents, but as our informant reveals, this scene was quite impossible.
“The birth of this babe was not only her crown and glory, but was also her demise,” he says. “She died 12 days after Edward was born. This picture was fabricated at a later date.”
It was all about show in these Renaissance days — and what better way to embellish a story than through paintings.
Based on Henry’s trim waistline, this canvas had been tweaked in more ways than one, clearly a weight-watcher’s version of this normally rotund chap.
Catherine Howard was the fifth fair maiden in this king’s matrimonial line-up.
Like a couple of others, she made the fatal mistake of playing the field and, in 1541, was charged with treason.
Knowing full well her fate was doomed, she made a vain attempt to run to the king’s chambers and plead for her life.
But before she could reach his private quarters, the guards dragged her back behind locked doors, screaming to high heaven.
“These desperate shrieks for help can be heard to this day,” we’re told by our guide as we wander along the Haunted Gallery.
I gaze at the oil masterpieces that line the walls. From within their gilded frames, the setting looks relaxed, serene.
Not so if you were hooked up with Henry.
We wind our way through the Tudor kitchens, a culinary gallery that could satiate as many as 600 hungry monarchs, peer into the posh apartments of King William III, where we get the scoop on more regal tales, and eventually make our way out to the 25 garden hectares that are ablaze with colour.
As well as countless bulbs and plants, this cultivating hot spot hosts more than 8,000 trees.
While kids of all ages make a dash for the garden maze, I’m lured to the world’s oldest and largest Great Vine — an amazing arboretum that has produced centuries of Black Hamburg grapes and, in turn, many a fine wine to toast those royal bloodlines.
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