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Henry VIII's Palace Hit by Fatal Blaze : Hampton Court Wing Gutted, 1 Dead, Art Treasures Destroyed

March 31, 1986|Associated Press

LONDON — A raging fire today gutted a wing of Hampton Court Palace, a sprawling country residence of kings and queens dating from the reign of Henry VIII, killing one person and damaging some art treasures.

Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by her heir, Prince Charles, and her sister, Princess Margaret, visited the palace after the fire was under control to inspect the damage.

A body believed to be that of Lady Daphne Gale, 86, widow of Gen. Sir Richard Gale, was found in the burned building, fire officials said. Sir Richard was deputy supreme commander of NATO in Europe from 1958 to 1960 and played a prominent role in the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II.

Widows Escorted Out

Seven or eight elderly widows in their dressing gowns were led from apartments on the top floor of the south wing before the roof collapsed into two lower floors filled with art works, said Toby Jessel, a Conservative Party lawmaker who represents the district.

Hampton Court is owned by Queen Elizabeth II and contains hundreds of rooms, including about 15 apartments that are offered at low rent to court retainers and prominent retired diplomats and generals. Many residents of the apartments were away for the Easter holiday.

Flames poured through the roof of the 16th-Century palace, one of Britain's most popular tourist attractions, and smoke was visible miles away. The palace is on the banks of the River Thames 12 miles from the heart of London.

More than 120 firefighters brought the blaze under control at 9:40 a.m., four hours after it was reported. They managed to keep the blaze from spreading to other wings of the huge palace, which is built around several inner courtyards.

Fire Brigade spokesman Brian Clark said the cause of the fire was not known and the extent of the damage had not been determined.

"Some art pieces were salvaged at the start of the fire, but there is damage to others. We don't know how much, but considerable damage," Clark said.

"This is a terrible tragedy," Richard Tracey, undersecretary for the environment, said at the scene. "This building is really one of the jewels in our heritage."

Many Treasures Saved

Gerry Clarkson, deputy chief of the London Fire Brigade, said many of the palace's art treasures were rescued in an emergency operation carried out by fire officials and palace staff.

He said firefighting was difficult because the heavy, leaded roof of the palace's south wing collapsed and floors were so badly burned that they were unsafe. The roof fell into a gallery which displayed copies of Raphael tapestries.

Hampton Court was built by Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York, during the reign of Henry VIII. Henry took it over after Wolsey's downfall and brought five of his six wives to live there.

The palace was also home to Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I, and was a major residence of the British Royal Family until the mid-18th Century. George II was the last monarch to live there.

During the reign of William and Mary, Sir Christopher Wren, the great 17th-Century architect, was commissioned to carry out rebuilding work.

Queen Victoria opened the state rooms to the public in the 19th Century.

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