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Your Palace For The Night

Hampton Court, once home to Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I and a host of other British royalty, allows modern-day visitors to stay in some of its history-filled rooms

March 26, 2000|DON WHITEHEAD | Don Whitehead is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

LONDON — I've often thought I should like to live at Hampton Court. It looks so peaceful and so quiet, and it is such a dear old place to ramble round in the early morning before many people are about.

--Jerome K. Jerome

"Three Men in a Boat," 1889


It was midnight, and a soft rain fell on Hampton Court Palace, accentuating the peace and quiet on this, my last night here. Alone in the main courtyard, I was surrounded by Tudor chimneys and towers, silent sentries bearing witness to almost five centuries of British history.

The past dwells in the present at Hampton Court, populated by the characters who shaped the British Empire: the churlish Henry VIII, who lived here with all six of his wives; his daughter, Elizabeth I, known as Good Queen Bess; Edward VI, christened here, a king at 10 and dead by age 16; Charles I, ultimately condemned as a "tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy"; Oliver Cromwell, who helped engineer Charles' demise; and William III and Mary II, who mandated the redesign of Hampton Court. All called it home.

Last summer, my family, two friends and I did too. Our "hotel" for a week was the Fish Court apartment, built by Henry VIII for members of the kitchen staff. As one who enjoys historic lodgings, I had found the ultimate accommodation.

We booked our stay through the Landmark Trust, a nonprofit British organization offering more than 150 self-catering accommodations in castles, cottages, forts and gatehouses throughout Britain. Visitors rent these properties by the week in summer and for three- or four-day stays the rest of the year. Although not inexpensive, they typically cost less than a hotel stay for the same number of people.

I first visited Hampton Court six years ago, taking the half-hour train trip from London to Hampton Court Station and joining the thousands who visit the palace daily. Even then, I never dreamed one could actually stay here.

Three years ago on another trip to England, we rented, through Landmark Trust, a thatch-roofed cottage built into the remains of a medieval gatehouse, circa 1600, near Taunton. Thumbing through the trust's handbook, I was surprised to see two properties at Hampton Court--Fish Court and, just north of the palace, the elegant 1719 Georgian House, with its own walled garden and enough room to sleep eight. I knew a stay here would be unforgettable.

That is how, on a family vacation, we came to take up residence in August in the four-bedroom Fish Court flat--my wife, Katherine, and I; our two sons, Henry, 14, and Alex, 10; and our friends Bob and Diane Thomson, who live in Arizona. Because we booked 10 months in advance, we paid 1998 rates, about $2,200. (The apartment will cost about $2,650 for a week this year at the peak of the summer season.)

Surrounded by rich royal history, we felt it fitting somehow that Queen Elizabeth II, who owns Hampton Court, became our landlady.

Hampton Court, 13 miles southwest of central London on the banks of the Thames, is a wondrous mix of Tudor and Baroque architecture and artifacts: Henry VIII's Great Hall, which could serve 300 diners at a time; the ornate State Apartments; the massive 16th century kitchens; glorious tapestries and paintings from the royal collection; fabulous courtyards; a royal chapel; and sumptuous gardens.

A visitor can see Hampton Court in a day, but it's a very full--almost overwhelming--day. Our stay allowed us to absorb the history of the palace gradually. Each of us received a pass at the beginning of the week that provided virtually unlimited access to the tourist areas that are open during the day and to the palace grounds, ours to visit whenever we pleased, day or night. From our apartment, a rich, royal history lesson was just steps away.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, acquired Hampton Court in 1514. Wolsey wanted to build a magnificent home for himself, and in this he succeeded perhaps too well. As his power waned, he gave Hampton Court to a jealous Henry in 1528 to try to appease him and curry favor. Unable to secure the pope's approval for Henry's divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, Wolsey died in 1530 as he was traveling to London to answer a charge of treason.

What Wolsey began and his king finished in 1540 was a magnificent Tudor palace of red brick, with gatehouses, towers and decorated chimneys.

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