It's question time with Hampton Court State Apartment Warders, Sheila Dunsmore
Tell us a bit about the origins of this incredible building…
Hampton Court Palace, as we know it now, began to emerge in 1514 when Thomas Wolsey came to survey the land. Wolsey was then the Archbishop of York, and wanted to build a country estate away from London, but close enough to the capital to attend the King and court regularly. It had to be grand enough to entertain the young Henry VIII and the other important visitors he received as Archbishop.
What are the oldest parts of the palace that still remain today?
The Tudor Kitchens are the oldest part of the Palace. The Great Fire dates back to before Wolsey’s tenure, when Sir Giles Daubeney lived at Hampton Court. Sir Giles Daubeney was Lord Chamberlain to Henry VII. He acquired an 80 year lease on the property from The Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, who had owned the site since the 13th century. The bell in the tower above the Astronomical Clock is also said to have come from the Knights Hospitallers’ original manor house.
Hampton Court's 500 years of history spans so many notable eras of British history, from the Tudors to the 21st century. Which is your favourite period and why?
My favourite era is the 1660s when Charles II came back to England to take up his rightful place as King. Although visitors do not really associate Charles with the Palace, he did spend time here, most famously his honeymoon!
Do you have a favourite anecdote from the palace's history?
I love the story of Horace Beauchamp Seymour, a dashing military Hero who had fought at the Battle of Waterloo. He came to live at the Palace in 1827 and as a handsome eligible widower he caused quite a sensation amongst the ladies, especially when he joined the Sunday services at the Chapel Royal. It was not long before a series of fainting episodes began, with the strategically placed young lady fainting into the arms of the dashing Horace, who then proceeded to carry the lady out and stay with her until she regained her composure. After a third successive Sunday of fainting’s, the epidemic was brought to a swift halt by the aunt of Mr Seymour, herself also a palace resident. The feisty old lady pinned a sign to the chapel door warning any lady feeling faint that forthcoming Sunday that Bransome the Dustbin Man would be carrying her out. Needless to say the fainting ceased!
What is your favourite part of the Palace?
I love the West Front façade - it just looks so imposing and mysterious. Whether you are driving or walking past it it’s guaranteed to draw you in under its spell!
A complex of buildings dating back as far as 500 years obviously requires considerable upkeep. What are the greatest challenges in maintaining the palace?
The biggest challenge has to be raising money to keep restoring and conserving this historic palace. To do this, teams across the palace work on creating exciting exhibitions, immersive events and guided tours that capture the imagination and interest of visitors. We have to make sure people, from local families to international groups, have a memorable experience and want to visit again and again.
Are there any 'secrets' about the palace you can reveal to us?
Unsurprisingly for a palace so huge and historic, Hampton Court has a wealth of mysteries. The fire at the Palace in 1986 was devastating, but restoration revealed some of the palace’s hidden secrets. Hand prints and sketched designs of the palace made by builders were found in the plaster behind the wood panelling in King William’s rooms. Most exciting was an object discovered downstairs in King William’s private dining room – a gun was found behind the panelling. The gun dated back to the late 1800s and was found with a regimental dinner menu wrapped around it. We don’t know where the gun came from or why it was hidden – perhaps further conservation might reveal its secrets in the future!
Which parts of the palace would you suggest visitors shouldn’t miss?
That’s a difficult one! Though it does depend on the individual (and the weather!), I recommend getting introduced to the palace through a performance from our costumed interpreters, which helps you get in the Tudor spirit. If it’s a bit chilly, you can pick up a cloak to wear – you can choose between dressing as a Tudor or Georgian courtier! Once you’re inside the palace, I’d start in the Tudor State Apartments to discover the rich opulence of Henry VIII’s Hampton Court, then visit the recently opened Cumberland Art Gallery, which contains masterpieces by Rembrandt, Canaletto and Van Dyck. Next I’d take in the baroque splendour of the Queen’s State Apartments, then explore Maze, East Front Garden and Privy Garden (weather permitting!). After a spot of lunch I’d suggest visiting the Mantegna Gallery, then the Young Henry exhibition which explores the early life of Henry VIII, before finishing the day in King William III’s apartments.
Woods Coaches have an Excursion to Hampton Court Palace including a 2-course lunch on Sunday 31st January 2016. Please click here for more information or to make a booking.