I swear Henry is haunting me. I’m in awe of Hampton Court, his favourite palace, out of roughly 60.
Hampton Court is really two palaces in one. First is the Tudor Palace built by Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s right-hand man, who “gave” it to the king in 1528, after Henry had admired it, and after Henry had pointed out that Wolsey wasn’t much good at getting the pope to annul Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Fat lot of good Wolsey’s generosity did him in the end, as he was arrested for treason the following year anyway. In Henry’s dictionary “treason” was defined as “not getting my way NOW.” It happened often. In fact, that was the eventual charge against Anne Boleyn, too. She committed the ultimate treason: not providing Henry with a son.
The second palace was built by William and Mary, who had decided to tear down all of Henry’s Tudor palace because it was so hopelessly old fashioned. They were only half finished when Mary died, which saved the part they had not yet gotten to. This part includes the Great Hall, still hung with the original tapestries (it’s said Anne Boleyn did some of the needlework herself), the amazing formal gardens, and the Chapel Royal, where we went to choral evensong last Sunday.
Choral evensong is the Anglican service for the close of day, with choir. Without a choir, this service is just called Evensong, even though it is “said,” not “sung.”
Going to church is free, but there’s a hefty entrance fee for ogling Hampton Court, so if you want to attend a church service in the Chapel Royal, which is a regular working Anglican church (just as it has been since the 1500’s), you have to announce yourself at security. They take you through a gate and a doorway and down a driveway to an unmarked, arched wooden door into the bricked Tudor part of Hampton Court itself.
This is the back entry to the Chapel Royal, and you walk past Henry’s kitchens, with its 50 rooms dedicated to storing and preparing fish, beef and peacocks, just for a start. Full disclosure: I peeked to the left and right for free.
The entrance to the chapel is not as impressive as you would think – a wooden doorway with the coats of arms of Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour. Once we were inside, an usher showed us to a boxed seat in the choir, back row, where the canons would sit – yes, the big shots of the church. (Sorry about that, couldn’t help myself.)
We had an excellent view of the organ and the organist opposite us, both hanging from a narrow balcony halfway up the wall, and the pipes are highly decorated, just like the walls and ceiling. The dark oak choir stalls were high enough so that we could only see the tops of the heads of the men and boys of the choir, and of the parishioners seated across from us.
When we looked up, we saw the ceiling of the chapel just as Henry VIII designed it. The motto “Dieu et mon droit” is painted in gold on the blue background, and etched into the glass of the windows. “God and my right,” or, as Henry meant it, “God gives me the right.” Or, “I am so the boss of you!”
When we turned our heads to the right, we could see the “Holy Day Closet,” the balcony from where royalty watches the proceedings. As the light dimmed, it seemed I could just make out the tall and terrifying figure of Henry himself, hands on his hips, and the shadows of several women behind him.
The singing was beautiful; the words of the Book of Common Prayer so comfortable, and it was so moving to think of those same words spoken in that same space through the centuries.
I’d love to go again.