The Great Gate at Hampton Court Palace.

The Great Gate at Hampton Court Palace.Flickr / Luke Nicolaides

The Palace of Hampton Court is so splendid that two of its 16th-century residents have seemingly refused to leave, for it is said that their ghosts walk its halls to this day.

Of all the Royal and ancient buildings along the banks of the River Thames in and near London, none evokes more colourful memories or romantic associations than the Palace of Hampton Court. It is less spectacular than Windsor Castle and less historic than either Windsor or the Tower of London. Yet this cluster of weathered red-brick Tudor courts, gatehouses and tall decorative chimneys, set in magnificent gardens shared with the State Apartments of a later century, has great charm.

For more than two centuries Hampton Court Palace was the favourite residence of England's kings and queens. Apart from William and Mary, for whom the extended palace was built in the 17th century by Christopher Wren, the sovereigns most closely associated with Hampton Court's history are the Tudors; especially Henry VIII, in whose reign the Tudor palace took its present shape and form.

Henry spent his honeymoon there with five of his six wives. Anne Boleyn, the first to have apartments in the palace prepared for her, never lived to see them completed. Shortly after her execution, the king wed her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, and the Royal masons and carpenters set to work altering the letter A into a J wherever it was intertwined with an H in the palace decorations.

Jane died at Hampton Court a few days after giving birth to Henry's eagerly awaited heir, the future boy King, Edward VI. Mary Tudor, Henry's eldest daughter, also spent her honeymoon at the palace with Philip II of Spain, after their wedding in Winchester Cathedral.

Elizabeth I, like her father, loved Hampton Court, despite having been held prisoner there shortly before her own accession. She often enjoyed relaxation from the cares of the state at the palace. Records tell of her dancing, playing the virginals, watching entertainments in the Great Hall and flirting with her courtiers. She was resting in the gardens after the traditional goose banquet on Michaelmas Day, 1588 when a messenger brought her news of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The founder of Hampton Court was the great Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII. In 1514, when he was Archbishop of York and close to the height of his power, he leased the manor of Hampton in Middlesex from the Knights Hospitallers for L50 a year. he built a grand country palace in healthy surroundings, within convenient reach by the river of his Westminster mansion, York Place. The palace and its rich furnishings cost Wolsey 200,000 gold crowns and on completion, Hampton Court was said to be 'more lyke unto a paradise than any earthlie habitation'. Wolsey lived there in regal splendour with a household of nearly 500 until his downfall a dozen years or so later. The Cardinal entertained lavishly and one of the last occasions was his hospitality to the French ambassador and his retinue of 400 when a treaty between England and France was signed in 1527.

Henry VIII coveted his Lord Chancellor's property for some time before Wolsey presented it to him as a gift. The seemingly magnanimous gesture was really a desperate attempt to regain Henry's favour, which Wolsey finally lost after failing to obtain a papal sanction for the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. By 1529 the break between King and Cardinal was complete, and Wolsey was stripped of what remained of his power and wealth. York Place was taken over and became part of Henry's new Palace of Whitehall. Although Wolsey received a pardon in 1530 and returned to York Place, he was arrested later that year for high treason and died while being taken to London for trial.

Henry lost no time in altering and enlarging Hampton Court to make it one of the finest Royal homes in Europe. Only Wolsey's Great Gatehouse and two of the original courts survived so that the Tudor palace that visitors see today dates mainly from the mid-16th century. It is built of patterned brickwork, varying in colour from rose to deep crimson, with dressings of stone. Above the walls rise carved brick chimneys in groups of two, three, of four, each stack being of slightly different design from the rest.

The most impressive of the older buildings is the Great Gatehouse, which still serves as the main entrance to the palace from the west. This has flanking embattled towers and a handsome oriel window, above which is a carved panel showing the Royal arms of Henry VIII. Originally the gatehouse was two storeys higher, with lead cupolas on turrets crowned by gilded weathervanes. Unfortunately, these were taken down in the 18th century. The approach is by a footbridge across a former moat, which was filled in during the reign of Charles II. Ranged along the bridge parapets are modern replicas of the Tudor King's Beasts, which in Henry's time were displayed in many parts of the palace and gardens.

Beyond the Great Gatehouse lies Base Court, little altered since Wolsey built it, on the far side of which Anne Boleyn's Gateway leads to the small Clock Court with the Astronomical Clock above the arch. This clock was made for Henry VIII by the famous French horologist, Nicholas Ousian. Still, in good working order, its three copper dials indicate the hour, the sign of the zodiac, the month and day, the number of days since the beginning of the year, the moon's phase, and the time of high water on the Thames at London Bridge. In accordance with the general belief of the 16th century, the sun is shown revolving around the earth.

Henry's most important addition to the palace is the Great Hall, which towers above the north side of the Clock Court. Begun in 1531, it took four years to complete. The King was so impatient to have it finished that craftsmen were put to work on it during all hours of the day, working at night by candlelight. One of the finest medieval banquet halls in existence, the Great Hall is more than 100 feet long, 40 feet wide and 60 feet high, with a wonderfully carved and decorated hammer-beam roof. Amid the carved foliage of the main supports of the roof, and on the richly decorated lantern-shaped pendants, are the arms of Henry VIII, sometimes coupled with those of Anne Boleyn.

The Great Hall was the setting for elaborate state banquets and entertainments of all kinds in Tudor and later times. Tradition has it that Shakespeare and his company of actors performed the drama of the fall of Wolsey before Elizabeth I here. During Henry VIII's reign, a kitchen staff of nearly 80, working under a master cook attired in 'velvet and satin', prepared meals on a lavish scale. From the largest Tudor kitchen in England, the sumptuous victuals were carried by teams of servants up to the Great Hall, where the arrival of each course was heralded by pipers and trumpeters in the minstrel gallery.

At the far end of the Great Hall, the King dined with his privileged guests at the High Table on the dais. A stone set into the floor near the centre of the Hall marks the site of the open fireplace or hearth from which the smoke escaped through a louvre in the roof--long since sealed. The walls are still hung with 16th-century tapestries, woven in Flanders, depicting the Old Testament story of Abraham. All the stained glass in the windows is Victorian.

In the Great Kitchen of Hampton Court are the huge fireplaces used in Henry's time, and the iron pit on which whole carcasses of oxen, sheep, and pigs were roasted. Nearby are the King's Beer Cellar and the King's New Wine Cellar, the latter with plain brick vaulting supported by stone piers, and low brick platforms to accommodate the casks of wine. The normal population of the Tudor palace was about 500 and under the regulations of the King's household, everyone--nobles, courtiers and all the serving men and women--was entitled to a certain quantity of beer or wine each day. The beer was brewed on the premises; the wine was imported.

The Chapel Royal in the palace was built by Wolsey but richly embellished and redecorated by during 1535 and 1536, when the magnificent fan-vaulted roof with its carved and gilded pendants over a blue background with stars, was constructed. Later decorations, including the oak reredos, the decorative panels behind the altar, carved by Grinling Gibbons, were designed by Wren when the Chapel was restored during Queen Anne's reign.

Leading to the Chapel Royal is the passage known as the Haunted Gallery, so-called because legend has it that the ghost of Henry's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, has been seen and heard passing along it. After the Queen had been accused of unfaithfulness by her husband, she was kept prisoner in her apartments. But one day, so the legend goes, she contrived to evade the guards and ran towards the Chapel, where the King was hearing Mass, to make a last plea for mercy. Her way was barred by more guards, who dragged her, shrieking, back through the gallery. Three months later she was beheaded at the Tower.

For many visitors, one of the most memorable corners of the old Tudor palace is the suite of Wolsey's Rooms, once known as the Lord Chancellor's Lodgings. Here, in what had previously been guest rooms, he continued to live for three years after Hampton Court had become the King's property. The rooms, with their fine linenfold wall panelling, were restored and first opened to the public in 1923. Above the panelling in the Wolsey Closet, 16th-century painted panels depict the story of the Passion of Christ. These, together with the richly plastered ceiling, convey some idea of the splendour of the Cardinal's mansion. When the painted panels were cleaned in the 1960s, painting of an earlier date was found under them, and this is thought to be a rare survivor of the manor house of the Knights Hospitallers.

Henry VIII indulged in a variety of sports and pastimes when in residence at Hampton Court: archery, bowls, jousting, tennis, and of course hunting in the surrounding parkland. On the north side of the palace is the enclosed Royal Tennis Court, built for the King in 1529 but restored and altered by a later Royal player, Charles II. Lighted by 12 high windows, this is the world's oldest covered tennis court still in use. Henry also laid out nine acres of tiltyards where he often took part in ceremonial jousting, a favourite sport of the Tudors. Later these became kitchen gardens and today part of the tiltyards' site is a delightful walled garden devoted mainly to old and modern roses of many varieties. Only one of the five observation towers for watching the jousting survives and this has become a restaurant.

The formal gardens around the Tudor palace are of modest size compared with the later ornamental grounds laid out by Charles II and William III, which included floral borders, stately avenues, and a canal called the Long Water.

On the riverside of the old palace, where it joins up with the taller south front of the Wren buildings, lie what are known as the Tudor Gardens, although they were replanned during the 18th century. The sunken Pond Garden, a faithful reconstruction of the Tudor original, has formal flower beds and topiary shrubbery at different levels and a small pond in the centre. Above it, under the palace walls, is the tiny Elizabethan Knot Garden. This, in fact, was designed and planted early in the present century in order to show visitors a style of formal gardening that was fashionable during the reigns of Elizabeth I and her successor, James I. Close by is the famous Great Vine under glass. Planted in the middle of the 18th century, this remarkable vine continues to produce an average of 400 to 500 pounds of black Hamburg grapes each year, which are sold to the public at the end of August or the beginning of September.

One of the most popular attractions on the grounds is the triangular maze. This is sited in a corner near the Lion Gates, north of the palace. Mazes were a favourite feature of great landscape gardens in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the Hampton Court maze was planted in 1714, the last year of Queen Anne's reign, by the Royal Gardener, Henry Wise. It has delighted millions of visitors since the palace was first opened to the public early in the last century.

The hedges dividing the paths of the maze were originally of hornbeam. Today they are mainly yew and privet, close-clipped and standing six feet high. In the early days, visitors venturing into the maze might be lost there for hours before their cries were heard and they were led out. No such predicament can occur nowadays with a keeper watching over the labyrinth from a high platform giving an overall view. With great skill or luck, the centre can be reached in only five minutes, though the way out often proves less easy. But whether you succeed or fail in solving the secret of the maze, it is one of the many delights of visiting this romantic Royal palace.