The Dowager Countess of Deloraine, who was governess to the children of George II at Hampton Court and other royal homes, was a notorious bore — so much so that her “every word” made one “sick,” according to the courtier Lord Hervey. When she naively asked him why everyone was avoiding her, he replied with exquisite irony that “envy kept the women at a distance, despair the men.”
This kind of witty, skittish anecdote is scattered throughout Gareth Russell’s scintillating hybrid of a book, The Palace: From the Tudors to the Windsors, 500 Years of History at Hampton Court, which is partly a biography of a place and partly something stranger: an episodic history of England from Tudor times to the present, illustrated by lightning flashes of gossip and politics, set against the handsome backdrop of Hampton Court.
Russell, a novelist as well as a historian, is interested in how events have physically shaped the Thames-side palace. Successive owners have left their stamp, as have individual visitors. We learn, for instance, that Cardinal Wolsey made extensive repairs before receiving the Constable of France in 1527. An earlier owner, Lord Daubeney, was so keen to please Henry VII, who loved real tennis, that before having him to stay in 1500 he built a court. To this day, visitors can watch or book a lesson in this eccentric, wonderful game, which is the progenitor of the modern (and much less interesting) version of tennis.
Most people, Russell declares, now come to the palace more for its stories than its architecture. This, at any rate, is his own preference, as is clear from the relish with which he recounts the outrageous sexual crimes of which Anne Boleyn was accused. Arrested while watching real tennis there, she was charged with seducing a courtier a few weeks after giving birth, which seems unlikely. Moreover, it was asserted, she had enjoyed an energetic affair with her own brother, during which the incestuous pair engaged in vigorous French kissing. Who had witnessed this was anyone’s guess. As Russell wryly observes: “Treason and adultery are not usually spectator events.”
Hampton Court emerges as an enduring architectural symbol of royal lust. For it had been Henry VIII’s obsession with Boleyn, and fury with Wolsey for failing to facilitate their marriage, that led the king to seize the palace from the cardinal. It was there, later, that a new translation of the Bible was commissioned by James I, a king known for his passions for younger men. In response to anyone who doubts that His Majesty was gay, Russell points to a letter to him in which the Duke of Buckingham confessed his thoughts were “only bent on having [your] legs soon in my arms.”
James’s grandson, Charles II, showed staggering tactlessness when he installed his mistress, Barbara Villiers, as an attendant to his wife. The latter almost fainted on learning of it, then developed a nosebleed when Charles remarked that he couldn’t rescind the order since he had made the woman a promise. He later granted Villiers extensive apartments in the palace.
This mistress, later the Duchess of Cleveland, seems to have been a loathsome individual, but her sex appeal was extraordinary. The priapic diarist Samuel Pepys, although a Protestant, attended a Catholic mass on Christmas Eve purely in order to feast his eyes on her charms. The sight so overwhelmed him that he had a spontaneous orgasm. This happened with “my eyes open,” an awed Pepys noted in his diary, before adding with unexpected primness, “and God forgive me for it, it being in the chapel.”
There is the odd misstep. It’s surprising that a writer of Russell’s confidence feels the need to call Oliver Cromwell “the famous Parliamentarian general.” And he’s wrong that Michael Faraday, who lived in a grace-and-favor cottage at Hampton Court for nineteen years before his death in 1867, discovered electromagnetic rotations. That was the Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted. Faraday used them to invent the electric motor.
The book is less interested in the spirit of place than in the spirits — in, say, the spectral footprints left by Charles I as he escaped Cromwell’s guards through the Privy Gardens, or the phantasmagorical echo of Henry VIII’s grunts as he threw himself into a game of real tennis to hold his middle-aged spread at bay.
Perhaps inevitably, the later chapters of Russell’s long chronological sweep pale by comparison with the earlier ones. Try as he might, his account of the current Princess of Wales visiting Hampton Court in 2016 wearing “nude heels from L.K. Bennett” cannot compete with the description by a Venetian diplomat of Anne Boleyn’s “middling stature, swarthy complexion” and “bosom not much raised,” the cold critique punctuated with praise of the queen’s eyes, “which are black and beautiful, and take great effect.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine anyone writing a better version of the book Russell sets out to write than the racy delight we have here.