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The Early Stuarts and Hampton Court

Simon Thurley explains why the first Stuarts kept the great Tudor palace virtually intact.

The reigns of the first two Stuart kings are frequently seen as an artistic  golden age. A new style in architecture, painting, drama, music and sculpture swept the educated elite, and the new style was centred on the royal court. We are used to seeing James I (r.1603-25) and Charles I (r.1625-49) as patrons of the new, as champions of the modern. Recent work on Hampton Court Palace, however, paints a slightly subtler picture. The Stuart kings did not simply seek the shock of the new. They were also interested in what we would call antiques, partly for their intrinsic beauty and worth, but also as a way of displaying the continuity and legitimacy of their dynasty. At the heart of the image of an ancient dynasty was a dynastic seat. For the Stuarts this was not Whitehall, the official residence of the sovereign, which they filled with modern works of art and adorned with buildings in the latest style: it was out west at Hampton Court.

Hampton Court had been one of the houses that Henry VIII had taken from Cardinal Wolsey at his fall from power in 1529. It was also the house with which he was most pleased. It was already large and set in beautiful gardens and extensive parks and Henry resolved to make it his principal country house. Over the next ten years he spent £60,000 (probably around £18 million in modern money) on transforming it into the most impressive of his country residences. It became Edward VI’s favourite house, the home to the disastrous court of Mary and Philip of Spain, and the place to which Elizabeth I invited people whom she wanted to impress. By the accession of James I in 1603 it must have looked old-fashioned. Both its architecture and its furnishings were virtually unchanged since Henry VIII’s death and there may have been an expectation that this house, like most other royal palaces, would soon be modernised by James I and his avant-garde architect Inigo Jones.

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