Following Henry VIII From Greenwich to Hampton Court

By Rick & Chris Millikan

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Settled outside London at Putney Bridge, two daytrips transport us into England’s earlier times. Starting off, morning trains take us to Greenwich, a pretty town reflecting Britain’s seafaring past.

Our map leads us into the National Maritime Museum, where naval-themed exhibits include model ships, elaborately carved figureheads once gracing prows and interactive activities for kids of all ages. One room showcases Nelson’s bullet-pierced coat from Trafalgar, his last battle. An elaborately gilded 16th century royal barge dominates the hallway.

Strolling next door, we find Britain’s first Palladian-style villa. James I built this small palace in 1616 as a gift for Anne of Denmark, his wife, who accepted it on the condition that river views be preserved. Inside Queen’s House, the wondrous tulip staircase spirals upward from the Great Hall – without central supports!

Today, a gallery for the Maritime Museum, former royal apartments now exhibit the world’s largest collection of naval art. Hogarth, Canaletto, Reynolds and Turner depict sailing ships, sea battles, captains and admirals. One chamber displays Henry VII’s family portraits, including renowned son Henry. An unexpected engraving unveils Placentia, their Greenwich palace.

Born there in 1491, this brick riverside residence long remained Henry’s favourite home. Becoming King at age 18, he’d ordered the addition of a banquet hall, stables, forges and armouries for making suits of mail. He married his first two wives in this Tudor palace; daughters Mary and Elizabeth were also born there.

For pleasure, Henry hunted deer in Greenwich Park’s vast grounds, London’s oldest royal park. And he skillfully jousted in the tiltyard until crushed under his horse during a 1536 tournament, lying unconscious for hours. He never jousted again; instead, he focused his energies on developing shipyards in nearby Deptford and Woolwich and, eventually, storehouses and docks. Expanding the Royal Navy from five to 40 galleons, his new warships were the first to use large cannons.

From atop a steep knoll, we gaze across Greenwich Park’s rolling green expanses to distant London. The renowned hilltop buildings clustered here contributed to England’s rising naval power. Established in 1675, the Royal Observatory accurately charted night skies, improving navigation. Weller Astronomy Galleries and Peter Harrison Planetarium continued this work. Displayed in Time Galleries, maritime clocks invented between 1693 and 1776 were essential to calculating longitude. Among them, we examine Harrison’s first sea watch, used by Cook in mapping the Pacific. Standing outside with one foot in the eastern hemisphere, the other in the west, we straddle the prime meridian, the line representing zero degrees longitude. Adopted in 1884, Greenwich Mean Time enabled sailors to determine exact east-west positions.

Heading past Cutty Sark, the last of Britain’s 19th century tea clippers and on to Greenwich Pier, we proceed through a World Heritage complex. Christopher Wren designed an early rest home for disabled sailors, replacing beloved Placentia. Henry would likely have approved the purpose of these neo-classical structures, as well as their long service as the Royal Naval College. Catching the ferry, we return through London on the Thames, just as King Henry did.

Inspired to know more about Henry VIII, two short train rides take us to Hampton Court the next day. His 500-year-old brick palace stands alongside the baroque palace Wren created for William and Mary over a century later.

One of England’s great palaces, Hampton Court began around 1236 as a humble grange storing produce for the Knights of St John, evolving into a guesthouse for royal travellers and finally a manor house. Henry’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey bought these lands in 1514, transforming the existing country house into his opulent palace. Flaunting extreme wealth, he utilized expensive red brick rather than common stone and installed the decorative chimneys still punctuating the palace skyline. Often a visitor there, Henry coveted Wolsey’s lavish palace.

Audio guides lead us through Anne Boleyn's Gate to Clock Court. Remarkably, the 1540 Astronomical Clock faithfully indicates time, date, month, moon phases, zodiac signs, tides at London Bridge… and the sun travelling around a stationary Earth! Wolsey's seal remains over the clock tower.

However, by failing to arrange annulment of Henry’s 20-year marriage to Catherine, Wolsey had fallen quickly from royal favour. Confiscating his property, Henry acquired Hampton Court in the late 1520s and, over the next decade, remodeled the palace to accommodate his family and a court of 1,000 courtiers and servants.

Throughout our “day at court,” regally costumed characters re-enact timely scenarios. One courtyard episode portrays Henry worrying about succession. But, finding a lady to make him happy, his path to love does not run smoothly. Henry pleads, “What’ll put things right?” His advisor suggests extravagant presents.

Inside Chapel Royal, the royal family always sat in a plush pew off the altar, apart from other worshippers. Consecrated Anglican, this newly established church blessed his marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Henry’s grand apartments impressed his entourage, guests and now us. Amid exquisite furniture and invaluable artwork, one oil painting details a young Henry’s victorious Battle of the Spurs, one of several efforts to subdue France. Another, Field of the Cloth of Gold illustrates Wolsey’s later peace initiative, a meeting between Henry and Francis I near Calais in 1520.

Commissioned in 1540, priceless Flemish tapestries drape the magnificent Great Hall. Gilded woodcarvings and antlered heads decorate this medieval dining room, the largest and last ever built for English royals. Below an intricately carved ceiling and stained glass windows, rows of dining tables with place settings explain that guests were seated according to rank. Sitting on the raised dais, where Henry dined, we elegantly feign toasts with pewter tankards.

Enormous kitchens fed Henry’s court two meals daily, washed down by gallons of beer. Teams of master cooks, yeomen and sergeants formed a tireless staff of 200, busily cooking up countless hearty feasts. Meat formed 75 per cent of their diet, roast beef being the royal dish. In addition, oxen, sheep, deer, calves, pigs and wild boars were prepared annually on huge spits in six huge fireplaces.

While strolling quiet pathways outside the palace, we learn Henry developed many of the garden plans appreciated today. His private or Privy Garden evolved into 24 hectares of sculpted formal gardens. One of 38 gardeners tells us, “Based on Cardinal Wolsey’s idea, today’s maze offers over 800-metres of pathways.” Winding amid the high yew hedges thrills some, unnerves others.

Sauntering northward, we discover the Royal Tennis Courts were first built for Wolsey in 1526. A dashing and talented player, Henry spent hours on these still used courts. Ironically, Ann Boleyn was arrested there for betting on a match. Taken to the Tower of London, she was investigated for further crimes, convicted of high treason and beheaded. The next day, Henry married Jane Seymour.

Henry wed his sixth and last wife here at Hampton Court. An accomplished Queen, Catherine Parr wisely persuaded Henry to place daughters Mary and Elizabeth in the line of succession.

We exit through Wilderness Garden, once enclosing Henry’s grand tiltyard. Following his injury in Greenwich, Henry enjoyed watching jousting tournaments from one of five surrounding towers, accompanied by courtiers and visiting dignitaries. Henry VIII died in 1547, owning more than 60 houses, none as important or as splendid as Hampton Court.

Ahh, yes! Train tripping proves an easy way to explore England’s distinguished past – and helps us find Henry VIII.

When You Go: Premier Inn Putney Bridge Greenwich Hampton Court Palace Trains




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