Take a right royal trip inside Hampton Court

Thursday: Inside Hampton Court; (Channel 5, 8pm)
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Despite it being a popular tourist attraction, visited by close to a million people each year, there are still many secrets inside Hampton Court Palace.

Completed in 1515, Hampton Court was Henry VIII’s favourite summer residence and it epitomised Tudor fashion and style. But did you know that Henry didn’t actually have it built?

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It was in fact designed by his closest advisor, Thomas Wolsey, who originally conceived it as his own home, as a reward to himself for becoming Cardinal. Sparing no expense, Wolsey used glittering painted red brick with a black diamond pattern, white mortar joints and dozens of decorative chimneys – the largest collection in England.

Tracy Borman, the Historic Royal Palaces Chief CuratorTracy Borman, the Historic Royal Palaces Chief Curator
Tracy Borman, the Historic Royal Palaces Chief Curator

With tennis courts, a bowling green, jousting complex and archery in the 60 acres of landscaped gardens, as well as hunting grounds nearby, the palace was the closest thing the Tudors had to a theme park. However, its opulence provoked gossip that it was finer than any of the king’s own palaces, so Wolsey swiftly and smartly deflected criticism by saying he had built it for Henry all along.

“Wolsey, a quiet word, if you please,” the king apparently said. “A little birdie tells me you’re building a rather grand palace on the river?”

“But, your majesty, I was keeping it as a surprise for your birthday,” Wolsey replied.

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“Good man, Wolsey,” Henry replied. “I knew I could trust you. Keep it up!”

Both Henry and King William III would go on to expand Hampton Court, with the latter doing his best to make it rival Versailles.

This two-part documentary takes viewers on an intimate tour behind the scenes at the beloved royal palace on the Thames.

At its height, Hampton Court employed some 600 people, but here we meet the smaller team who now care for the historic buildings and parklands, and look after the hundred of thousands of visitors every year. We also follow the palace warders, including Kitty, as she reveals some of Hampton Court’s unique spaces such as the Great Hall, where Henry danced with his second wife Anne Boleyn. This is only surviving hall built by the monarch and it sits at the very heart of the building.

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She also explains how the term “eavesdroppers” comes from the colourful little faces hanging from the eaves of the Hall looking down on courtiers below. A reminder, if you will, that walls have ears. After Anne’s execution, Henry wiped all traces of his wife from Hampton Court, apart from one of her symbols that the workmen missed.

Then, years later in 1603, the Great Hall became the stage for some festive drama, when William Shakespeare’s theatre company stayed for three weeks and performed their plays for King James I. Also in tonight’s programme, we meet the gardeners maintaining the 300-year-old historic maze and the spectacular gardens and grounds, where Russell the wildlife warden checks on the royal deer herd.

A mile away at the stables, head coachman Ed is seen preparing his team of rare-breed shire horses, including their very own new shire foal George, the first to be born at Hampton Court in a generation.

Finally, Historic Royal Palaces chief curator Tracy Borman follows the story of Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour, and goes behind the scenes to discover the suite of rooms he had built for her at the palace. Today, the enormous stone fireplace is the only hint of the luxurious space where Jane gave birth to Henry’s heir Edward before she tragically fell ill and died.

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