Secrets of Henry VIII’s Palace: Hampton Court

secrets of henry viii palace

I’m not in the habit of reviewing documentaries, but I recently binged on the Secrets of…, a series of documentaries about notable English landmarks and institutions that aired Stateside on PBS. Secrets of Hampton Court gets a look mostly because I wanted an excuse to reminisce about my trip there last summer, and this program gives a fair tour of the expansive grounds. It does an admirable job of taking the audience through the corridors of King Henry VIII’s palace and those of its secretive, scandal-filled history. At least this is the narrative the filmmakers push hard for. They often marry palace history with Henry’s many wives, opting to mark various rooms, halls, and other architectural features by his romantic pursuits rather than his political ones.

Completed in 1515, Hampton Court originally served as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s home before it was ceded to the king, in part because it was more opulent than any of the royal residences. We learn that Henry’s affection for the palace grew alongside his affection for his first wife, Catherine – that is, until she fell out of favor, and the palace was altered to reflect his changing heart. There are glimpses of the Great Hall, which he refurnished with tiles and tapestries and gifted to his new wife, Anne Boleyn, and of the chapel, which he upgraded with a gilded ceiling, perhaps to coincide with his founding of the Church of England. Anne’s death and a third marriage to Jane Seymour ushered in another change to the palace, and he commissioned the construction of the Great Watching Chamber.

One of the historians interviewed comments that Henry’s many marriages turned Hampton Court into a perpetual building site, an apt characterization that did not stop with the king’s death in 1547. After a period of disuse, William III and Mary II took up residence in 1689 and commissioned a grand redesign with Christopher Wren, of St. Paul’s Cathedral fame. In a 17th century royals version of keeping up with the Joneses, they wanted their palace to rival those of France and proceeded to destroy a significant chunk of the old-fashioned structure. Thankfully, a tight budget ensured that the plans were never carried out in full, and the result is a bizarre architectural mashup that is as inspiring as it is disorienting.

For all their personal intrigues, however, the Stuart and Georgian monarchs don’t quite have the historical presence of the great Tudor king here. Stories of homosexual affairs and warring fathers and sons animate some of the rooms, but the program hurries you along some fifty years of royal and architectural history. It’s the filmic equivalent of a poorly paced visit and rushing through the remaining halls before closing time. Some of the most exquisite features, including the sumptuously painted Queen’s Staircase and my favorite feature, the palace gardens, get just a passing glance. Those hoping for a peek inside hidden chambers not open to the public will also be let down. But I’ll admit that a comprehensive study of Hampton Court in a mere fifty minutes is overly ambitious. This visual tour supplemented with some dress up and experimental baking is more than enough to satisfy.

Released: 2013
Prod: Jeremy Dear
Narrator: Samuel West
Time: 53 min
Country: United States
Network: PBS
Reviewed: 2016