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How to sleep at Hampton Court Palace

At night, a historical attraction somehow acquires an entirely different authentic ambience, with the sense of its past rendered more palpable by the feeling of exclusivity – there is a sense of being a private guest at a bygone court. Entering any residence at night emphasises this idea, something which the sequence of a royal apartment’s series of rooms – designed to indicate your status and privilege according to how far you were allowed to penetrate – also helps us to achieve. Perhaps this is what makes the idea of experiencing Hampton Court Palace at night so special, the sense of having been invited. This may be experienced at the ‘Dawn ’til Dusk’ sleepover.

In many ways, the thousands of visitors that come to the palace by day remind us of the fact that in its own day, Hampton Court teemed with a vast army of servants and courtiers and was a living and working machine to serve the monarch. The palace was also, of course, a palace for feasting – its kitchens had to provide enough provision for the six hundred or so members of the court to eat there twice a day, a perk to which their position entitled them. In Tudor terms, Hampton Court literally gives rare access to a lost royal world – it is the only other of Henry VIII’s palaces still (partly) surviving today, alongside St James’s Palace, which is not open to the public.

Hampton Court is an extraordinary survivor, also reminding us of the historical loss of Henry’s other key residences which have not survived – such as Greenwich, Richmond and York Place (Whitehall from 1532). Historic Royal Palaces now hosts an event which allows the paying public to spend a night of feasting at Hampton Court, followed by the opportunity of being accommodated within its walls.

Then there are some of the palace’s night stories – Queen Jane Seymour gave birth to the future Edward VI – Henry VIII’s longed-for male heir – at Hampton Court, in a room which still survives, on 12 October 1537 at two o’clock in the morning, dying at the palace just nine days after the christening – probably of puerperal fever.

Hampton Court Palace re-created the christening of Edward VI as Duke of Cornwall and Earl of Chester, with over ninety members of staff volunteering to commemorate the palace’s 500th anniversary celebrations in 2015 – the re-creation was broadcast by the BBC as a documentary entitled “A Night at Hampton Court,” the procession to the Chapel Royal taking place in Tudor costume loaned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The christening of Edward VI occurred in the evening of Sunday 15 October in a torchlit procession, with the actual baptism performed by Archbishop Cranmer at midnight.

After the death of Queen Jane Seymour, her body was brought – in a sad symmetry – to the Chapel Royal, where the christening of Prince Edward had taken place. Vigils were held for Queen Jane. The Lady Mary, as the King’s eldest daughter by Katharine of Aragon was then known, was chief mourner among the ladies, with the priests keeping watch by night.

On 31 July 1737, Augusta, Princess of Wales was smuggled out of Hampton Court Palace at night by her husband, Frederick, Prince of Wales, in the painful early stages of labour – in order to ensure that his future child be born far away from his parents, George II and Queen Caroline, who were at Hampton Court for the summer.

George II and Queen Caroline pursued an attitude of open hostility against their son, another historical example of the problematic relationships of the Georgian kings with their heirs. What followed was a traumatic and most likely terrifying journey for Augusta, which took an hour and a quarter on the uncomfortable road to London, with Augusta’s skirts being stuffed with handkerchiefs because her waters had broken. The baby was born sometime between 11 o’clock at night and midnight at St James’s Palace, hastily made ready for the birth on their arrival, with napkins and warming pans having to be sent for.

On the theme of sleeping, Hampton Court Palace displays several important royal beds, including Queen Caroline’s state bed and Queen Caroline’s private bed, which is an angel bed (so-called because of its suspended canopy) and stands today in the Queen’s Private Apartments, as part of the suite of rooms which contains Caroline’s bathroom and private oratory. The bed was a pertinent symbol of the very royal divide between the public and the private – the state bedroom was intended for ceremonial ritual, most notably that of the royal ‘lever’ and ‘coucher’ – the public waking, dressing or ‘rising’ of the monarch, followed by the undressing, retiring or ‘putting to bed’. The private bedchamber was an entirely different affair, and correspondingly, both the room and the bed itself would have been smaller, to draw attention to the fact that it was here that the monarch actually slept. The best example of this at Hampton Court is in the William III Apartments, with the Great Bedchamber and the adjoining Little Bedchamber.

The ‘Henry VIII Apartments’ at Hampton Court can, of course, be seen today. Fewer visitors, however, may know that some of the spaces which housed Henry’s private apartments still exist, though they are harder to recognise and are not entirely accessible. Remarkably, the tower that contained his actual bedchamber survives, although it is not open to the public. Henry’s bedchamber was housed on the first floor of the so-called ‘Bayne Tower’ (from the French for bath, as the first floor also contained his private bathroom).

The second floor of the Bayne Tower contained Henry VIII’s  library in two rooms and a jewel house. The Bayne Tower was used by Henry VIII until 1533 and is an extraordinarily important survival of the Tudor period. Today, you can at least get close to the Bayne Tower on ground level, thanks to the opening of the relatively new Fountain Court Café at Hampton Court Palace. In this part of the Tower was once contained Henry VIII’s Wardrobe.

It is not the only way, however, to spend a night at Hampton Court Palace – the Georgian House, north of the main palace complex is available as an accommodation to book via The Landmark Trust. The Georgian House formerly was the House of the Clerk of the Works and the Gardener, although it was originally a royal kitchen built for George I and his son, George Augustus, Prince of Wales, later George II.

Hampton Court Palace’s ‘Grace and Favour Apartments’ were introduced in the 1760’s – a royal solution to the many rooms which now lay vacant, with George III and his family preferring Windsor, Kew and the Queen’s House (later to become Buckingham Palace) to Hampton Court Palace, which experienced its last great heyday as a royal residence under George II and Queen Caroline. The apartments (containing anything from 12-14 rooms) were granted rent-free to those chosen and favoured subjects who had offered or had an association to those who had rendered a particular service to the Crown, a notable occupant being Lady Baden-Powell, the widow of Robert 1st Baron Baden-Powell, who founded The Boy Scouts Association.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.