On 11.XI, we visited Hampton Court. In spite of a horrible public transport situation (train breaks down at West Hampstead, 30 mins delay on the Overground to Richmond, finally cut off at Willesden Junction, other Overground to Clapham Junction, then South-West Train to Hampton... 2:20 in the transports), the palace is more worth than a simple deviation from a planned London trip.
Having spent four hours inside -which, I think, can only be matched by Versailles- I was surprised to find the Henry VIII rooms in such a fine condition (apart from Fontainebleau and the Loire castles, I don't know any example of 16th century palaces still in good state today): tapestries, wooden ceilings, tainted glass... it was all there. Of course, modern audiovisual techniques helped to explain some of the intrigues around the King's sixth wedding with Lady Katherine Parr (re-enacted for the benefit of the public by the Palace's actors throughout the day).
The exhibition on the "young Henry VIII", running from his wedding to Catharina of Aragon to his divorce, tells the story of the monarch's diplomatic and domestic political position through himself, his wife and Cardinal Wolsey, in their respective relations to the main international players. The painting of the meeting with François Ier on the "field of the golden cloth", cited during Alain Tallon's courses at the Sorbonne two years ago, was on display and could be animated through computer screens (from the arrival of Henry VIII, over the wine spitting fountains and the queens' ceremonial role at the tournament to the final meeting under a golden tent).
Also, Henry's invasions of Northern France and relations with Emperor Maximilian of Habsburg (father of Philip the Fair, married to another daughter of the Spanish Catholic Kings and Charles V's grandfather) and his sister Margaret, governor of the Spanish Netherlands, are explained to the public in a simple way. Cartography of the British enclave aronud Calais and of Henry's imperial plans illustrate the scenes as a good history teacher would have done for his students.
Of course -in view of my previous and current research on the late 17th and early 18th centuries- the William III/Mary Stuart appartments and the Georgian rooms attracted most of my attention.
The magnificent staircases leading up to the sovereign's apartments immediately ring a bell: they recall George I's stair at Kensington Palace (which I visited on Saturday). Colossal mural paintings representing both George I and Queen Anne (1702-1714), thrones in every of William's successive appartments, tapestry and state portraits used to impress the "gentlemen of quality" paying a visit to Hampton (which was -in that way- not very different from Versailles under Louis XIV).
(Robert Walpole. Who else ?)
An interesting and well-rythmed audioguide explains the main quarrels and figures at court: William's feeble interest for England, his excessive eating and drinking habits, causing his death after a horseriding incident in 1702, in the run-up to the War of the Spanish Succession; the mutual hostility between George II and his son Frederick, prince of Wales; the striking difference between Charles II's collection of court beauties and the more austere ladies of Queen Anne's aulic assembly.
Raphael's tapestry-studies, on display in the Victoria and Albert museum, originally hung in Hampton Court, in a gallery recalling the "Galerie des Glaces" in Versailles, in its own British way (dark wooden walls, panorama on the Fountain Court). Caravaggio and other Italian masters are on display in the Duke of Cumberland's appartments, completed during the 1730s (period of interest to my current research). In annex to the first courtyard, Mantegna's "Triumphs of Caesar" are an artistic attraction as such.
Due to the poor weather (10°C, a bit rainy), we weren't able to visit the gardens of Cardinal Wolsey's initial private manor.