The Lost Tiltyard Tower

Archaeologists at Hampton Court Palace have uncovered the remains of one of the palace’s famous five lost Tiltyard Towers. The discovery of this green-glazed tile floor has solved a three-hundred-year-old mystery. Built at the height of King Henry VIII’s reign in the 1530s, the Tiltyard Towers once stood within the walled Tiltyard, where the Tudor monarchs held jousts and tournaments.

A green-glazed tile floor belonging to one of the lost Tiltyard Towers was discovered at Hampton Court Palace
A green-glazed tile floor belonging to one of the lost Tiltyard Towers was discovered at Hampton Court Palace

The five towers were long thought to have been viewing galleries for the court to observe the tournaments staged in the Tiltyard below on major feast days and anniversaries.  The first recorded tournament at Hampton Court took place in 1557, when Queen Mary I held a ‘grand spectacle of jousting’ to celebrate Christmas.  Her sister, Queen Elizabeth I, continued the tradition, occasionally staging her accession day tournaments at Hampton Court.  On a day to day basis, the Tiltyard was probably used to train young men of the court in warfare.

Wyngaerde view of Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace from the north-west showing the Tiltyard Towers (left), Wyngaerde, c. 1558 (c) Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

However, the towers actually slightly predate their namesake, the Tiltyard, which was laid out in 1537, perhaps to mark the birth of Henry VIII’s son and heir, Prince Edward.  They were luxurious banqueting houses, built for entertaining away from the prying eyes of the court. They would have been grand and intricately decorated. Several gilded lead leaves were unearthed from the recently rediscovered remains of the building, a testament to the rich interior décor within.

a guilded lead leaf from the lost Tiltyard Tower at Hampton Court Palace
One of the gilded lead leaves unearthed during the excavation.
green-glazed tile floor belonging to one of the lost Tiltyard Towers at Hampton Court Palace
Green-glazed tile floor belonging to one of the lost Tiltyard Towers at Hampton Court Palace

After tournaments gradually fell out of fashion, the towers became multi-purpose storage spaces – housing everything from the King’s pigeons to two of Queen Henrietta Maria’s priests, in quarantine after a plague outbreak!  Only one tower survived after the buildings fell into disrepair – and it remains standing, albeit heavily altered, today, in the palace’s aptly named ‘Tiltyard Café.’ The four other towers had all but vanished except for written accounts and 16th and 17th century images. It is hoped that the discovery of this lost Tiltyard Tower will enable palace curators to finally pinpoint the locations of the others.

The discovery of lost Tiltyard Tower comes just months before we open the new Magic Garden in Easter 2016 – a garden inspired by the myths and legends of the Tudor tournament and featuring five large-scale recreations of the Tiltyard Towers – which are now confirmed to sit right next-door to the originals! Look out for further information about the Magic Garden in the New Year.

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