Behind closed doors in the Tudor court

One of my favourite parts of my job at Historic Royal Palaces is going through the doors marked ‘Private’. Even if there is only a broom cupboard on the other side, I still enjoy the thrill of venturing into parts of the palace that are out of bounds.

Imagine how much greater that thrill must have been for a Tudor courtier who was allowed beyond the public rooms of a palace such as Hampton Court and into the king or queen’s inner sanctum. Everything was about status and symbolism at the Tudor court. The very architecture of the palaces reinforced that: the further one was able to progress through the sequence of rooms that led to where the monarch was residing, the more important one was. Only a handful of the most favoured courtiers made it through the hallowed doors of the privy chamber – the private apartments of the sovereign.

The creation of a private suite of chambers for the king or queen can be traced to as early as the 12th century. But it was Edward IV who transformed all of the royal residences in order to provide himself and his family with separate, private lodgings known as the Chamber. This was a deliberate strategy by Edward to control access to the royal person and enhance the mystique of monarchy.

By the dawn of the Tudor age, the Chamber comprised the three principle rooms: the Guard Chamber, which was the first of the ceremonial rooms en route to the king and was staffed by his personal bodyguard; the Presence Chamber (or throne room), where the king dined in state, received important visitors and met his council; and the Privy Chamber, which was the king’s bedroom and private lodgings. The latter expanded under the Tudors to become a whole suite of different rooms, also known as the ‘Secret Chamber’. In the later years of his reign, Henry VIII commissioned a luxurious new suite of private lodgings at Hampton Court (the Bayne Tower), which survives to this day.

The Bayne Tower, Hampton Court Palace (c) Historic Royal Palaces
The Bayne Tower, Hampton Court Palace (c) Historic Royal Palaces

The Tudors still hold such a phenomenal appeal for visitors, historians, film makers and the like that a recent Guardian article suggested that we are all suffering from ‘Tudormania’. Having been obsessed with the Tudors since A Level days, I am a self-confessed sufferer of this syndrome. With so many books having been written about them, and all the sources of the period endlessly pored over by historians, it’s easy to assume we know all there is to know about them. But my previous research had focused upon the political machinations of the public court, which led me to wonder if there was a different story to tell: how the Tudor monarchs lived behind closed doors. Thus the idea for my new book, The Private Lives of the Tudors, was conceived.

My research was also inspired by the questions that I have heard visitors to Hampton Court ask time and again over the years. Although they marvel at the splendour of the best preserved Tudor palace in the world, what modern day visitors really want to know about Henry VIII and his fellow Tudor monarchs is rather more basic. Where did they go to the toilet? How did they wash their clothes? Where did they sleep? I am happy to say that I now know the answers next time I am asked.

What I discovered when researching the book was very surprising. Suffice it to say that, stripped of their courtly finery and manners, the Tudors appear altogether different from the image that they liked to portray to their subjects. It was not always a pretty sight. Take Henry VIII, for example. At six feet two inches tall, he was an imposing, athletic figure – at least for the early part of his reign. But behind this impressive façade lay a hypochondriac who was regularly thrown into a panic at any sign of illness at court. The king willingly subjected himself to the examination of his physicians every morning, and also concocted remedies of his own from the cabinet of medicines that he kept hidden in his private apartments.

There was an even more dramatic contrast between the public and private self of Henry’s younger daughter Elizabeth. Celebrated and admired as the ageless Virgin Queen, during the later years of her reign it took an increasing amount of effort to maintain the ‘mask of youth’. Behind the scenes, Elizabeth’s ladies would spend several hours every day applying thick layers of makeup and other adornments to conceal the marks of age.

These and many more discoveries certainly changed my perception of this most celebrated of royal dynasties. And even if the Tudors do not always appear at their best behind closed doors, it has left me even more obsessed with them than before.

Tracy Borman

Joint Chief Curator

The Private Lives of the Tudors (c) Tracy Borman / Hodder & Stoughton
The Private Lives of the Tudors (c) Tracy Borman / Hodder & Stoughton

Tracy will be launching her new book, The Private Lives of the Tudors, to HRP Members in the Great Hall at Hampton Court on 23 May.

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