THIS is not a work of architectural scholarship (Dr Simon Thurley provided that for us brilliantly 20 years ago), nor one of strict historical accuracy, but Gareth Russell writes con brio, bringing alive a royal palace that more than two centuries ago ceased to be a theatre of monarchy.
Given the unenviable task of telling the story of a palace that, from 1485 to the present, has supported a royal ecclesiastical household, and is indelibly linked with Cardinal Wolsey and King Henry VIII, Russell has had to be inventive, using often obscure contemporary sources for his account.
His opening gambit is in full tabloid royal-correspondent mode, writing of the Coronation ball given for Her Late Sovereign Majesty in May 1953, and he concludes with five pages on the opening of a children’s play park in May 2016 by “Charles and the late Diana’s daughter-in-law, Catherine, Duchess, of Cambridge” in a Michael Kors dress and L. K. Bennett shoes.
I hoped rather better of a chapter on the 1604 Hampton Court conference, but he fails to notice that this was primarily a royal performance to show the King in assembly providing for his people’s religious needs. He makes use of neither the contemporary Bishop William Barlow nor later commentators (such as S. B. Babbage, M. H. Curtis, N. Sykes, F. H. Shriver, and K. C. Fincham).
Russell argues that its failure “radicalised some disappointed Catholics” to the extent that, 18 months later, gunpowder, treason, and plot unfolded. He goes on to claim: “Some equally frustrated Puritans concluded that England was beyond redemption and so in the same year [my italics] they boarded the ship called the Mayflower to start life across the ocean.” Did they wait 15 years for the tide to turn, or for a fair wind?
Elsewhere, Russell has mined a day in the life of James Pope-Hennessy (14 May 1957) for his meeting with the Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, to provide a view of grace-and-favour housing. The last Tsar’s eldest surviving sister died, aged 85 (1960). Pope-Hennessy was killed by rent boys in his flat at the age of 57 (1974).
Significant events in history are glimpsed from the banks of the River Thames by visitors and staff alike, providing a constant flowing narrative that brings the palace very much to life.
Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.
The Palace: From the Tudors to the Windsors, 500 years of history at Hampton Court
William Collins £25
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