Great houses often inspire insipid thoughts; writing about architecture is hard. Jacob Rathgeb, secretary to the Duke of Württemburg, was typical of a long string of 16th-century visitors to Hampton Court when he described it as "the most splendid and magnificent royal palace that may be found in England or indeed any other kingdom". Perhaps it was. But, as Simon Thurley's comprehensive study attests, it was also much more interesting than that.
It was interesting first for the mind of its original conceiver, Thomas Wolsey. Given the role his palace has played in English life for nearly 500 years, it was fitting, if not significant, that he chose a site with an even longer association with English institutions. Hampton on the Thames, probably from the Saxon ton (settlement) on the hamm (bend of a stream), adjoined Kingston, the site of a royal estate from not long after AD800.
Later connected with the Knights Hospitallers, Hampton contained a brick-built moated courtyard house, the project of Lord Daubeney, by the end of the 15th century. Wolsey, who took a 99-year lease in 1515 and who engaged in an almost uninterrupted building programme until his fall 14 years later, made Hampton Court his masterpiece.
A bright son of an innkeeper and butcher, Wolsey found his way readily, under church patronage, to Oxford, thence to chaplaincies with the household of Henry VII and, from 1509, with that of Henry VIII. What can we say about the motives for building Hampton Court, of this easy winner of the competition for most efficient administrator of all time? When the poet John Skelton suggested that the root was the sheer ambition of a worldly prelate, he oversimplified. Thurley argues that Wolsey was simply the last of a line of English bishop-statesmen who built on a scale rarely trumped by their kings. Even more, as papal legate in an era of conspicuous consumption, Wolsey's grandeur was a key diplomatic tool for the monarch.
The Emperor Charles V, who came to Hampton Court in June 1522, evidently thought so.
It may be that Henry was not jealous of Wolsey's wealth. The young king was not much interested in building work; his chancellor and chief minister organised things so much better, and not just for his own palace. But when he wanted something that Wolsey could not give him - his divorce - he showed his strongest characteristic: his understanding of power. At the sequestered Hampton Court, he and Anne Boleyn planned an even more grandiose palace, to include - of course - a nursery for the prince who would safeguard the succession.
The building of this great palace is recounted by Thurley in huge and impressive detail: we learn where the timber was cut and moulded, who made the bricks - 26 million of them during Henry's years of construction alone - and in what kiln. Wolsey's Hampton Court was "a stylistic mongrel": in its terracotta and stained glass a signal of Renaissance, but with much that was still medieval late gothic. Henry's contribution, described as "chivalric eclecticism", is historically, if not architecturally, more significant. It is not difficult to identify influences from overseas, from the palaces of the dukes of Burgundy, but the central thrust was always to employ designers and craftsmen magpie-fashion to create a suitable setting for the magnificence of this court and this king. Hampton Court is Henry VIII's palace before it is an architectural style.
And, to an extent, Henry continued to preside. In the next century, both James I and Charles I, in different ways, were keen to use the palace as a symbol of the monarchy, at home and abroad. Hampton Court, in preserving and reflecting the strengths of the monarchy of the past, could help new, and different, regimes. Charles I, who spent 11 weeks there in the late summer of 1647 in effect under arrest, contrived to maintain a court in miniature. Even Oliver Cromwell, who used the palace as a weekend home, played bowls on Charles I's green: thus the scourge of monarchy in England's very English Revolution.
Political significance aside, the themes of the estate's history define themselves. Much is said of building work and maintenance, though the house of 1662 to which Charles II invited his new bride, Catherine of Braganza, for their honeymoon, was not much different from the house Henry VIII had left in 1547. The carved wooden stags' heads in the Great Hall, probably Jacobean, are just one indication of hunting and sporting activity: tedious for some, but very important, or at least very much practised. And entertainment helped to make this a lively palace, at least until the Hanoverians, when the actions of the court - lamented the Countess of Pomfret in August 1731 - became "as mechanical as the clock which directs them".
We owe Hampton Court's great architectural transformation, which saved it from a long decline, to William and Mary. Nine days into his reign, William fled the asthma-inducing smog of London's coal fires for Hampton. Such are the unsung factors that affect the tides of history. Mary first, and William after her death, drew on three special people: Christopher Wren, relieved to be retained as Surveyor of the Royal Works; Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was responsible for drawing the schemes and whom Thurley cautiously suggests might have been close to the role of presiding genius; and the crusty William Talman of the Office of Works.
The story of the reconstructions is not without dramas, including the collapse of a large part of the south range in December 1689. While the result certainly shows an obsession with French taste and Louis XIV, it also reveals the tight budgets of an English monarch, the peculiar domestic considerations of royal life for these monarchs, a refusal to demolish Henry VIII's Great Hall with its comforting sense of monarchical continuity and - via Talman - more than a hint of the English country house. A central design feature was the use of the mature parks and gardens, beautifully seen in a detail from Leonard Knyff's painting of 1712-13. Here was the largest formal landscape ever created in England.
The rest is not silence - about half of Thurley's quarter of a million words are devoted to the past three centuries - but anticlimax.
Progressively, from the reign of Queen Anne, the court was removed from the centres of power: Parliament, government office, to an extent the armed forces and commerce. George II was the last monarch to reside at Hampton Court; George III, on being told of a fire in the outbuildings in 1770, said "that he should not have been sorry if it had burnt down"; and the present Queen was once quoted as finding it merely "terribly confusing".
Architecturally, Hampton Court is a little confusing. It continued to be at the mercy of the vagaries of fashion. The triumph of the Whigs under the Hanoverians became the triumph of the Palladians. Postmodern caricature began early with "Victorian re-Tudorisation". Edwardian "Wrenaissance" architects helped the palace inspire direct models in strange places, the 1930s department store, Bentall's of Kingston-upon-Thames, being one result.
In our own time, Hampton Court has been important in defining approaches to opening historic buildings to the public and to conservation. I feel the tale of civil servants and their penchant for self-important acronyms - DAMHB, PSA, HRP - need not be presented at such length. More interesting is how Hampton Court excited an interest in the English past so early (visits began under Elizabeth I) and how important it was in democratising tourism (in Trollope's The Three Clerks , a "well-loved resort of cockneydom"). One wonders what the grace-and-favour residents, "encamped... like a sort of civilised gypsies", according to Dickens, made of it all.
Thurley's book has manifold strengths: a model in its thorough use of disparate sources, which range from archaeology to obscure correspondence to careful analysis of the surviving visual record, all used fruitfully together (if you doubt the alteration of the Tudor windows in 1670, here is the archaeological evidence to show it). Much wider than an architectural history, its subject helps to point up the political consequences played by apparent byways of English history - how, for centuries, the plague so often impinged on, or even determined, events. And centrally it shows over and over how the institution of the English monarchy was able to use its office, rather than its incumbent, as its chief strength. When William III had completed his architectural transformation, he chose portraits from the royal past to fill the state apartments, together with one vast equestrian image of himself. That was a skilful management of change from which all institutions might learn.
Jamie Camplin is publishing director, Thames and Hudson. He is researching a history of the monarchy.
Hampton Court: A Social and Architectural History
Author - Simon Thurley
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 460
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 0 300 10223 2