Don's Diary: Seeking Hampton Court's Roots

March 15, 2002

Christmas 2000, Tuesday
Daydreaming in the bath, I begin to wonder if there might be traces of an original design for Cardinal Wolsey's Hampton Court of c.1515 within the 200 years of additions that result in the highly complex plan of the palace that I've studied daily for the past four years or so.

Excavate drawers to find compasses and rule, establish comfortable area of lounge carpet and settle in to draw lines.

I think there is a proportion and alignment in parts of the surviving Tudor palace that remain from the original building. I draw lines to see if they combine to form part of a consistent proportional or geometric design. It takes endless versions to find out if there is a system at all or if it's just coincidence.

Draw more lines.

The drifts of waste paper are becoming a problem. A mere squint transforms the lounge into a winter wonderland. Drawing continues.

After lunch my partner, Ann, conspicuously enjoys Alistair Sim's performance as Scrooge on video. I continue with the serious business of drawing. At 3pm, I chance upon a ludicrously simple scheme of six interlocking squares, which includes all the earlier parts of the palace.

Delighted. I've never seen this age-old device in a medieval English great house. It seems a new approach to organising an entire site, rather Italian in attitude. But I do wonder why it took me three days to work out.

Mindful of Dickens's cautionary tale, I resolve to make amends for being a dullard at Christmas: uncork wine, put mince pies in the oven, reiterate appreciation for novelty socks, raise glass, worry about salient aspects of Albertian design principles, then bed.

October 2001, Monday
The past nine months of research have revealed much about England's part in the High Renaissance.

If all this is right, we can pre-date the revolutionary adoption of humanist architecture in England by more than 30 years.

The BBC has agreed to part-fund and film excavations, which will prove or disprove my theory of Hampton Court's first design by trying to locate predicted footings of long-demolished parts. This could turn out to be the most expensive bath I've ever taken - and not without competition.

I arrive at Hampton Court to a smiling crew, armed with coffee and enough hardware to cover the Glastonbury Festival. Julian Richards, presenter of BBC's Meet the Ancestors , turns up, with much bonhomie, and the rest of the day is spent taking up cobbles.

Today the masons are at the east end of the chapel, where there's a blocked Tudor arch - is it a door? I am looking for steps down to it, but the stone flags are taken up to reveal a slab of concrete that would make Coventry City Council feel at home.

I soon realise my limitations in the field of industrial drill choices and retreat to a dig on the south side of the Great Hall, where anticipated remains of a buttress, if found, could prove the geometric plan and more.

The archaeologists have found something at the Great Hall. It's a - drum roll, please - Tudor drain. All very nice.

I have to explain on camera that we haven't found a buttress. Idly wonder which job sections are in the papers today. Amazingly, after more digging, the buttress is soon found in the right spot all along, the drain having chopped through it. Jubilantly consider topping up my pension scheme.

Much kerfuffle as the crew prepares for the big moment. I am led to the courtyard north of the Great Hall, where a Tudor kitchen is revealed on anticipated lines, complete with a beautiful floor of green and yellow tiles.

Christmas has arrived early this year.

Jonathan Foyle is assistant curator of historic buildings at Historic Royal Palaces. He teaches architectural history for the University of Cambridge International Summer Schools and the university's department for continuing education.

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