A Crown of Chimneys – Tudor Excess at Hampton Court Palace

While today, the architectural expression of wealth and power is the skyscaper, or perhaps the art gallery, in Tudor times, it was the chimney stack. There is perhaps no better example of this than Hampton Court Palace situated on the outskirts of London. The Palace was originally built by Cardinal Wosley in 1514 but after an unfortunate falling out, it was adopted as the home of none other than King Henry VIII.

In an age of central heating, supermarkets and instant hot water, the chimney might seem an odd choice but in the 16th Century, heat and food on tap were essential components of luxury living and certainly not something that the majority had. To achieve this required fireplaces and lots of them – to put the level of consumption of this ruling class into perspective, the excessive appetite of Henry VIII’s residences were such that he and his court had to move to different Palaces around the country so not to completely exhaust the resources (firewood, meat and grain) of the surrounding region. Today Hampton Court Palace is adorned with 241 chimney stacks but in the 16th Century there would have been even more. It was not just the number of chimney stacks however, but the detail bestowed upon them. In contrast to the simple brick construction that makes up much of the palace, the chimneys stacks are formed from ornate cut brickwork embossed with differing geometric patterns. This detail is purposely done to draw your eye up and highlight the wealth and power of it’s owner.

In the centuries that followed, the humble chimney – no matter how many or how ornate – stopped being a suitable display of wealth and power as royalty around Europe played catch-up to emulate the grandeur and power of Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. Hampton Court fell victim to this shift as King William III employed Sir Christopher Wren to rebuild the palace in a baroque style.

For some reason, the rebuilding of Hampton Court Palace stopped in 1694, mid-way through reconstruction leaving us with a palace of two halves from two ages. Here the history and the ideals of two very different ages are preserved for all to see.

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