The Dowager Countess of Deloraine, who was governess to the children of George II at Hampton Court and other royal homes, was a notorious bore – so much so that her ‘every word’ made one ‘sick’, according to the courtier Lord Hervey. When she naively asked him why everyone was avoiding her, he replied with exquisite irony that ‘envy kept the women at a distance, despair the men’.
This kind of witty, skittish anecdote is scattered throughout Gareth Russell’s scintillating hybrid of a book, which is partly a biography of a place and partly something stranger: an episodic history of England from Tudor times to the present, illustrated by lightning flashes of gossip and politics, set against the handsome backdrop of Hampton Court.
Russell, a novelist as well as a historian, is interested in how events have physically shaped the Thames-side palace. Successive owners have left their stamp, as have individual visitors. We learn, for instance, that Cardinal Wolsey made extensive repairs before receiving the Constable of France in 1527. An earlier owner, Lord Daubeney, was so keen to please Henry VII, who loved real tennis, that before having him to stay in 1500 he built a court. To this day, visitors can watch or book a lesson in this eccentric, wonderful game, which is the progenitor of the modern (and much less interesting) version of tennis.
Most people, Russell declares, now come to the palace more for its stories than its architecture. This, at any rate, is his own preference, as is clear from the relish with which he recounts the outrageous sexual crimes of which Anne Boleyn was accused. Arrested while watching real tennis there, she was charged with seducing a courtier a few weeks after giving birth, which seems unlikely.