Earliest records show that in 1236 The Knights Hospitalier of St John Jerusalem (one of the monastic armed orders charged with the defence of pilgrim access to sites in the Holy Land) bought the manor of Hampton on the River Thames to the west of London, which it used as an agricultural estate. In the 14th century, they built a guest house for high-ranking travellers on the site. In 1494 Giles Daubney leased the land. Daubney was a fast rising court official who would eventually become Lord Chamberlain and he set about modernising the existing manor house. He died in 1508 and nothing now remains of this building.
In 1515 Thomas Wolsey took up residence and began a major rebuilding of the palace such that it would be a fit house for a cardinal and the King’s premier advisor.
In 1530 when Wolsey was executed the palace passed into the hands of Henry VIII, who decided to keep it as a royal residence and he continued the building plans that Wolsey had begun. It was to be the location of a number of significant moments in the history of Henry VIII. In 1537 Prince Edward (later Edward VI) was born at Hampton and it was here that a few days later Queen Jane Seymour died following complications of the birth. 3 years later it was here that the divorce of Anne of Cleves was pronounced and where a few months later Henry would marry Catherine Howard.
It was at Hampton too, where only a year later Queen Catherine was held pending judgement following her alleged adultery. It is said that in one corridor her ghost can be seen desperately trying to reach the Kings chamber to plead for her life. Hampton also saw Henry’s 6th marriage ceremony when he married Katherine Parr.
Hampton was the venue for Queen Mary’s honeymoon and Queen Elizabeth visited regularly.
In 1603 William Shakespeare’s theatre company performed at Hampton for King James I. The following year it was the scene of the Hampton Court Conference which was responsible for the commissioning of the King James Bible. In 1647 King Charles I was held at Hampton under house arrest by the Parliamentarian forces until he escaped and following his capture and execution 2 years later, Oliver Cromwell. Lord Protector of England, used Hampton as his weekend retreat.
In 1689 William III commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to build a new palace wing, although Wren was eventually replaced by one of his assistants as the King deemed Wren’s plans too expensive. These additions included a completely new set of Royal apartments and audience chambers.
However, after William’s death, the advent of the Hanoverian kings saw a decline in the royal use of Hampton Court. In 1718 George I held court at Hampton, but this was one of only a few rare visits. 1727 to 1732 saw a brief revival under George II, who completed a range of building works to extend the palace culminating with the addition of the Cumberland suite. However, after the death of his queen, Caroline of Ansbach he appears to have lost interest in Hampton and for the remaining 23 years of his reign he never again visited it. His son, George III finally decided to remove Hampton from the list of royal palaces and arranged for the royal suites to be broken up into apartments which were then given on a ‘grace and favour basis’ to members of the court and other officials. They averaged 12-14 rooms each although some could be as large as 40 rooms!
Queen Victoria reclaimed the use of the royal apartments and together with the grounds and gardens made them accessible to the public in 1838. Major renovation works were carried out during Victoria’s reign and over time more of the palace has become open to the public.
In 1986 a major fire destroyed much of the William III King’s apartments and a major restoration project followed which lasted 10 years to return it to it’s former glory.