Hampton Court feels more like a historical theme park than a royal palace

If you are tempted to wonder whether standards of education and culture are being dumbed-down, take a visit to Hampton Court, as I did with my nephew and niece in half-term. It feels more like an historical theme park than a royal palace. Just as at Disneyland Mickey Mouse is there to greet you and have a photo taken, so now at Hampton Court Palace there are people in historical costume wandering around. They are actors, their salaries presumably paid from a proportion of the eye-wateringly expensive entrance fee.

Unluckily and unlikely enough, we encounter a thespian Cardinal Wolsey in his progress up the staircase of the William and Mary section of the Palace. He is pretending to be drunk and slurs a few greetings at some children, makes the Sign of the Cross over them and mumbles something about having affairs of state to attend to. Quite what this is supposed to add to any­one’s understanding of Hampton Court or its history is beyond me. It does, of course, add colour and subliminal prejudice to the experience, which will doubtless silt down in some people’s minds to solidify as historical data.

I find it embarrassing and offensive in equal measure, made worse by the paucity of any real information about the place provided by labelling or visual display. There is an audio-tour of a display that never attempts to go deeper than the bleeding obvious, unless to sneak in some lavatorial or libidinous reference to the doings of our forbears. It would seem that this alone is deemed to relieve the boredom of finding out things about people who didn’t occupy our milieu, with the reassuring knowledge that, in the end, bodily functions are the hermeneutical key which unlocks history, not lots of tedious facts about the achievements of the people who lived here. In many of the staterooms there are headless mannequins clothed in white paper costumes with papers pinned to them telling us about royal mistresses or dev­iant habits of personal hygiene. Thus the key to understanding the past is that it exists esse­ntially as a kind of sideshow for the entertainment of people now. All that is freakish and quirky about it must be celebrated to assert what, I wonder. Our essential superiority? Our need not to take the past seriously lest it have any warning for the present?

In the room where one collects the audio-guides are rows of costumes hung on racks. I thought at first that they were for children to dress up in, but as we walk around I see that not only children but also unaccompanied adults have taken the opportunity to don the fancy dress. These aren’t, as I first thought, more actors, just tourists who clearly feel that by putting on a Tudor frock the experience will prove more meaningful. History, therefore, becomes virtual, of interest simply as the backdrop for eye-catching photographs of little old me dressed as an historical figure. History is the past dressed up to entertain us.

A visit to the Chapel Royal seemed to present the same cosmetic view of history. The guide explained the chapel’s life merely in terms of its appearance. Any suggestion of the religious earthquakes which affected the chapel’s use were subsumed in descriptions of the interior design. We were shown which parts of the chapel Wolsey and Henry would “recognise”. Treason, it would seem, is just a matter of décor.

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies was the presence of a large tabernacle and sanctuary lamp, and a notice about praying in the presence of the Lord, in apparent contradiction of the Article of the Church of England which explicitly forbids the reservation of the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood for the purposes of adoration or prayer.

There came to me the words of T S Eliot’s Little Gidding: “A people without history/ is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern/ Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails/ on a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel/ history is now and England.” How I regretted that I could not kneel and adore, but with a history founded on the dismissal of this practice as superstitious, history becomes the standard against which the revival itself appears even more forcibly as discontinuity. England feels curiously estranged from itself.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (06/3/15).

Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!