Review: Gold and Glory Exhibition, Hampton Court Palace

A wide open path leads towards the main entrance to Hampton Court Palace. In the distance, three people walk along the path.

Last Friday, I took the opportunity of being in the vicinity of Richmond to visit the Hampton Court Palace and, in particular, the Gold and Glory exhibition (running until 5 September 2021). Originally due to take place in 2020 to mark the 500th anniversary of the Field of Cloth of Gold, it was postponed to this year due to Covid.

The exhibition is divided across six rooms – those used by Cardinal Wolsey when he stayed at the palace – and takes the visitor from c. 1513 through the Treaty of Universal Peace, to the preparations for the meeting between Henry VIII and France I, and on to the Field of Cloth of Gold. In the first room are portraits of the key figures – Henry VIII and Francis I – alongside paintings of the Battle of the Spurs, and the meeting of Henry VIII and Maximilian I; and a small display about Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon. I felt that this was the least successful of the rooms. Setting the international scene for the Field of Cloth of Gold in a concise and accessible fashion is always going to be difficult but the small number of items on display seemed to serve as interesting vignettes rather than hanging together to tell a coherent story of the 1510s. The second room was devoted to the display of a copy of the Treaty of Universal Peace (some of the most beautiful handwriting I have seen!) and a number of items relating to Cardinal Wolsey, including his hat and the early-15th century Book of Hours gifted to him by Cardinal Campeggio.

Above (L-R): Sign marking the Gold and Glory exhibition; portraits of Henry VIII and Francis I on display in the first room; interpretation banners

The third, and largest, of the rooms is devoted to the preparation for the meeting of the two king and includes administrative documents, more portraits, a piece of cloth of gold, builder’s tools from the Mary Rose and examples of accessories that would have been worn in 1520. With preparations complete, room four is dominated by the large painting of the Field of Cloth of Gold commissioned by Henry VIII. At three minute intervals, a projected display highlights key parts of the painting and explains what happens. Against such a large painting, the smaller display about feasting and the role of the French and English queens is somewhat lost. The small, fifth room is dominated by the fabulous Stonyhurst vestements used for the religious services near Calais. The sixth room is decked out with fabric strips to resemble a tent and has an audio track to evoke the sounds of a tournament. This room has one of my favourite documents – a tournament score sheet. It also has the large Tournai tapestry depicting wrestling at the Cloth of Gold which is being displayed in public for the first time. I would have liked this ‘first’ to have been more obviously noted in the exhibition itself not just in promotional material.

Overall, I thought the design of the exhibition was very effective. The use of wooden ‘spears’ and banners around the edges of the rooms gave the sense of a tournament, and printing the historical narrative on banners rather interpretation boards was a nice touch. Audio-visual technology was used sparingly and judiciously to add to the atmosphere of the exhibition and to aid interpretation. It serves as good introduction to the Field of Cloth of Gold, and to the events leading up to it. It also nicely demonstrates the range of sources that historian can draw on, making use of documents, paintings, and a wide range of objects. However, as it is pitched at a general audience, the more knowledgeable Tudor enthusiast is unlikely to learn anything groundbreaking from this exhibition. It is still worth visiting for the opportunity to see a wide range of items, usually dispersed across several collections (and not always on public display). Lenders to this particular exhibition include HM Queen Elizabeth, the British Library, the National Archives, the Bodleian Libraries, Christ Church College Oxford, the Mary Rose Trust, the V & A, the National Portrait Gallery, Stonyhurst College, and more. Personally, I thought it was worth visiting just to see, and to see the Tournai tapestry showing wrestling at the Field of Cloth of Gold, and to see the Field of Cloth of Gold painting in person.

On the negative side, the rooms are not of equal size which means the flow through the exhibition is not smooth – Covid precautions require the number of people in each room to be capped but the max capacity varies. This is obviously outside the palace’s control but it does mean queues at the entrance to the smaller rooms. I was also left feeling that I needed to keep moving fairly quickly otherwise other people would be blocked from moving through the exhibition rather than reading every word in the display cabinets. However, as the exhibition is included in the entrance ticket, it is always possible to go around a second time and, with the exception of the items relating to Mary Tudor, photography is permitted.

Accessibility

The exhibition is on the first floor; the entrance is via a small spiral staircase and the exit via a wider palace staircase. It is possible to speak to staff and get lift access, however, there are still four steps to negotiate. On the ground floor there is a video tour of the exhibition by Tracy Borman – this didn’t seem to be playing when I visited so it may be necessary to speak to staff if you want to watch the video. This space also has a number of replica items that can be handled (they have been given an antiviral treatment) including tools, hats, embroidery, and copies of documents. A braille book in this room gives information about the Field of Cloth of Gold painting and has reproduced parts of the painting itself as raised edge images.

Left: Spiral staircase access to the exhibition

What else is there to do?

When I visited, the main palace apartments were open to visitors as were the formal gardens towards the river, the wilderness and the Tiltyard café and gardens. Although the website implies the shops are only open at the weekend, the Undercroft shop was open the Friday I visited and had a range of Field of Cloth of Gold anniversary items for sale. I would recommend checking the website before you visit for the latest information about what is open.

Above: Haul from the Undercroft shop, including exhibition souvenirs

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