When we think of the Palaces of Henry VIII, the images and pictures of Hampton Court and Eltham Palace spring to mind. However but for a quirk of faith, a small rural village in West Kent might now be the location for a building that would now be looked upon as the jewel of Tudor design and architecture.
The building I refer to is Otford Palace, although a ruin, it was in its time, one of the main centres of both Royal and Ecclesiastical power and intrigue in England. The building bore witness to the key events of the turbulent Tudor period and is a physical expression of the rivalry between two of the key men in Henry VIII court. The two men I speak of were the Archbishop of Canterbury, former Lord Chancellor of England, William Warham and Archbishop Wolsey, Henrys right hand man and Lord Chancellor of England.
The site of Otford palace lies in the parish of Otford, Kent, adjacent to the Pilgrims Way which tradition maintains was the road taken by pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. The building itself is positioned at the mouth of the Darent River Valley, only 200 meters from the river. However the site that was selected for the palace has caused puzzlement as it sits on low-lying ground that is prone to flooding.
The total palace site covers just over one hectare and now occupies a combination of council owned and private lands. While the building is in ruins, substantial parts survive including some structures, which are currently in use as private residences.
Just over half of the north gallery that surrounded the main courtyard which also includes the northwest tower, survives to a height of over 11.5 meters, while part of the gallery stands 3 meters high.
In addition major masonry remains survive to over 3 meters in the front gardens of houses on the site, while further remains can be found in various back gardens.
The origins of the present site can be found in the Saxon period, but the first evidence of a building was one built by Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, which was valued at £60 in the Doomsday survey in 1086. Over the next 400 years the original manor house grew in size with Archbishop William Courtenay in the late 14th century, remodeled the site creating a stunning edifice including a new great hall.
However 150 years later Courtenay’s successor, William Warham was to create a building that was to have a profound effect on Tudor building design and its influence can be seen today in Hampton Court.
In 1514 Warham decided to completely redesign Otford making it a building fit for a prince of the church and was to convey a clear expression of it power and status. He demolished most if not all of the existing buildings and replaced it with what we now recognise as the current layout of Otford Palace. The building plans or set of accounts have not survived, but a letter to Erasmus from Warham show that only the chapel and one wall of the great hall survived the construction. The cost of this development must have been enormous and was contemporary sources believed the total cost to be over £33,000.
The new palace, which incorporated ideas and designs imported from renaissance Europe, became a key centre for the entertainment of important guests of both church and state.
However the earlier building of nearby Luingstone Castle built 17 years earlier in 1497 does have similar design features as Otford palace. I would suggest that Warham must have seen Luinigstone, used the local crafts man, materials and been influenced by elements of its design. This of course raises the question was this smaller earlier building the precursor to the development of Tudor building designs which resulted in the construction of Otford and Hampton Court.
After the completion of its construction Otford became a key centre for the business of both the church and state. In 1518 the Papal Nuncio, Cardinal Campeggio spent two days there for talks with Warham about the state of the English Church.
In 1519 Henry VIII stayed there with his court and hunted in the great Deer Park that was attached to the palace. The Palace must have met his approval because the following year Henry and Catherine of Aragon along with the royal court stayed there as they made their way to France for the meeting between Henry and Francis, King of France, at the Field of Gold. This must have been a magnificent occasion, as the court that accommodated Henry was believed to have numbered over 3000.
Between 1532 and 1533 Princess Mary, the future Queen of England stayed there as a refuge from the political and religious turmoil that was engulfing England after the end of her mothers marriage to Henry.
This was also a key moment and turning point in the history of the palace as the two men whose rivalry had lead to the creation of Otford and its contemporary building Hampton Court were now dead.
So who was William Warham, a name that history has seemed to have forgotten and consigned to the scrapheap? Warham had become archbishop of Canterbury in 1503 and Lord Chancellor in 1504. He had started his political career as a diplomat for Henry VII. A key achievement of Warham was in arranging the marriage between Henry’s VII son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, and Catherine of Aragon. In 1509 the Archbishop married and then crowned Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon King and Queen of England. In 1514 he consecrated his great rival Wolsey, the Bishop of Lincoln
However he found the politic pressure associated with the highest post in England too much and resigned the following year 1515, however he continued as Archbishop. Cardinal Wolsey now took Warham place as the key political leader in Tudor England and intensified a rivalry that was to continue until Wolsey’s death. However he did not totally retreat from the political scene and went with Henry to the Field of Gold in 1520, which I referred to earlier.
When we look at the plan and design features of Otford and compare them to Wolsey edifice at Hampton Court we can see a glimpse of the rivalry and dare I say it dislike that existed between both men.
As we said previously the construction of Otford palace was started in 1514, while Hampton Court was started shortly after in 1515. The buildings share a number of common features, both sites were built over existing manor houses and they shared common architectural features.
At Hampton Court the famous main gatehouse was on the west side and gave access to the main courtyard, which was rectangular in shape, and was nearly identical to Otford, however Otford was bigger.
Long galleries and accommodation buildings flanked both the main courtyards of Otford and Hampton Court
When we compare the existing plan of Hampton Court to the recent research on the Otford Palace we can say both building were very similar in form and plan. However the one fact that now stands out clearly, is that Otford was a larger building, was earlier than Hampton Court and so its construction must be looked as a key development in English architecture.
Otford Palace was designed and laid out on such a scale that it compares favourable with any of even the largest contemporary palaces in England. At over 163m by 98m it covers an area greater than the later renaissance influenced Nonsuch Palace or the moated area of Eltham Palace.
The fact both buildings were started at the same time, look very similar in style, plan and layout by men who were bitter rivals is clear evidence of the fierce rivalry between them.
A more personal insight into the role both building played in the power game between both men can be seen in a letter. In the letter written by Warham to Wolsey in the winter 1522, he tells Wolsey he is unable to travel to see him on the grounds of ill health. Warham also thanks him for his advice that he should live on high, dry ground rather than at Otford (which was damp and wet) and additional for his offer of accommodation at Hampton Court. I suspect that Wolsey was deliberately been provocative and was clearly inferring that his building was far superior to Warhams Otford.
This rivalry did not have many years to run. Wolsey died in 1530 on his way to answer charges of high treason for his failure to solve the problem of Henrys marriage. Two years later, Warham died in his bed of old age; probably with a degree of satisfaction over Wolsey fall from grace
However the real winner was Henry who took over Hampton Court in 1527 and Otford 10 years later in 1539. He held both these buildings investing large amounts of money in their upkeep and maintenance until his death in 1547.
However on reflection the ghost of Wolsey must feel vindicated by his building of Hampton court. His name has been preserved in history by his association with this magnificent building and his character immortalised in films like “A man for all seasons” and the TV show “The Tudors”. In contrast Warham and Otford Palace have become just another footnote in the annals of history forgotten except by locals and experts in Tudor history.
The mighty palace at Otford now lies in ruins, forgotten, ignored and neglected while Hampton Court became a royal palace expanding in size and now stands as one of England major tourist attractions. Warhams Otford but for the fickle fortune of history and the boggy, wet, marshy ground, might have been the victor, usurping Hampton Court and Wolsey’s place in history.
About the author
Diarmaid Walshe MA is a community archaeologist working in Kent and the the director of the Darant Valley Archaeological Project. Diarmaid has written extensively about Roman British settlement in west Kent and is one of the leading experts of Grog Tempered ware in the Southeast of England . He has worked on major archaeology sites in Ireland, UK, France, Israel and Jordan