Friday, November 16, 2012

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Do No Evil: Eavesdroppers at Hampton Court Palace

Sandra Byrd

Henry VIII had a famously acquisitive nature – and it wasn't limited to women. The man also had a passion for real estate. As king, he inherited many castles and palaces owned by the crown, but throughout his reign he added others by purchase, trade or payment of debt; through reclamation to the crown due to attainder; "recovering" property through the dissolution of assets formerly owned by the Roman Catholic church; and by "gift" from his friends.
Copyright Helen Newall

One of those friends was his primary adviser in the early years of Henry's sovereignty.  Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was a man with tastes as extravagant as the King's and he also had the means to indulge them. When the King saw Hampton Court Palace, Cardinal Wolsey’s sumptuous, Thames-side  property, he envied him of it. Knowing that he was on uncertain terms with the king at the moment, having been unable to secure for the king the divorce he so desire, Wolsey offered Hampton Court Palace to him. Henry accepted  the generous gift but did not reinstate Wolsey in his favor.

Once he owned the palace, Henry set about remodeling. One of the most beautiful reconstructions was to the Great Hall. The Great Hall was a large chamber where the king dined in public and where entertainments were often held. The hall, like everything else in Henry's court, was to be well-appointed to represent his power and glory.

Historian Neville Williams claimed that masons worked round the clock for five years to complete the rebuilding of the hall to Henry's showy satisfaction. The room would have been overpowering to the senses, the tastes and smells of rich foods and spices, the feel of lush wood paneling and tightly woven tapestries, the music of players, the courtly flirtations. But high above the heads of the guests, tucked into the dark corners of the roof beams, lurked some of the Great Hall's most interesting features of all. Fine embellishments had been carved into the ceiling beams, among them an HA crest for Henry and Anne Boleyn which remains to this day, but especially intriguing are the Eavesdroppers, carved into the ceiling beams and other places as well.

photo copyright Felicity Boardman
The word eavesdropper has been in circulation since at least the 900s, coming from the old English, yfesdrype. It meant then just what it means now - someone listening to conversations in secret, watching and hearing without the permission or knowledge of the speakers. The cherubic, courtier faces carved into the ceiling at Hampton Court would have smiled  down upon guests, reminding all that Henry was aware of everything at his court through courtiers and servants. Even while at play there was never a time for loose tongues among long ears, as those who spoke freely often did to perilous consequence.

At the Tudor Court, it was better to see nothing, hear nothing, and say nothing till you were in private chambers where eavesdroppers, one hoped, did not as easily lurk.

To learn more about Sandra's Ladies in Waiting Series, set in Tudor England, please visit For blogs on England and English history, visit:


  1. Perfect phrase 'loose tongues among long ears'. What intrigue and danger!

    Thank you especially for showing us an Eavesdropper.


  2. Thanks you two for reading! I like the Eavesdropper picture, too. It's a little creepy, in real life, to look up and see them staring at you!


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