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The Tudor treasures of Hampton Court

9 January 2015

As Britain’s finest surviving Tudor building, Hampton Court, celebrates its 500th anniversary, BBC Arts takes a closer look at some of the Tudor art and artifacts, lustrous jewels and golden tapestries which have huge religious and political importance.

Welcome to Hampton Court

Lucy Worsley takes us into Henry VIII's pleasure palace, Hampton Court.

In Britain’s Tudor Treasure: A Night at Hampton Court, on Saturday 10 January, Lucy Worsley and David Starkey examine the art and architecture of the great English palace.

It has been the site of some momentous events - a place of Tudor beauty, power and intrigue. In 1530 Henry VIII and his councillors sent the first letter to Rome, indicating a split from the Catholic Church and the Pope.

The previous year Henry VIII had taken over Hampton Court from the English Chancellor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who had fallen out of favour after he’d been unable to secure an annulment for Henry, to allow him to marry Anne Boleyn.

All Henry wanted was a son and it was his third wife Jane Seymour who delivered the security of a male heir in 1537. Prince Edward’s christening was celebrated at Hampton Court with a magnificent processional ceremony, recreated in this programme.

In BBC Two's 2012 series How God Made the English: The Chosen People, Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch investigated what it means to be English, and what has shaped that identity.

In the clip below, Diarmaid discovers The Story of Abraham Series of tapestries probably commissioned by Henry VIII in 1540 to commemorate the birth of his male heir, Prince Edward. All ten panels can be viewed in the gallery above.

The ten panels are of woven wool, silk and gilt metal-wrapped thread and were delivered to Hampton Court in late 1543/early 1544 from their makers in Brussels.

They were of astonishing value but their worth was not purely financial. The theme of the Story of Abraham offers context to Henry’s own political and religious situation and The Circumcision of Isaac hints at Henry’s challenges in trying to secure a male heir.

Though Henry’s gilt tapestry collection was extensive only this series survives. Now held in the Great Hall of Hampton Court, site of the Prince Edward’s christening procession, the tapestries were appreciated by Charles I and Cromwell and have been used to adorn Westminster Abbey for the coronations of Tudor, Stuart and other monarchs.

The Story of Abraham tapestries at Hampton Court

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch discovers the tapestries commissioned by Henry VIII in 1540

The Tudor and Elizabethan court was a place to display glittering beauty, and the skills of the jewellery maker were in high demand.

BBC Four's 2013 documentary Secret Knowledge: The Cheapside Hoard told the story of how a treasure trove of over 500 Elizabethan and Jacobean jewels were discovered in a London cellar in 1912. Crucifixes and cameos, necklaces and watches were among the collection, most dating to the early 17th century.

Precious gems and prodigious craftsmanship emphasised and accentuated great power, but this trove highlights the surreptitious nature of the jewellery trade and politics at the time.

In the clip below, jeweller Shaun Leane explores the work of Thomas Sympson, an Elizabethan jeweller with a neat sideline in counterfeit gems.

The counterfeit gems of the Cheapside Hoard

Shaun Leane explores the work of Elizabethan jeweller Thomas Sympson.

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