Archaeology at Hampton Court Palace

Digging up over 500 years of history

By Historic Royal Palaces

Alexandra Stevenson, Archaeologist

Clock Court excavation (1967)Historic Royal Palaces

Hampton Court Palace’s lost history is often rediscovered through our ongoing maintenance and conservation work. Even the most minimal disturbance to the palace and gardens can reveal long-hidden secrets.

This is why Historic Royal Palaces has a team of archaeologists to mitigate any damage to concealed features and structures within the buildings and below ground.

A view of an archaeological excavation at Hampton Court PalaceHistoric Royal Palaces

Some of our recent work and discoveries

Exterior railings, prior to conservation (2016)Historic Royal Palaces

In 2017, we set out to conserve a set of 18th century wrought iron railings around the  southwest wing of the palace. The railings and their stone plinths were in a dilapidated state, damaged over the years by encroaching vegetation and soil.

Exterior railings during ongoing maintenance and conservation works. (2016)Historic Royal Palaces

Firstly, vegetation was removed from the wrought iron railings and plinth stones.​ ​The line of the railings had also been altered over time, so we needed to reinstate a new length of railing with new plinth stones, which would require excavation work for their foundations.

Brickwork foundation, during ongoing conservation and maintenance works. (2016)Historic Royal Palaces

Prior to the full excavation, several 1m² test pits were dug along the length of the areas affected by the conservation works to check for any archaeological remains. There appeared to be few signs of significant remains that could potentially be impacted by the project. 

Aerial view of excavation work at Hampton Court Palace (2017)Historic Royal Palaces

But all was not as it seemed...

On a cold dreary January day, excavation for the new railings began. No sooner had the first mattock hit the ground than a confusion of brickwork began to emerge. 

Archaeological remains (2017)Historic Royal Palaces

An unexpected Tudor discovery

It quickly became apparent that we had found the remains of  a mystery Tudor building that had lain hidden for several centuries, and rather unhelpfully the earlier test pits had been excavated in the few areas with no archaeology!

Site drawing illustration (2018)Historic Royal Palaces

Where to begin in order to understand what you have found?

To understand the archaeology, we methodically gathered information on site so that no important clues were missed. We analysed the composition and the relationship between different soils, features and structures such as walls, floors, post-holes and pits. 

Section drawing showing the site stratigraphy (2018)Historic Royal Palaces

This helped us to understand the sequence of events and the phasing of the archaeological remains.  The sides of the trenches and sondages were excavated neatly and with care so that a timeline through the earth could be seen. 

Everything was drawn and photographed, and a record was made of every deposit, feature, structure or object that was found.

Archaeological remains (2017)Historic Royal Palaces

We looked for materials and objects that could further help date the sequence of events, help to understand what the area was used for, and perhaps even provide a clue about what sort of people were living or working there.

Where remains of buildings were discovered, we studied their composition, appearance, and quality. Buildings have their own language, and if you are familiar with it, they can bestow a chronicle of their past.

Brickwork specimen (2017)Historic Royal Palaces

Brick typology

The buildings we discovered at this site were built of Wolsey Stock Bricks, broadly dated between c.1495 and 1528. 

Excavated brick wall remains (2017)Historic Royal Palaces

The bonding between the bricks was identifiable as Tudor, with the tell-tale “double-struck” pointing associated with 16th century buildings at Hampton Court still visible on some of the structures. You can just make-out this mortar joint profile pictured here

You can just make out this mortar joint profile in the upper-most remaining course of brick, which has an almost-arrow shape. 

Hampton Court Palace Brick Typology by Daphne FordHistoric Royal Palaces

Brick typology is a useful tool when analysing data, as depending on when, how and where a brick was made, it will have a different make-up, colour, texture, shape and size.

Pottery remainsHistoric Royal Palaces

Finds analysis

Analysing the finds and environmental material from an archaeological site, refines, supports and sometimes forces us to question the dating inferred by the information gathered on site.

Floor tileHistoric Royal Palaces

There were several phases of occupation identified during the excavation, including the mystery Tudor buildings, a later 1537 boundary wall, and 18th – 19th century garden activity. Luckily in this instance finds matched up well with the information gathered on site.

Bone fragmentsHistoric Royal Palaces

The small internal spaces, dumps of charcoal, deposits of animal bone, and simple earthen floors were suggestive of service buildings, perhaps spaces used for storage or preparing materials and goods. 

Archaeological remains (2017)Historic Royal Palaces

The tiled surface abutting what appeared to be a turret or buttress feature may indicate a passage or office type function. But what were these mystery Tudor buildings?

1536 building account of Hampton Court Palace works (1536)Historic Royal Palaces

At Hampton Court Palace, we  have a wealth of information at our fingertips, including architectural drawings, historic paintings, plans as well as historic accounts documenting the construction, repair and maintenance of the buildings.

1536 building account of Hampton Court Palace works (1536)Historic Royal Palaces

All these things provide valuable clues when hunting for answers. Many of these are enormous documents written in ancient, sometimes illegible, handwriting. It would take years to go through every single one of them.

Watercolour depicting a view of Trophy Gate (c1840-1878)Historic Royal Palaces

Putting everything into context

The buildings now lying hidden beneath the West Front of Hampton Court Palace, remain somewhat of a mystery. But we know that before Henry VIII cleared the area in 1537, there were many service buildings, victualling houses and workshops here.

Just a few metres to the west of these buildings were the “Houses of Office without the Base Court”, a set of service buildings comprising a Scalding Yard, Poultry Yard, Bakehouses, Wood Yard, Rush House and Granary, built in 1529, but demolished in the late 19th century.

The Houses of Offices at Hampton Court Palace in 1860-70 when in use as grace-and-favour apartments (1860-70)Historic Royal Palaces

Can we ever be certain that our interpretation is sound?

Usually, it takes much longer than the few months you have during a project to understand anything at all, and in fact some things may remain an enigma for many years!

Ideas evolve and develop and as you begin to uncover more information whether physically and scientifically  through excavation, or intellectually through research.

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