Some of the brickwork – including a hearth and bread oven – from the original kitchens at Hampton Court Palace. The features were recently revealed during excavations ahead of an electrical upgrade. (Images: Historic Royal Palaces / SWNS)

Hampton Court Palace is currently undergoing a massive, multiphased electrical upgrade, its first since the 1960s, which has provided the rare opportunity to carry out archaeological excavations on the site before the new infrastructure is installed.

The earliest days of the palace are relatively obscure, overshadowed by the site’s better-known royal history, and the exact date of its foundation is unknown, but an agricultural estate appears to have existed there by at least 1086. The early medieval manor was then leased by Sir Giles Daubeney – Lord Chamberlain to Henry VII – in 1494, and he subsequently updated the buildings, including adding a kitchen next to the hall. After Daubeney’s death, Thomas Wolsey leased the manor in 1514, launching a grand refurbishment and converting it into a magnificent palace – the birth of the complex’s more famous phase.

Elegant floor tiles were discovered surrounding the exposed hearth and bread oven.

Now excavations have uncovered traces of the site’s earlier occupation. The first stage of the project, one of six, began a few months ago and focused on parts of the kitchen and hall. This work has revealed the foundations of the original medieval hall, as well as the massive extension commissioned by Henry VIII after he took Hampton Court from Wolsey, while the remains of a late medieval hearth and bread oven were most likely part of the kitchen added by Daubeney at the end of the 15th century. More surprisingly, the team also discovered elegant floor tiles abutting these structures, in a part of the complex where the floor is unlikely to have been much appreciated by its wealthy owners and visitors. Post-excavation analysis – continuing over the next year – will hopefully be able to shed some light on this mystery.

The remains have now been left in situ, backfilled with fine sand to help their preservation, and all new electrical wiring will be installed well away from anything of historical importance – unlike most of the 1960s works which appear to have cut through some of the more significant structures. The second and third phases of the upgrade will begin in 2019 and are expected to reveal the Tudor foundations, including the King’s and Queen’s private apartments, as well as parts of Henry VIII’s bowling alley.

‘This has been a fascinating project to work on and we have already made several interesting and important archaeological discoveries,’ said Daniel Jackon, Curator of Historic Buildings at Historic Royal Palaces. ‘At HRP, conservation is at the core of what we do, and I look forward to seeing what else we unearth as the project progresses.’

Even in such a well-known site as Hampton Court Palace, there is still much to be discovered. Watch this space for further updates from the project.

This article was published in CA 335.

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