Inside the spectacular Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace
PUBLISHED: 13:11 08 January 2015 | UPDATED: 12:08 12 January 2015
A true hidden gem, the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace is one of the country's most beautiful places of worship - yet few people realise that not only are its services open to everyone but they also have an internationally renowned choir that welcomes local youngsters. Claire Saul gets a peek behind the scenes
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine December 2014
The majestic Hampton Court Palace crowns a long and illustrious list of Surrey’s many treasures. Amongst the attraction’s famous charms, however, there is a lesser-known gem, tucked away in the heart of the palace and there for everyone to savour, free of charge; the Chapel Royal.
Historically, the term ‘Chapel Royal’ was applied to the body of priests, composers and musicians who accompanied monarchs at all times to serve their musical and spiritual needs. Over the years, though, the title has evolved to refer to the chapels of the royal palaces. Surviving Chapels Royal today include those at the Tower of London and St James’s Palace, as well as this one right on our doorstep.
As a part of the Royal Household, the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court is technically owned by the Queen, and visitors stepping onto the marble floor, or peering at it from the Royal Pew on the palace visitor route, are doing so therefore with Her Majesty’s “gracious permission”. The Queen also appoints the chaplain and director of music, and funds are made available from the privy purse for them along with a contribution towards the chapel’s musicians and choir.
To make up the rest of the funding, and to preserve and promote the unique musical heritage of this Chapel Royal, a Choral Foundation was established in 2011 – and I’m here today to meet the foundation’s manager, Michele Price, and get a peek behind the scenes. Certainly, it is unthinkable that this extraordinary chapel, which has hosted and inspired some of the country’s greatest composers and musicians, might ever bow to economic pressure after 450 years of service to its nation. As such, the remit of the Choral Foundation is to ensure that its traditions of excellence continue in perpetuity and, most importantly, that it is accessible to us all.
“Visitors of all faiths attend services here,” explains Michele, as we take a tour of this stunning building. “As a chapel of the Royal Household, it doesn’t have the usual local parish boundaries, and therefore anyone who wishes to worship here can do so, either regularly or occasionally.
“There are many preconceived ideas about eligibility for worship, including that people require permission from The Queen or that they need to wear a hat! There are no such criteria. Families worry that young children might not be welcome, but indeed they are. It is important to the chaplain, Canon Denis Mulliner, that everyone feels comfortable about coming to worship here. We worship according to The Book of Common Prayer and everyone who wishes to experience this traditional form of worship is welcome.”
What is more, the Chapel Royal also affords a unique opportunity to hear first-class recitals and concerts of works within the very same walls in which they were first composed and performed for our monarchs. Indeed, it has hosted some of our most celebrated composers and musicians, including Thomas Tallis and Henry Purcell, who would have been at the forefront of the musical and spiritual life of the royal court.
Today, the choir of 16 boy choristers and nine adult “Gentlemen in Ordinary” of the Chapel Royal, who dress in The Queen’s scarlet, are aware of the privilege of singing in the prestigious choir, continuing a role that dates back to Tudor times. Just as then, the choir is drawn from all over the local area. It is a tradition nurtured by the annual Choral Foundation Chorister Open Days when talented boys aged eight or nine are invited to find out whether this celebrated role is something that they would like to pursue. At least one in four of the boys go on to successfully audition for the free training programme, under the experienced eye of the director of music, Carl Jackson MVO.
“What we are not though is a choir school,” continues Michele, whose own involvement with the Chapel Royal came about as a chorister parent, which then evolved to her appointment with the Choral Foundation. “Boys stay at their local school in Surrey and attend choral training here two evenings a week. They don’t need to have any musical background but they do need to have potential with a pure treble voice and an excellent musical ear.
“Sadly, a lot of people still think that it is quite an elitist idea and for a certain type of person but not so. We currently have boys from 12 different schools, different backgrounds and different religions. Music tuition can be quite sporadic in schools and the overwhelming response from the parents who have attended our open days has been amazement that this facility is here on their doorstep, and does not mean that their son must go away and board. For a boy who loves music, it is a fabulous opportunity for an absolutely first class musical training that more often than not leads to music scholarships at prestigious Surrey schools.
“What these boys do and what they learn is incredible. The Chapel Royal sings a cathedral repertoire so the music is completely different every single week, ranging from the very earliest Tudor music to more modern English choral compositions. Boys who have trained here go on to do many other things, including successfully auditioning for roles at the Royal Opera House or with national ensembles. In addition to services, the choir is engaged to sing at concert venues and as part of national celebrations, such as the recent Diamond Jubilee.”
One major achievement of the Choral Foundation to date has been to help fund the £210,000 refurbishment of the historic 1711 Schrider organ. This extraordinary instrument was built for Queen Anne, in whose reign many of the chapel’s architectural splendours originated. Sir Christopher Wren worked on the Royal Pew, formerly known as the Holy Day Closets, from which Henry VIII and his wives, Elizabeth I and the Stuart kings would worship in splendid isolation from their 1,000-strong court, jostling for position on the floor below. Wren was also responsible for the design of the commanding altar screen, positioned in front of an intricate Tudor stained glass window that had been destroyed by Cromwell’s troops. Indeed, Charles I, imprisoned at Hampton Court in 1647, was forced to watch while the parliamentarians destroyed what they could of the palace’s chapel.
The soldiers also fired their muskets upward, hoping to wreak havoc on the Tudor timbers and the chapel’s famous blue ceiling. The fact that it remains one of the most iconic sights of the Palace today is testament to the sturdiness of the oak timbers, felled from Windsor Great Park, which then stretched as far as Guildford and Chertsey.
Many of the remaining original Tudor elements are hidden or built over and some, such as the windows of the upper walls, are actually Victorian recreations. But there is still much to evoke the sense of the early Tudors. Along with his private rooms, this is where Henry VIII would have worshipped up to six times a day. His much longed-for son, Edward VI, was baptised here and he married Catherine Parr in what is now referred to as the Lady Chapel. Under the altar, it is believed that the heart and viscera of Edward’s mother Jane Seymour are buried, on the command of her husband.
No wonder that the Chapel Royal, steeped in so much history and tradition, is so beloved by Canon Mulliner and his team of devoted volunteers who are equally passionate about sharing its treasures and making it accessible for all to enjoy.
As Michele says: “Hampton Court Palace is so popular; people are so fond of it. It is where you went to visit as children and where you now take your own family. It is such an iconic part of living in this area.
“Now, with the support of the Choral Foundation, we are trying to ensure that the Chapel Royal continues functioning as it has done for centuries as the living, breathing heart of the Palace. Those already in the know enjoy stunning music every week and, with a growing congregation and concert audiences, these Surrey choristers will have a chance to share their ability to take you soaring to the heavens too.”
• The Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey KT8 9AU. Tel: 0844 482 7777. For more information, see chapelroyal.org and hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace
More at Hampton Court Palace
Top notes from the choristers...
“The best things about being in the choir are the friendships I have made and the musical and spiritual education.” Charles Wainwright Jones
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m so glad that I’m here.” Mikolaj Derdun
“Singing with the choir is giving me a musical education that I cannot get from my state school.” Patrick Redmond
“Being part of the choir has given me some amazing opportunities; it’s transformed my life.” Ciaran Price
“Some of the music has been heard in the chapel for hundreds of years. It gives me a real sense of history.” Oliver Champness
“It feels great to be part of a group who love singing as much as I do. And it is an honour to sing in such a well-known building with so much history.” Angus Whitworth
Coming up at the Chapel Royal
At the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace, Holy Communion is held daily at 8.30am, with choral services at 11am and 3.30pm on Sundays.
The congregation are welcome to attend up to 30 minutes prior to the start of the service. Entry and exit is via the security gate in Tennis Court Lane. Attendance is free, but visitors also wishing to visit Hampton Court Palace must purchase an admission ticket.
In addition to the services, Sunday lunchtime recitals take place at 1pm each week and can be enjoyed by those attending the 11am service, ticket holders for the palace and visitors with Historic Royal Palaces membership.
Special services and concerts are also presented at various times throughout the year.
• For more details of these and all aspects of life at the Chapel Royal, pay a visit to their official website at chapelroyal.org