First shown in June 2014, this three-part documentary is now being repeated on BBC4. The first episode, Towards an Architecture of Majesty, is available on iPlayer at the time of writing and provides a wide-ranging introduction to the history of Britain’s royal palaces. While the claim that ‘no buildings in history have more dramatic history to tell’ is certainly debatable, the first episode nevertheless illustrates the tempestuous, tense and thrilling nature of kingship (and queenship).
Presented by Dan Cruickshank, the episode’s subject under discussion shifts through place, time and person. This underlines the vast nature, and vast history, of the palaces. They encompass not only sites of wealth, power, political unrest, constitutional upheaval and social scandal but also changing technology, changing ways of living and changing culture, art and architecture. Their daily functions, and consumptions, are also considered. At Hampton Court, for example, it’s suggested that after two or three weeks the surrounding farms and merchants would be running low on supplies to keep a visit from the royal court going. Majesty and Mortar captures a sweeping brushstroke of history. Perhaps it doesn’t focus in on all the minute details, but the picture created is still, in the end, impressive.
Beginning with the first palace in Britain, the Tower of London, Cruickshank considers what this alien, stone, Norman structure meant to the Anglo-Saxons who witnessed its construction. Moving through the Old Palace of Westminster, to the Royal Mint, back to the Tower of London and then onto Hampton Court Palace, Cruickshank considers lives and reigns of monarchs from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth I and beyond.
Interesting and hidden details are explored, from an uncovered painting in the Royal Mint which acted as a warning to would-be thieves to a rarely-seen chamber of Hampton Court which still bears Cardinal Wolsey’s motto. Lingering camera shots, and detailed analysis, try to capture something of the essence of the palaces. This is, in a way, the sense that palaces are monuments to monarchy and majesty. They are, to most, an other-worldly place for kings and queens to present themselves as something different to ‘normal’ men and women. Their lives and their homes are not like ours. Perhaps it would have been interesting to contrast the palaces with other grand homes of the period, and with other more humble dwellings. However, this was not stated as an intention of the documentary, and it is likely that such a large subject matter is not well-suited for a 60 minute time-slot.
In short, the series as seen so far suggests that it will be an engaging history of royal architecture. Of particular interest are the palaces that have vanished. While the Tower of London and Hampton Court remain iconic, the original Palace of Westminster and the demolished Nonsuch are less well-known and their analysis provides very interesting viewing.
‘Majesty and Mortar: Britain’s Great Palaces’, BBC4, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04776qs.
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