From a Tudor queen in Bromley to “Game of Gnomes”: a week in history

Plus: welcome to the world of 17th-century feminist sci-fi.

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The 70 girls were laughing like hyenas. Five of them were with me on the stage of the school hall, where they had just finished tugging and lacing one of their number into the little Tudor queen’s outfit that I had brought with me. Our 12-year-old Katherine Howard attempted to sit down regally in an armchair. It was when she tried to get up – and her farthingale got stuck – that hilarity broke out.

I hadn’t predicted this particular hitch when I arrived at Bromley High School in Kent to talk to the pupils about my new historical novel, Eliza Rose, which is for readers aged 11 and older. I had cunningly come prepared with props made for me by the costume team Tudor Tailor. These included a replica outfit of the kind worn by Katherine Howard, the teenage fifth wife of Henry VIII and the anti-heroine of my book. With the red hooped underskirt, the tawny satin kirtle and the black velvet robe with (fake) fur trim, we could get down and dirty with Tudor clothing. I finished the hour quite exhausted by the energy of year seven.

Mighty Cavendish women

On Saturday I took the train to Retford, Nottinghamshire, for the opening of the Harley Gallery’s new building, a ­stupendous art space built within the walls of a Victorian “tan gallop” (a kind of exercise yard for horses). In it will be displayed treasures from the Portland Collection, which have been amassed by what must be one of England’s most eccentric ducal families.

My speech was a rundown of some of the members of this admirably bonkers clan, including Margaret Cavendish – the first feminist sci-fi writer, whose 1666 novel The Blazing World features Welbeck Abbey. I also mentioned Margaret Cavendish Holles Harley Bentinck, who in the 18th century set ornithologists, entomologists and botanists to work to record every species of plant and animal in the world. I relish how the estate passed through the female line three times between 1691 and 1755, gaining the family three extra surnames.

Burst in on boys

I have been visiting Welbeck Abbey for research purposes ever since I was a young assistant inspector of ancient monuments working at the nearby English Heritage property Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire. We wanted to search the abbey for 17th-century painted decoration comparable to that at the castle.

The bursar of what was then a boys’ boarding school at the abbey invited my colleague and me to tour the property with him. Bursars of boarding schools are used to bursting into dormitories to see if bad behaviour is taking place. He saw no reason to change his practice even though, this time, he had two young ladies with him. We didn’t see any bad behaviour but we saw a lot of naked boys getting changed after rugby.

It was an honour to return to my old stamping ground to help celebrate the new gallery, with displays including a drawing by Michelangelo and portraits by Anthony Van Dyck, as well as odder items such as the pearl earring that Charles I was supposedly wearing on the scaffold when he was executed. Imagine the horrible job of getting it out of his ear afterwards!

Garden varieties

Back in the office at Hampton Court Palace, the topic of the week has been gnomes. Hampton Court can lay claim to Britain’s first garden gnome – a character called Umbriel, named in Alexander Pope’s poem set at the palace, The Rape of the Lock. This summer’s gnomes project (informal title: “Game of Gnomes”) is a community art endeavour to create gnomes for each of our wildly different historical gardens. My gnome will stand in the Privy Garden and I’ve just learned which famous actor will provide his voice. I’m not allowed to tell you who, but I can say that I’m very pleased.

Hampton Court in Russia

The other new garden-related treat at Hampton Court this season will be “The Empress and the Gardener”, an exhibition of drawings from the State Hermitage ­Museum in St Petersburg, which opens on 28 April. This remarkable stash of drawings was purchased by Catherine the Great, a self-confessed Anglomaniac and plant-o-maniac. An enthusiast of English landscape gardening, she purchased a set of views of contemporary Hampton Court. In this case, if one presumes that she wanted pictures of an English landscape garden, she must have been disappointed.

Unlike many grand gardens of the Georgian period, Hampton Court escaped the “natural” style pioneered by Capability Brown, and retained its older, formal, baroque gardens. That is what makes it such a special place today and explains why – ­extraordinarily – the best visual record of the Georgian Hampton Court is to be found in Russia.

Part of Wednesday was given over to choosing food likely to please our Russian colleagues at the opening party; another part was taken up by the equally challenging matter of discussing what we might do next year. The chance is before us to open up Henry VIII’s bedroom to visitors. We know where it is, we know something of what its decoration was like and we know that visitors would like to see it. The only problem is that we would need to turf the IT department out of what has become its office.

Careless whisper

Finally, on Thursday, I went to Portsmouth to speak to the annual meeting of the Hampshire Federation of Women’s Institutes in the Guildhall. I always love addressing a hall full of cackling women. As it is the year of the Queen’s 90th birthday, they decided to sing not just one, but two verses of “God Save the Queen”. “We’ve written out the words of the second verse,” the organiser whispered in my ear, “so you’ll be able to join in.” I was forced to give her a quelling look. I may have many inadequacies but I think that you can expect the chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces to know the second verse of “God Save the Queen”. 

Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. Her latest book, Eliza Rose, is out now

This article appears in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war