London’s finest palaces and parks, as seen through the eyes of royal historian Tracy Borman

Learn how to make the most of your time at London’s royal sites with Tracy Borman’s insider advice, including secret areas of the Tower of London and the “lost” and little-known Jewel Tower.

While the British capital has evolved greatly over the past several centuries, it is nevertheless replete with palaces, parks, museums, and churches associated with England’s royal family. Where should a first-time visitor look?

Tracy Borman is the go-to expert on all things English royalty, having written on everyone from Matilda, England’s first queen, to Henry VIII, the most famous of the Tudor kings, and everything in between.

Here she reveals intriguing advice for making the most of your time at London’s royal landmarks, such as where (and why) to search for the city’s “lost” palaces, why it should be “treason” to just visit the Crown Jewels at the Tower, and how to best follow in the footsteps of the Tudors. not to mention that she had her wedding at the “saddest spot on Earth” (and why you should go there).

Let’s begin with the Tower of London, a must-see for tourists and the subject of your newest book. The tale of the Tower was described as “the story of England” by you. Why?

I had the impression I was writing about the Tower in that book. Although I was writing about the Tower of London, I was really writing about England. Beginning with the Norman Conquest of 1066, when William the Conqueror realizes he must take control of England militarily, he begins construction on what would become the Tower of London. It still serves a vital purpose today, since it is the location of the Crown Jewels.

The British crown jewels, how fitting. Is there anything else that tourists wouldn’t want to miss (pardon the pun)?

Yes! The Crown Jewels attract around ninety-five percent of all visitors. I think it’s treasonous that some of them can’t see anything besides the Tower.

The Beauchamp Tower is always at the top of my recommended list, despite the fact that many tourists pass it by because it doesn’t appear to be all that interesting from the outside. Some prominent inmates were housed there and left graffiti on the walls. Seeing the traces left by one of Anne Boleyn’s suspected lovers, who etched her falcon insignia into the stone, is like touching history to me. In doing so, it becomes a tangible reality.

You also have a special link to an other, less well-known area of the Tower.

The tower chapel, dedicated to St. Peter ad Vincula. Because all the traitors were buried there, it’s known as the “saddest spot on Earth.” Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, and Lady Jane Grey, three English queens, were all laid to rest there. This is a popular chapel, especially during the Tudor era. It’s also the site of my wedding. Since Thomas Cromwell is buried there and I published a book about him, I said, “Yeah, I need to get married here.”

The chapel is actively used. The White Tower’s St. John’s Chapel, a stunning Romanesque chapel, is equally impressive. Visitors should know that they can attend services in the Tower even before it officially opens to the public. It indicates you have exclusive use of the Tower. Participating in these services, which have been held in the Tower for decades, is a chance to be a part of history. The common misconception is that you need to know someone at the Tower in order to visit. The event is open to the public.

You’ve covered a lot of ground in terms of British historical periods, but I get the impression that the Tudors are your favorite.

Yes, I keep returning to that time frame. The media has recently been asking, “Why are we all so obsessed with the Tudors?” When I hear that, I can’t help but think, “For good reason!” Such a dramatic era, populated by heroes and villains alike. King Henry VIII, who had six wives, and Queen Elizabeth I, who never married, are only two examples. We are living in the time of Shakespeare and global exploration. This is a formative and independent time in one’s life.

Where in London would you recommend someone go who was interested in the Tudor period?

Hampton Court is the best place in the world. Being an employee here naturally colors my opinion. But it always seems to get me in the end. It is the largest and finest surviving example of a Tudor palace. And it’s as though you’ve been transported to King Henry VIII’s court. The highest achievement of Tudor craftsmanship and an expression of Tudor self-assurance.

Which section of Hampton Court Palace do you like the most?

Nothing compares to the Great Hall. I need a moment to myself every time I enter that room. Henry VIII’s favorite palace, it had formerly belonged to his advisor Cardinal Wolsey. Henry being Henry, the first thing he did was make it even bigger. And thus he constructed the Great Hall. Henry’s tapestries are still on display today. They are second only to the Crown Jewels in terms of value. Then there are remnants of the spouses, most notably Anne Boleyn, since the palace was constructed in her honour and to celebrate her coronation as queen. Her initials, H.I., are entwined with Henry’s, and there is a falcon emblem in the ceiling. Those minute particulars send shivers up my spine.

Where else in London might a person who is interested in royal history go?

Ignoring Westminster Abbey would be impolite. Royal events such as coronations and funerals take place there. Many kings and queens are buried there. The most impressive tomb belonged to Queen Elizabeth I, who was also my favorite. Seeing it in person will blow your mind.

When touring Westminster Abbey, what else should one not miss?

A more under-the-radar royal palace, the Jewel Tower, may be found in close proximity to Westminster. It was constructed during the reign of King Edward III, opposite the Houses of Parliament, in the 14th century. The Jewel Tower is one of only two structures left over from the former Palace of Westminster, which was destroyed in a fire in the 1800s, and it is absolutely stunning. Ascend the steps for a breathtaking panorama of Parliament. It’s a very short trip to the tower because of how small it is. Although it is a tiny piece of royalty. The majority of visitors to London rush straight to Westminster Abbey.

Can you recommend any other “lost” palaces that travelers could enjoy?

In Tudor England, Whitehall was the grandest palace. Only the Banqueting House has survived to the present day; it was built during King James I’s reign (1603–1625) when he hosted magnificent Jacobean feasts complete with masques. But it was only outside that building in 1649 that his son and successor, Charles I, was executed. It’s a shady chapter from the royal past. Also, it’s conveniently located just a short distance from the Prime Minister’s official residence on Downing Street.

Any that you’d recommend outside of the main tourist areas in London?

Visiting Greenwich is something I highly endorse. The old Tudor pier still stands by the water, even though the palace itself has long since vanished. The Queen’s House, constructed in the early 1600s for Anne of Denmark, King James I’s wife, is also open to the public.

The Richmond Palace is another option. One of the palaces commissioned by the founder of the Tudor dynasty, King Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth I held a special place in her heart. Since she was perpetually chilly, she referred to it as her “warm box” due to its high-tech heating system. She had lived in Richmond all her life, and when the time came, she wanted to pass away there. It burned down together with the rest of the palaces. What remains visible, though, is the fairly spectacular gate house; if you go through it, you’ll reach a courtyard where palace bricks were reused in the construction of nearby homes.

Despite its name, the borough of Richmond upon Thames is actually located in south-western London. How would you recommend getting there if you wanted to follow in the historic royal footsteps?

Traveling by river was considerably more convenient and faster than traveling by land, thus all of London’s grand palaces were built along the Thames. From Kew (the location of the Royal Botanic Gardens) or in the opposite way, a stroll along the Thames Path is a beautiful experience.

You could also take a boat if you have the time. The Turks frequent river cruises that depart from historic locations including Hampton Court, Richmond, and Kingston. You can leave from Westminster, or if you’re really pressed for time, Greenwich. When traveling west from the Tower, you’ll pass through the Chelsea neighborhood, where Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, once resided. The next stop is Richmond, followed by Hampton Court Palace. It’s a good three or four hours of your time, but it’s worth it. You get a look at London from the perspective of the Tudor era.

There are many palaces to see and several means of doing so. Do monarchical parks even exist?

Yes! Indeed, the royal family took great pride in its parks, many of which had their origins as hunting preserves. One such example is Hyde Park. Kensington Gardens is another must-see in London; it’s rich in Georgian-era history. And, of course, Princess Diana, William and Kate, and Kensington Palace, which has come to represent the modern royal family.

Is there a museum that you would recommend that has significant royal connections?

This museum is out of this world. The British Library’s permanent Treasures gallery is another excellent option. There are royal letters, royal execution orders, royal religious texts, and royal copies of beautiful illuminated manuscripts.

The National Portrait Gallery, which closed for three years for an extensive renovation, has reopened to the public. It’s like browsing the royal family tree. They’re all displayed prominently on the wall.

Do you have a favorite portrait in the National Portrait Gallery that you study again and again as a royal historian?

You bet! My favorite portrait is of [Henry VIII’s advisor] Thomas Cromwell. The depiction of Elizabeth I’s coronation is very impressive.

Last but not least, the topic of the Coronation must be addressed. How can tourists who were there best recall the event?

It’s great to follow in the footsteps of the Coronation procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey. Simply pick a day with better weather than May 6th.

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