Gossip, Smut And Debauchery At Hampton Court Palace

SalaciousGossip

The great wooden door at Hampton Court is firmly shut but a small knot of curious, would-be tittle-tattlers loiter, casting sideways glances to see what sort of person (other than themselves of course) would sign up for an evening of 17th and 18th century smut. ‘Salacious Gossip’, the leaflet promises. ‘Adult content. Strictly over-18s only.’

Somewhere inside, a clock chimes the half-hour. The gates part. Across the courtyard a duchess in a froth of satin and worldliness sips a glass of champagne. The group is invited to do the same, whilst leafing through Mr Harris’s notorious List of Covent Garden Ladies. Somewhat truncated but enough to get the gist:

Very impudent and very ugly; chiefly a dealer with old fellows… positively denies having been debauched by friars… uses more birch rods in a week than Westminster School in a 12-month…

The moment glasses are drained the duchess flicks open her fan with a terrifying rattle and beckons the group to listen closer. No sooner is the scandal of the out-of-wedlock-royal-child-that-might-not-be-anyway imparted than she’s off, the gaggle of gossip-hungry earwiggers hot on her skirt trains. The next 90 minutes see a barrage of debauchery, lust, eye-popping detail and amorous entanglements worthy of a 17th century Game of Thrones, all delivered with the deadpan wit and knowing wink of a 21st century one-liner comic.

Individual stories of royal lechery, noble buggery, under-agery, and downright yuckery jostle with letter-readings, worrying props, unpleasant diseases and poetry recitals courtesy of one Earl of Rochester. “Pray, did you not lately observe in the show, a noble Italian called Signior Dildo?”

“On these very steps…” breathes the duchess, loitering in a back stairwell to impart a particularly juicy piece of insinuation. Happily the steps seem to have scrubbed up just fine.

“There he is,” she waves a gloved hand at the official portrait of, well, any one of a number of royal lust-merchants in full military regalia. “And there he is again,” she bats her fan at another canvas on the opposite wall, “naked in a pink sheet.”

No painting is left unsullied as the carnal exploits of what has to be every 17th and 18th century inhabitant of Hampton Court Palace is given the full red-top treatment. The corridor reserved for Sir Peter Lely’s pantheon of beauties-of-the-day is pause for a particularly long sojourn.
Is it actually shocking? Not really, and however rude it gets, however dubious the object-handling and however unlikely the tales (cough — dead medieval bishop — cough) there is something about the patina of history that lends a comic, Carry On feel to regal debauchery and courtesanal sleaze over the weary veil of feculence one might expect from a tour of modern day sin.

One thing’s for certain. If you go on a Salacious Gossip tour, you will never look at any of the portraits in Hampton Court’s state apartments in the same light again.

By Sandra Lawrence

Salacious Gossip tours take place at Hampton Court Palace on selected evenings throughout the summer until 28 September. Tickets £25, strictly over 18s only. Tours start at 7.30pm. Londonist took this guided tour on a complimentary ticket.

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  • Penny

    I took this tour last year and heartily recommend it. It was a little different than your average history tour and I found it quite fun. I didn’t find it shocking either, but did enjoy the stories and double entandres. It was also wonderful to be in the palace after hours when everyone is gone and the rooms are darkened.