The Vikings used the River Thames to reach and raid London. William the Conqueror when he took England as his personal property built a castle at either end of the walled city to protect it. As time passed, castles were replaced by more comfortable palatial dwellings. Those who could afford their own riverside palaces could also afford their own personal, and highly ornate, barges. Those of lesser means hired licenced watermen to take them up or down the river, as one might today call on a taxi, and well into the Middle Ages the River Thames was London’s major highway.
In Saxon times, there was a farmstead at a bend on the river Thames, a place named by combining the Anglo-Saxon words as Hampton (there is a major port in the south of England, Southampton, but Northampton was North Tun with an altogether different meaning). This property 15 miles upriver from Westminster, where the Saxon king had his palace and abbey, was held as a manor by Lady Godiva’s son, Ǽlfgar, Earl of Mercia.
William variously labelled “The Bastard, “The Conqueror” or latterly. “The First,” gave Ǽlfgar’s manor and much property in the region now known as Isleworth to his supporter, Walter de Saint Valery (aka Gautier de Saint Valeri). His descendant, Reginald, was dapfer (steward) to King Henry II. But in the time of Henry III the de Valeri family seem to have lost the property, perhaps they had revolted against the previous sovereign, King John. Henry of St. Alban’s, merchant and sheriff of the City of London, was in possession in 1219 and he for 1000 marks (a mark was two thirds of a pound of silver) in 1217 sold the manor to Terrice de Nussa, Prior of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in England.
The Hospitaller was responsible for hospitality to travellers, as given by the monastery. The institution in Jerusalem dates to 600 AD under Abbot Probus. Charlemagne enlarged the hospital (effectively hospice as we now know that word), 200 years later the Caliph destroyed it, another Caliph, however, later gave merchants from Amalfi (the Italian coast near Naples) permission to rebuild near the Holy Sepulchre under patronage of the church of Santa Maria Latina. Their function was to care for needy pilgrims, both male and female; the monks were recruited from the order of Saint Benedict (Blackfriars) whose mother house is at Monte Cassino. The function of the hospital was not (as one may read) to care for crusaders who did not come until 1090. The Hospitallers and the similar Order of Knights Templars acquired much property in England and elsewhere, usually left to them in the wills of sinners who hoped thereby to get a reduction in their time in purgatory.
There had probably been some form of religious institution on the property, a “Sister Joan” is stated to have come from “Hampton in Middlesex.” In 1250 Henry III gave the prior and brethren “in their manor of Hampton” the right to hunt (known as free warren which was for more than rabbits!). Other persons subsequently made grants of land to them.
The manor was conveniently located between royal palaces at Sheen (Richmond) and Byfleet (Woking). As revealed by recent excavations, officials and courtiers travelling between these palaces in the 1300’s were accommodated by the Hospitallers at their manor house in Hampton. The Prior in a 1338 letter to his Grand Master described the property as a messauage (term for the whole property, house and land) with garden, dovecote, 840 acres chiefly pasture, and a weir for fish; the slight number of staff employed suggested the house was small.
The property in 1505 was leased (the Hospitallers didn’t sell) by the prior John Kendall for 99 years to Giles, Lord Daubeney, scion of a distinguished Somerset family. Baron Daubeney, Lord Chamberlain to Henry VII, was charged with the arrangements for the young Catherine of Aragon’s reception when she was brought to London, to be married to Arthur, older brother of the future king, Henry VIII. As a man of wealth and power it is to be supposed Giles updated the comforts of his Hampton residence, where he entertained King Henry VII and his Queen, Elizabeth of York – they preferred their palace at Richmond to those of Westminster and the Tower in London. In 1503, shortly after this visit, Elizabeth died in childbirth.
The Baron died in 1508 after riding with the king, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. What happened to this property of Hampton immediately after the Baron’s death is unclear. His wife Elizabeth, was from Cornwall, their son Henry, the second Lord Daubeney, later became the Earl of Bridgewater; their daughter Cecily married Lord Fitzwarine who became the Earl of Bath. The second Lord Daubeney, possibly in financial difficulties, disposed of the lease. It is plain, however, there was a significant property in Hampton before it passed to its next tenant.
Thomas Wolsey, wrote his own name as Wulcy; although he was the Archbishop of York he did not live in York as one might innocently expect, only the lower echelons of the church lived on the job, no self-respecting bishop would live in his diocese. Thomas lived in the City of Westminster, upriver from the city of London, in a palace known then as York Place, later renamed by King Henry VIII as Whitehall, and now used as government offices of the United Kingdom. On the northern bank of the River Thames, between the City of London and the City of Westminster there were located the mansions of the Bishops or Abbots of Salisbury, Winchcombe, Tewkesbury, Cirencester, Bath & Wells, Llandaff, Durham, Exeter, Bury, Norwich, and Worcester. On the southern bank there was a palace for the Archbishop of Canterbury, and best known of all were the palace and landholdings of the Bishop of Winchester in Southwark; this was on the south end of London Bridge, outside the rules of the City of London but within easy walking distance, so here were located the playhouses and brothels whose working girls were known as “Winchester geese.”
Thomas had a modest non-aristocratic family background, for such persons the road to fame and fortune was through the church. Although the highest positions, the princes of the Church, were often given to those with royal connections, it was possible for an industrious and intelligent young man to work his way to the top. By 1514 Thomas Wolsey was on the way to becoming perhaps the richest man in England, and certainly after the King, the most powerful. Although some reports incorrectly state he was never ordained as a priest, in fact he entered major orders 10 March 1498 when ordained as a priest by the suffragan for the Bishop of Salisbury. Later, Thomas was not only Archbishop of York (the second highest position in the ranking of clergy in England), but he was to become a Cardinal with red hat (thus an elector of popes), a papal delegate (ambassador), and also the Lord Chancellor of England, the highest post in the civil service, controller of justice, and receiver of bribes. He was the very epitome of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else. And on top of all that, he had become a personal friend of the sovereign, King Henry VIII.
Thomas was aware Cardinals were expected to live in grand style; in Italy they competed with each other to develop beautiful palaces and gardens, there was even a “how-to” written to inform cardinals what was expected of them. Thomas looked around for a place to build a palace worthy of a man who was to hold three of the highest positions in the western world.