HAMPTON COURT MAZE
Let us, (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us, and to die,)
Expiate free o'er all this scene of man,
A mighty maze! but not without a plan.'
Pope, Essay on Man, 1733.
On the assumption of the throne by William III of Orange (nephew of James II) and Mary (James' daughter) in 1689 the asthmatic William found the claustrophobia of the mediaeval Palace of Whitehall intolerable, and resolved to spend the greater part of the year at Hampton Court, whose broad avenue-
Wren remodelled the gardens and totally rebuilt the sovereign's apartments to form the splendid Renaissance east front and the Fountain Court. Further designs to realign the ceremonial approach by a magnificent chestnut avenue skirting a great fountain in Bushey Park and leading to a new entrance court on the north side of the Tudor palace were only partially executed by the time of William's death in 1702.
Preparatory to the construction of the northern entrance court the Tudor orchard created beyond the moat by Henry VIII in 1525 was levelled, and London and Wise, the King’s gardeners, laid out a 'Wilderness'. Actually this was an extremely formal design of an intersecting lozenge and cross of paths, bordered by high hedges of hornbeam, and incorporating a maze, three 'Troy Towns' (an earlier form without choices) and various other topiary works in yew, with cypresses as infill within the hedges. It is unclear who was actually responsible for the design; it appears in a collection of Sir Christopher Wren's drawings acquired by Sir John Soane, and so may actually be Wren's.
Mary died of smallpox in 1694, and the heartbroken William suspended all work at Hampton Court. In the accounts for this first period of work, submitted by William Talman in 1695, we find the first mention of the maze and Wilderness -
John and Elizabeth Apprice -
Edward Wilcox, Carpenter-
It is therefore clear that both were at least laid out and in some degree finished in 1689-
Early in 1698 the Palace of Whitehall was burnt down -
Henry Wise, Privy Garden -
On her succession in 1702 Anne, who had always disliked William, swept away the old order; Wise however continued in office as Deputy and she took a resolution 'to restrain the expense of the gardens'.
In 1706 London and Wise translated a French work by Louis Liger and issued it as ‘The Compleat Florist or Solitary Gardiner' afterwards published by J Carpenter as 'The Retir'd Gardener'. On labyrinths it said:
A Labyrinth is a Place cut into several Windings, set off with Horn-
This would tend to support other evidence that the original maze at Hampton Court was in hornbeam. It is at present principally in yew, which change may be attributable to the last year of Anne's reign in 1714 when Henry Wise submitted a bill for:
A figure hedgework of very large evergreen plants in the Wilderness to face the Iron Gates
These gates were put up in 1714 to close the vista of the Bushey avenue on the abandonment of the grandiose terminal entrance court and approach which would have entailed the Wilderness being laid out anew with a wider central road and the destruction of the maze. The present Lion Gates were subsequently moved to this position from the garden entrance to the Home Park, where they had been erected in the Reign of George I. There is however a school of thought which assigns this passage to the first construction of the maze -
Stephen Switzer, a pupil of London and Wise, published a treatise on gardening 'Iconographia Rustica, or the Gentleman's, Nobleman's and Gardner's Recreation' in 1718. In his somewhat labyrinthine style he says concerning a maze design of his:
The most stops that I ever observed in this case are at Hampton Court, where, I take it, there are but three or four false stops, or methods to loose or perplex the rambler in his going in; whereas in this there is above twenty and I presume to say (If it were of much value when I had so said), that 'tis not a very easy matter to find this centre, withought the draught, or perhaps with it. But, be it as it will, it is of no great use to enlarge upon it after the design is thus fixed; and in the large quarters and divisions of a wood, this may give some light in the making them intricate and perplexing, and may help to accomplish our garden amusements.
The Wilderness was subsequently erased by a sea of 'natural' grass and tastefully disposed trees in the manner of the English landscape movement of Kent and Brown, to produce what we see today, though the exact date of this 'improvement' is not established. It is known Kent grassed over the scroll-
From a solitary upper window a superb and unique aerial view of the maze was, and still is, obtained -
The last reigning monarch to reside at Hampton Court was George II, who died in 1760, and since this date limited access to the house and gardens seems to have been available to the cultured connoisseur. In 1782 the Honourable Daines Barrington published in the journal Archaelogia a resumé of the history of gardening, singling out Hampton Court maze for special mention:
As it is perhaps the only such garden device now remaining after the devastations of Messrs Kent and Brown, I shall mention some particulars relative to it. The winding walks amount to half a mile, though the whole extent is perhaps not more than a quarter of an acre, and there is a stand adjacent in which the gardener places himself in order to extricate you by his direction, after the stranger acknowledges himself to be completely tired and puzzled.
Before I made this arduous attempt, I resolved to fix upon a certain rule as my best chance to avoid being confounded, and I succeeded by always keeping as near as I could to the outermost hedge.
The true dimensions are a quarter of a mile of paths and a third of an acre in extent. Barrington's 'rule' however is completely accurate, and in a more general form involving 'hand trailing' is still the simplest clue to solving this type of maze.
Eventually the Palace and grounds were thrown open to the public by Victoria one year after her accession in 1839. They were 'freely admitted to view whatever is curious or interesting within the walls of Hampton Court Palace' -
Visitors to the maze had been sufficiently numerous before this to warrant William IV, Victoria's uncle, granting the 'Bounty of the Maze' to his head gardener William Turrell, who was allowed to charge one penny per visitor. When Victoria ceded the maze and Kitchen Garden to the Office of Works in 1850 Turrell transferred to Keeper of the Vine (planted by Capability Brown in 1768), and the Bounty eventually devolved onto one William Dobson, a sergeant in the 90th Regiment in the Crimea War, invalided out of the service at age thirty two in 1856 and appointed Sergeant Keeper of the Maze.
Dobson maintained himself thus for the next thirty four years -
This request obviously required higher authority than that for selling plans, and apparently for the first time Dobson's existence came to the attention of Her Majesty's First Commissioner of Works. Far from enlarging his hut, in 1899 Dobson was given three months notice, to be replaced by a salaried attendant at £100 per annum, and a turnstile neatly counting the visitors (prudently re-
Receipts under the new system yielded £450 in 1903. Dobson's practice of selling plans had evidently lapsed by 1906, when the keepers petitioned the Office of Works for permission to do the same, siting Dobson as a precedent. Initially refused, permission was finally granted in 1909, after the original artwork was unearthed in response to a request from the Peruvian Ambassador for a copy, in order that a replica might be built in Lima. It seems a pity that no accurate plan is now sold at the site.
The subsequent history of the maze is one of continuing and steady popularity, and a constant battle to preserve its innocent pleasures for future generations under the inevitable depredations of this popularity. The maze has manifested its capture of the public's imagination by several embodiments in literature. For example the 'British Magazine' of September 1747 published a 'True Draft of, and Reflections on Walking, the Hampton Court Maze', and in July 1749 a contributor reflected on the curious pleasures of it's frustrations, albeit in doggerel Latin:
Whosoever would visit the Royal Gardens at Hampton,
Let him know that here are the deceptions of a labyrinth.
As soon as a youthful throng has entered;
At the very entrance, and on the very threshold; the pathway deceives.
The diverted proceed to wander, retracing their footsteps
To see if in any way they can progress along the misleading route.
If they decide to turn back, the same fate attends them on their return,
The same confusion holds them enmeshed in the misleading paths.
They call to each other, all laughing in turn;
What else can at once be so near and yet so far?
However, the ensnared never weary of rushing back and forth,
Nor is it an effort to cover the same ground so often.
Indeed, the whole company is captivated with delight,
Patiently enjoying being deceived with their comrades.
What a sweet sort of game! That same most pleasing maze deceives
And yet gives pleasure to their weary selves by its deceit!
However, the most famous appearance of the maze in literature is, of course, in the American humorist Jerome K Jerome's classic 'Three Men in a Boat', published in 1899 and capturing the end of the Dobson era:
Harris asked me if I'd ever been in the maze at Hampton Court. He said he went in once to show somebody else the way. He had studied it in a map, and it was so simple that it seemed foolish -
...Harris kept on turning to the right, but it seemed a long way, and his cousin said he supposed it was a very big maze. 'Oh, one of the largest in Europe', said Harris. 'Yes, it must be' replied the cousin, 'because we've walked a good two miles already'.......Harris began to think it rather strange himself....(they give up and attempt to get out).....About ten more minutes passed, and they found themselves in the centre. Harris thought at first of pretending that that was what he had been aiming at; but the crowd looked dangerous, and he decided to treat it as an accident.....
.....He was a young keeper, as luck would have it, and new to the business; and when he got in he couldn't get to them, and then he got lost. They caught sight of him, every now and then, rushing about the other side of the hedge, and he would see them and rush to get them, and they would wait there for about five minutes, and then he would reappear again in exactly the same spot, and ask them where they had been. They had to wait until one of the old keepers came back from his dinner before they got out
This well known description is unfortunately tinged with slight poetic licence, and visitors familiar with it may be slightly disappointed with the complexity of the actual maze, though it is possible to get lost even with a plan. Otherwise the description appears totally accurate, even down to the young inexperienced keeper -
The maze as originally designed was rigidly formal, with constant width paths and hedges meeting at sharp angles, and slightly smaller than the present maze. It contained two hedge islands, though as the goal was not contained within either of them it would seem London and Wise / Sir Christopher Wren were unaware of the necessity of this device in defeating Daines Barrington's 'hand-
The modern disposition of the paths, though approximating to the original design, has undergone a number of transformations due to the ravages of impatient visitors over the years both before and after the design was frozen by the insertion of railings. The sharp corners have become rounded and smoothed, and new paths and dead ends have been created. It is however, difficult to see how the extreme rounding of the corner nearest the Lion Gates could come about naturally and this may date from the installation of these gates and a desire to cut back the sight-
© Roger J Morgan September 1999
WILDERNESS c 1700
MAZE c 1700
MAZE ORIGINAL PLAN