Despite tales of tumbling heads and murdered wives, I'm a sucker for the Tudors, one of England's ruthless royal dynasties. And there's more fun to be found in exploring two of England's monarchical Henrys than all the Georges put together.
That's why on a spring trip to London, I decided to investigate some of the lesser-known Tudor sites in the capital. Apart from Syon House, my choices required reservations to visit, but the planning paid off. At Lambeth and Fulham palaces and at Charterhouse, I had private tours, and the docents made the places come alive. And I dodged the crowds usually found at the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey.
Lambeth PalaceMY first stop was across the Thames from the houses of Parliament. Lambeth Palace has been the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury since 1200. Through shimmering sheets of rain, the weathered brick of the palace's five-story Morton's Tower, built during the reign of the first Tudor, Henry VII (1485-1509), looked imposing and a little sinister with its massive wooden gate. Morton's Tower, named for the archbishop who built it, has a prison at the top. It also has impressive Tudor connections: It was John Morton who inspired Shakespeare's play "Richard III," with the archbishop's gossip about the king and the little princes in the Tower of London. It was at Lambeth that statesman Thomas More refused to take the oath to Henry VIII as head of the new English church, a fateful decision that took him to the Tower and condemned him to the executioner's ax.
Over the centuries, much of Tudor Lambeth has been replaced by more modern buildings, but the atmosphere of power and intrigue remains. In the chapel and crypt, the oldest part of the palace (built in the early 1200s), the antiquity of the place seems to seep through the walls like water from the nearby Thames.
If any part of the palace is haunted, it certainly must be the beautifully laid-out gardens. There, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer — burned at the stake by Catholic Queen Mary I in 1556 — is said to weep for Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn, just as he did on May 19, 1536, the day she was beheaded.
To escape such sad tales, I visited the former church of St. Mary-at-Lambeth just outside the palace gates. It's now a museum dedicated to gardening and contains a wonderful cafe, where I enjoyed a bowl of potato leek soup and homemade quiche and salad. It was a cozy place to wait out the sporadic spurts of rain outside the long Gothic windows.
Lambeth Palace, London SE1 7JU; for reservations, contact Francis Neal, events administrator, 011-44-20-7898-1191.
Syon HouseThe next stop on my Tudor tour was Syon House, today owned by the Duke of Northumberland. It's just eight miles southwest of the city in Richmond Park on the banks of the Thames. Here, Tudor intrigue and mayhem once rampaged. Syon House, originally the site of a Bridgettine abbey founded in 1415 by Henry V to atone for his father's involvement in the death of Richard II, was one of dozens of religious foundations dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530s.
In 1542, Henry VIII's disgraced fifth queen, Catherine Howard, was housed in the cold, crumbling ruins of the convent on her way to the Tower of London and execution. Two years later, Henry's sixth — and last — queen, Catherine Parr, traveled from London to visit the new owner of the place, Edward Seymour, brother of Queen Jane (Henry's third wife, who had died in childbirth). He also was the brother of Catherine Parr's clandestine lover, Thomas Seymour.
Edward Seymour's house is still a large square block of stone-clad brick built around an inner courtyard, but some changes have been made over the centuries. Noted Scottish architect Robert Adam redid the entry hall and several of the rooms in the fashionable and ornate Pompeii Rococo style of the 18th century, but old Syon still peeks through the putti here and there.
One side of the house is given over to the long gallery, once an indoor Tudor playground for dancing and games on rainy days and altered by Adam into one of the longest sitting rooms in the world.
Lady Jane Grey was arm-twisted into accepting the crown of England in 1553 for nine days and fainted dead away on the gallery floor at the specter of ruling. Not long after, she was charged with treason and executed. Does she still walk up and down the gallery, wringing her hands and lamenting her fate? Not on a sunny day in May with light flooding in the windows, illuminating the pistachio green paneling and red brocade chairs.
If Syon is a treasure trove of history, its gardens are a natural wonder. Swans and peacocks stroll under ancient trees around a huge lake. As I walked through spring flowers, goslings spilled across my shoes and stopped to peck at invisible insects between my feet. Later, I savored the moment over a bowl of wild mushroom soup in Syon's cafe. A new cafe is scheduled to open this month. Syon House, Syon Park, Hounslow, TW8 8JF; 011-44-20-8560-0882, http://www.syonpark.co.uk .
Fulham PalaceANOTHER ecclesiastical residence — the former seat of the bishops of London — is Fulham Palace. The Putney Bridge stop on the District line of the London Underground is just across the street from the palace's extensive grounds, now under the care of the borough of Hammersmith & Fulham.
A palace stood on the spot as early as 1141; parts of the complex date to the early 13th century. But its most striking part is the Tudor quadrangle, four rows of buildings in patterned brick surrounding a cobbled courtyard. It was once renowned for having the longest moat in England — a mile long — but it was filled in during the 1920s.
Fulham was a quarrelsome place. Under the Catholic Mary I, the zealous Bishop Edmund Bonner tortured Protestant heretics in the great hall. About a decade later, Queen Elizabeth I visited the palace, but the visit was unsuccessful. When asked by the bishop whether she liked the view from the windows, she told him that the trees were in the way. Eager to please, the bishop had all the ancient elms cut down. Elizabeth was not amused when two of the bishop's servants made off with pieces of the royal plate and had to be tracked to London and arrested.
But Fulham is blessed with enthusiastic docents eager to tell the story of the palace to visitors. I went on a tour of the Tudor herb garden and learned about the beginnings of English medicine, distilled from plots of unimpressive, weedy-looking plants.
Each bishop of London seemed to detest the architectural pretensions of his predecessor and lost no time in tearing out former improvements and replacing them with his own. As a result, Fulham is an architectural patchwork. The original chapel was dismantled and reconstructed in the Tudor great hall, which then became a library. The chapel then was moved next to the bishop's dining room. Every room has served numerous purposes.
Fulham will change yet again, thanks to a recent $4.9-million grant that will help fund a restoration next year. Call ahead for hours.
Fulham Palace, Bishops Avenue, Fulham, London SW6 6EA; 011-44-20-7736-3233.
CharterhouseMY final stop on the Tudor trail was Charterhouse in northeastern London. It was an ancient Carthusian monastery dissolved by Henry VIII and converted into a Tudor townhouse. It's built around five quadrangles and resembles a mellow, stone Cambridge college plunked down in the heart of London. It has, as do nearly all Tudor destinations, an atmosphere thick with murder and menace.
Outside the main gate is a quiet square built atop a 14th century burial pit for plague victims, where recent excavations turned up the remains of a 12-year-old girl.
The gate itself is notorious: During the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII ordered the arm of the former prior nailed above it as a warning.
It was from Charterhouse on Jan. 15, 1559, that the young Elizabeth left for her coronation at Westminster Abbey. Two months before her death in 1603, she paid it a last, bittersweet visit.
Now it's a gentlemen's retirement home known as Sutton's Hospital; I joined a group of 20 people for a guided tour led by one of its jovial residents. We saw some of the cells used by the medieval monks, complete with food hatches and open drainage. They line a barrel-vaulted brick passage that looks as though it belongs in a Harry Potter movie. The roof of the passage, I learned, was added by the fourth Duke of Norfolk, a 16th century resident, to provide a covered way to his new tennis court. The tennis court is gone, as is the duke, who lost his head in a plot to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, and seize the English throne.
Charterhouse, Charterhouse Square, London EC1M 6AN; 011-44-20-7253-9503.
Susan James is author of "Kateryn Parr: The Making of a Queen."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times