Curating the Crown: Tracy Borman’s insider’s guide to London

Kensington Palace gardens. Credit: Zoonar GMBH/Alamy

Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, Tracy Borman shares the highlights of the job and reveals her favourite haunts

Author of biographies on Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Thomas Cromwell, as well as the fictional The King’s Witch trilogy, Tracy Borman is a historical force to be reckoned with. She is possibly one of the most well-read guides to the capital that we have ever presented in our pages, and even after decades of writing and rifling through books and sources, her curiosity remains unsated. Here, we pique yours with some of Tracy’s favourite anecdotes and nuggets of advice for a trip from Tudor through to modern-day London.

Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, Tracy Borman. Credit: Richard Lea-Hair/Historic Royal Palaces

What has been the highlight of your time as joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces?

There have been so many! It’s a close-run thing, but meeting the Duchess of Cambridge when she came to open the Magic Garden at Hampton Court Palace was probably the most memorable and special, particularly as my daughter presented her with a bouquet. The Duchess was so lovely and I chatted to her for a long time – I took about a million photos and have dined out on it ever since!

What are you working on right now?

Just before lockdown, we were in the middle of installing a truly dazzling new exhibition at Hampton Court Palace, Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King, to mark the 500th anniversary of their famous meeting known as the Field of Cloth of Gold. Although it masqueraded as an expression of peace between these two rival kings, it was really a battle of the bling as each tried to outdo the other in splendour and magnificence. The exhibition will bring together a host of treasures from 1520, with gold aplenty (of course), and is now scheduled to open in May 2021.

As Historic Royal Palaces is an independent charity, we really rely on the income from visitors to help us care for these incredible buildings, and to put on exhibitions and activities like this. 2020 hit us hard, so I really hope that readers will consider paying us a visit in the coming year!

The white tower and castle walls of the Tower of London. Credit: Eye35/Alamy

What is the most unusual object you’ve curated at the Palaces?

It has to be the Bacton Altar Cloth – otherwise known as the lost dress of Queen Elizabeth I. I first discovered it while researching my book, Elizabeth’s Women, back in 2008. I was visiting a church in Bacton, a beautiful and remote village in Herefordshire, to see a monument to Blanche Parry, Elizabeth’s favourite lady-in-waiting, when I saw this exquisite piece of embroidery in a glass case on the wall. The label just said ‘Altar cloth, c.16th century’.

I didn’t think too much more about it until years later my colleague, dress curator Eleri Lynn, visited the church and her jaw hit the floor when she saw the embroidery. She knew at once it was something special and arranged for it to be loaned to Historic Royal Palaces so that it could be conserved.

As soon as they took it out of the case, they realised it was no altar cloth but a dress – and a very high status one at that. Painstaking investigation by Eleri has provided compelling evidence that it is the only surviving dress from Elizabeth’s extensive wardrobe (which comprised 1,900 dresses by the time of her death) and that it was probably given to the church in memory of Blanche. It was the discovery of a lifetime and drew the crowds when we put it on display at Hampton Court Palace in 2019.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Trying to be in six different places at once! I’ve managed to attend meetings at three of our palaces on the same day, but all six might be a tall order – especially as one of them is the beautiful Hillsborough Castle and Gardens in Northern Ireland. But since lockdown, we have all had to get very savvy with online meetings, so I don’t do much palace-hopping these days. I must admit, I really miss it.

What is the strangest thing you’ve ever been asked?

Why Henry VIII built Hampton Court Palace on a flight path.

The Cupola Room at Kensington Palace. Credit: Adam Gray/SWNS.com

What is your favourite anecdote about The Tower of London?

Researching my book, The Story of the Tower of London, was a constant source of surprise, fascination and – at times – horror. So many pivotal events have taken place there in its 1,000-history that it felt like writing the history of Britain, not just the Tower. Because of its key roles as a fortress and prison, I’m afraid not many of the stories have a happy ending. But one close to my heart does: I got married there five years ago, in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, originally built by Henry VIII and the final resting place of two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, as well as former favourites such as Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. Not the most romantic place to get married, perhaps, but for a Tudor historian like myself it was a dream come true.

Tell us a grisly tale from the Tower of London archives.

The one that stands out is the execution of poor old Lady Margaret Pole. Imprisoned by Henry VIII because of her royal blood, she languished in the Tower of London for two and a half years before finally being sent to her death. This indomitable 67-year-old protested her innocence to the end and refused to lay her head on the block. It is said that it took the bungling executioner 17 blows of the axe to sever her head.

This is an extract of an article printed in the latest issue of BRITAIN (May/June 2021).
To read the full feature, you can buy the issue here, or subscribe online to have every issue delivered right to your door.