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Palaces, plots and the power of architecture to intrigue

Will Wiles

The more Will Wiles thinks about ‘palace intrigue’, the more significant he finds the way architecture lends its language to suspicious manoeuvrings

The grand walking and talking spaces of Hatfield House.
The grand walking and talking spaces of Hatfield House. Credit: Hatfield House

The word ‘palace’ derives from the Palatine Hill in Rome, site of the emperor’s mansions. While the garden setting of Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey was not obviously palatial, it was somewhat palatine, with vine-tangled columns and Mediterranean sunshine. What the press, foreign and domestic, agreed, was that it was rich in ‘palace intrigue’. 

During the inescapable rumpus which surrounded the interview, that cliché bounced around in my head. Cliché is, generally, a substitute for thought, a worn-out expression that doesn’t require any new brain activity. The words ‘palace’ and ‘intrigue’ are locked together so often that one now adds very little to the other. But let’s give ‘palace intrigue’ some attention. Behind the staleness of familiarity, there is still something, well, intriguing, about it – a suggestion of teetering thrones, scheming regents, grand viziers with ambitions of their own. It is naturally fascinating because it is grounded in secrecy, a world of private agendas hidden away from the rest of us. That secrecy is spatial, contained within architecture built to enable it. The palace provides the intrigue. 

Around the time of the interview, my household was obtaining its RDA of palace intrigue from The Great, season one of which has just concluded on Channel Four. This heavily fictionalised rendition of the rise to power of Catherine the Great falls roughly midway between Game of Thrones and The Crown in terms of realism, all conducted in the numbingly vast but also stifling environment of the 18th-century Russian court. The baroque megastructure of the Bourbon palace of Caserta in southern Italy stands in for Tsarskoye Selo, providing flashes of Piranesian grandeur. But a lot of the intriguing is done on the hoof, obeying the West Wing principle that if your show has to be dialogue-heavy, it’s best that the characters walk and talk as much as possible, to prevent things getting too static. So we also spend a good deal of time going up and down the Long Gallery of Hatfield House. 

This ambulatory mode of intrigue has advantages. It is harder to discreetly overhear a conversation that is on the move. ‘Walls have ears’, another intriguingly architectural figure of speech, might have originated in the Louvre of Catherine de Medici, where discussions in certain rooms were audible from others, possibly by design. Architecturally facilitated eavesdropping – but then the very term ‘eavesdropping’ is architectural, describing a spy pressed into the strip of ground sheltered by overhanging eaves, the eaves-drop, to hear what is said within a house. 

Walls have ears, halls less so. In his fascinating architectural history Corridors, professor Roger Luckhurst points to Blenheim Palace as having the first identified corridor in English architecture. They were an organisational revolution, allowing longer, grander facades, simplifying spatial organisation and opening up new and impressive internal vistas. They pierced the ‘cluttered manoeuvring through successive rooms’, allowing rapid, direct communication and clear hierarchies. It embodied early modernity: rational, and autocratic. 

The corridor might have enabled rulership, and had advantages for plotters, but it is it intriguing? Less so, I would suggest, than the enfilade and the succession of rooms, with its miniature power-plays of admission and exclusion – the awful regime hilariously depicted in the 1996 Patrice Leconte film Ridicule, where characters are kept waiting for a royal audience, in a room away from power, playing savage little games with each other. Royal cultures globally have developed surprisingly similar spaces for this careful mediation between the public world of the kingdom and the private, powerful world of the king. Jeroen Duindam’s book Dynasties: A Global History of Power 1300-1800 contains numerous floor plans of palaces from China to Cameroon, each showing this careful separation and organisation of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ via systems of courts, chambers, antechambers and so on. This is often a reflection of cosmology, and the separation of the holy and worldly, sacred and profane; but at heart it is also a spectacularly enlarged version of the normal home, with its public face and private core. So palace intrigue is domestic drama by another name. Alan Bennett once said that all families have a secret, and that secret is that they are not like other families. Perhaps the secret of all royal families is the fact that they are like other families. 

Will Wiles is a writer



In ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, Edgar Allan Poe twists the corridor and the enfilade together to depict the depravity of wicked Prince Prospero. The rooms in which the prince parties while his subjects die of plague are an enfilade, but a zig-zagging and kinked one; they are flanked by corridors, and it is from those corridors that the only light is cast, through windows of coloured glass. Now that’s intriguing.