In Secret’s of Henry VIII’s Palace: Hampton Court, it is claimed that little painted figures of human faces carved into the ornate ceiling beams of Hampton Palace as though surreptitiously observing the people below inspired the term “eavesdroppers” — uninvited listeners to other people’s conversations whether for (sick) pleasure or intrigue.
Heaven knows there was no shortness of intrigue in Henry VIII’s court. In fact, Hampton Court became the Royal Court because of political intrigue.
Thomas Wolsey, cardinal of the Catholic Church, was appointed to Henry VIII’s Privy Council and, being a wily politician who knew just how to win the king’s favor, soon became Chief Minister, and gained influence and wealth.
The site where Hampton Court is today used to be the property of the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, a medieval military Catholic order. Wolsey took over the property in 1514 and started building lavishly. By 1525 when the construction work was completed, Henry and his court stayed at Hampton Court as its… ummm… permanent guests.
By 1528, Wolsey’s power was going nowhere fast. He had been unable to broker the divorce that Henry desperately wanted to cast aside the Queen, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, who had been unable to bear him a son (well, there were actually three sons — one died in infancy and the two were stillborn) and marry Anne Boleyn. To appease the king for his failure, Wolsey gave Hampton Court to Henry as a gift.
Henry started expanding Hampton Court. The Great Hall where on-looking figures on the ceiling were incorporated was built between 1532 and 1535.
According to linguist Karen Stollznow:
“Eavesdropper” comes from the Old English yfesdrype, that meant, “place around the house where the rainwater drips off the roof.” The word appears around the 1500s as a name for people who lurked under the eaves of a house to overhear what’s going on inside. The verb form, to “eavesdrop”, didn’t appear until a century later, and is a shortening of “eavesdropper.”
So, usage of the word “eavesdropper” coincides with the building of the Great Hall at Hampton Court.
The thing is, in architecture, eaves are overhangs outside the house or building. So, whoever coined the term “eavesdroppers” may have done so as a misunderstanding of the difference between eaves, located outside, and ceiling beams which are inside the house or building.
Obviously, whoever started using the term “eavesdropper” to refer to the figures in the Great Hall of Hampton Court did not know the difference between ceiling beams and eaves. Admittedly, “eavesdropper” sounds better and more intriguing than something like “ceiling popper”, but still…
If unwanted listeners positioned themselves on the eaves, they’d be standing on nothing — they’d be floating on air to stay where they are to do their listening. That would make them ghosts, not humans. Or, perhaps, vampires like Danny Glick in that hair-raising scene when he flew up to his brother’s bedroom window in Salem’s Lot.