a lost Tudor renaissance gem
Designed to be the grandest of all Henry VIII’s palaces – Nonsuch – so called as there was intended to be ‘none such’ like it.
Site Type = Palace
Key Finds = palace complex / artefacts / skeletons
Significance = Henry VIII’s grandest palace / a unique renaissance building
Location = Stoneleigh, Surrey
Date of Key Excavations = 1959-1960
Approximate Date Range = AD 1538 to AD 1683
Nonsuch, from the outset, was designed to rival the renaissance European palaces, especially of those in France, where taste and design had greatly outpaced ideas of architectural decadence to be found in England. Construction was started in 1538, but the building remained incomplete upon Henry’s death in 1547. Edward VI briefly used it, but Mary I sold if off in 1556, whereby it was finally finished off. Elizabeth I was the only Tudor to really utilized Nonsuch palace and stayed there on a number of occasions during her reign. It was briefly used by James I, before being sold off again by Charles II to his mistress Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, who had it stripped, pulled down and sold of piecemeal in 1683 to pay of her gambling debts.
Considering how well documented the history of the palace is, it is somewhat surprising that by 1950 no one quite knew where it was located, how substantial the building had been or even what it had looked like. A number of paintings had been attributed to being of Nonsuch, but without any other evidence, these claims were largely conjecture. Trench digging activity during World War II revealed pottery on the site where the palace sat. Aerial photography also picked up the outline of a large building complex in the same area.
Between 1959-60, a team from Cambridge University led my Martin Biddle, then an undergraduate, excavated the extensive palace complex. The excavation activities were national news and the excavations attracted over 75,000 visiting members of the public. When Graham Clarke, the Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge, visited the site, he remarked that he had never carried out an excavation on this scale.
The excavations unveiled the entire palace floor plan. It was discovered that the building had a similar layout to that of Hampton Court Palace, with two square courtyards, two gatehouses and a side kitchen. The biggest change was at the rear of the house, where there were two large ornate octagonal towers at each end of the building. It also revealed information about methods of construction. The palace was found to be built primary out of brick, stone and wood. There was found to be quite extensive usage of timber framed construction, especially of the upper floors and this was probably, at least in part, to speed up the building process. But perhaps the most significant archaeological find was just how small the building was; only about 2 acres in total. This was significantly smaller than most royal palaces in England at the time, making Nonsuch essentially a miniature palace. However, the layout may also suggest that it was never meant contend with the other larger palaces around England in the first place. The excavations confirmed that there was no chapel, no great hall and both the kitchens and larders were small. Documentation also revealed that during court visits, tents for the staff accommodation had to be pitched on site. So, Nonsuch was not a standard Tudor palace, instead it was a great many other things; a miniature fantasy palace, an architectural renaissance manifesto, a hunting lodge, a getaway retreat and perhaps even a nursery. Additionally, the floor plan discovered by the excavation meant that the supposed paintings and sketches of Nonsuch could be corroborated based on the layout and design of the floor plan. This means it could be concluded with some certainty how the unique style of the external building would have looked. The building was clad in and embellished with moulded stuccos, painted terracotta and painted panels. At the time, this style was the height of renaissance tastes and the overall effect would have made the look unparalleled anywhere else in England. Finally, the excavations unearthed a collection of skeletons, of which, to date, remarkably little research has been undertaken.
Dating the Site
The dating of the life of the building is well established as AD 1538 to AD 1683.
The site was significant due to its extravagance. It’s estimated cost is thought to have been around £24,000. Although this was only half the amount spent on Whitehall Palace, Nonsuch was less than ten times the size of Whitehall. In fact, the cost made the building the third most expensive building project (after Hampton Court Palace and Whitehall respectively) of Henry VIII’s reign (as well as the rest of the Tudors); which is evidence of its extravagance given its small size. Additionally, Nonsuch is one of the few buildings of Henry VIII’s where he was not geographically limited in his design (such as on confined plots built on in London) or did not involve some form of adaptation of an pre-existing structure. This means its design and execution is evidence of one of the few undiluted projects of Henry VIII, a building which also happens to be his final and grandest of palaces. Also, though many renaissance features and styles had previously been incorporated into buildings in England, the ambition of Nonsuch as a the perfect renaissance palace was truly groundbreaking for England. The rich ornamentation and humanistic elements on such a large and extravagant scale made the building unique. Finally, the excavation itself was a revolutionary for post-medieval archaeology and led to major developments in the this field.
Where Can I Find This Now?
Today, remains of the site at Nonsuch Park cannot be seen above ground; although its location is marked out by a few obiliscs. However, the Friends of Nonsuch society do have a small museum dedicated to Nonsuch Palace in the neighbouring building of Nonsuch Mansion (although they have limited opening hours). The artefacts from the excavation are housed at both the British Museum and the University of Cambridge. The skeletal collection is also held by the University of Cambridge in the Duckworth Collection.
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Current Archaeology magazine – Issue 261 – ‘Nonsuch Palace’ – by Andrew Selkirk – https://reader.exacteditions.com/issues/52812/thumbs