Henry VIII's lost Nonsuch Palace in Cheam
When Henry VIII wanted an architectural symbol to celebrate the Tudor dynasty, flaunt his power and outshine Francis I of France and Fontainebleu, the result was a building that dazzled all who saw it
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine in July 2006
When Henry VIII wanted an architectural symbol to celebrate the Tudor dynasty, flaunt his power and outshine Francis I of France and Fontainebleu, the result was a building that dazzled all who saw it. Jane Garrett finds none such to compare to Nonsuch Palace in Cheam
Photo: Detail of Nonsuch Palace by George Hoefnagle, 1582 (Surrey History Centre)
Nonsuch Palace, once one of the architectural wonders of the Western World, was razed to the ground more than 300 years ago. No interesting ruins, no visitor centre. This unique outpouring of Tudor opulence, literally there was ‘none such’, was most efficiently erased from the face of the earth.
Its park between Cheam and Ewell Village is now just an inviting dog romp of rough grass, an avenue of horse chestnuts leading past an unassuming stone obelisk. That obelisk is it, the site marker.
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Disassembled, but not totally destroyed, however. In Cheam and Loseley Park, Epsom and Ewell, probably scattered the length and breadth of Surrey, are the cannibalised fragments of Nonsuch. Rumours and folk tales abound. It lives on in countless buildings, recycled as foundations, cornerstones, stucco decorations. Stone was valuable and it was at least secondhand when used to build the palace in 1538. Much of it had been robbed from Merton Priory after Henry VIII dissolved it, as well as taken from Cuddington Church which had to be demolished to make way for the palace.
Also keeping the idea of the palace alive in people’s imagination were the contemporary drawings, paintings and prints. They are tantalisingly unreal, with fairytale clusters of turrets, carvings and onion domes. Nonsuch is elusive, surrounded in myth. It was a fantasy turned into stone and then back into fantasy, so frustrating that in the late 1950s John Dent, a local historian, and Martin Biddle, a Cambridge student, independently tried to work out the exact location of the palace within the park. There was no magnetic resistance imaging to speed things up in those days.
Their curiosity resulted in a major excavation which set the benchmark for public archaeology and launched an entirely new field of post medieval archaeology. The volunteer team of diggers, guides, museum attendants and receptionists became so hooked on Nonsuch that they formed a society.
The excavation revealed the foundations which enabled the drawings to be fleshed out into actual dimensions and floor plans. Technology, though, has moved on and Nonsuch has now entered a new fantasy world, the computer world of virtual reality. An interactive computer model can be seen at Epsom and Ewell Local and Family History Centre in the library at Bourne Hall in Ewell Village.
The model project for Bourne Hall Museum, involving engineers WS Atkins, began eight years ago but ran into funding problems. It was revived this year with a Surrey
County Council grant and money from private sponsors, enabling the team to complete the project. It was a tall order: a computer-generated, three-dimensional palace, based on just three artistic impressions of different views drawn over 144 years, the floor plan from the 1959 excavation and a few lumps of masonry.
Viewers can pass through an avenue of trees to the palace and skirt round the bowling green in front of the main door. The viewpoint can then be rotated through 360 degrees and elevated for a bird’s eye view.
But why go to such lengths to bring an old Tudor building back to life? Because Nonsuch Palace was unique.
When Henry VIII sired a male heir, Edward, he wanted an architectural symbol to celebrate the Tudor dynasty, flaunt his power and outshine Francis I of France and Fontainebleu. The result was a building that dazzled all who saw it.
Built around two courtyards, it was covered inside and out with massive quantities of stucco carvings. There were two octagonal towers topped by a mass of pinnacles and oriental looking onion domes. The inner court was where the political message of Tudor power was rammed home. It had a King’s side and a Queen’s side with fountains, statuary and carvings and three tiers of alto-relievo plaster sculptures. Around the top of the courtyard were 30 three-quarter life-size sculptures of Roman emperors framed in carved and gilded slate panels. The centre point was a statue of Henry and Edward. In all there was around 900ft of stucco decoration. It must have been overwhelming.
And over the top? Tasteless? A maintenance engineer’s worst nightmare? Quite possibly. There appears to have been no attempt to rescue all this artwork for its own sake once the demolition began, though 17th Century diarist John Evelyn admired the carvings and commented that the plasterwork would have been better preserved indoors than on the exterior walls. Pepys was another admiring visitor who was saddened by its fall into decay.
The heyday of Nonsuch was the reign of Queen Elizabeth but it was passed back and forth between nobility and royalty and ended up an unwanted drain on the expenses of Barbara Villiers, Charles II’s mistress. She sought permission to demolish it in 1682, in order to settle gambling debts.
Its architecture was considered old fashioned and medieval by then so the building itself never set a trend, even though the top craftsmen, including the famous Nicholas Bellin of Modena, worked on its decoration. Its garden design however, was another matter.
Nonsuch had the first Italian garden in 16th century England, thanks to the influence of John, Lord Lumley, son-in-law of the Earl of Arundel who had bought the palace from Queen Mary in 1556. He had seen the new architectural garden designs on his travels. Parterres, geometric design, sculptures, topiary and water features were all introduced.
Evelyn was also influenced by the Italian style and copied it at his home at Wotton House and in Albury. They can still be admired and the style was subsequently developed at Claremont and Painshill Park but poor Nonsuch, no traces of the privy garden, grove of Diana, tree-lined walks, surprise fountains and sports pitches survive.