Henry VIII's Surrey: Hampton Court to Nonsuch Palace

Hampton Court Palace in East Molesey, which was once in the historic county of Surrey

Hampton Court Palace in East Molesey, which was once in the historic county of Surrey but is now considered to be in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames - Credit: Ollie Craig / Pexels

It has been more than 500 years since Henry VIII was crowned king, and over the last few years, countless documentaries have been picking apart the man, the myth and the legend - but what of his legacy a little closer to home?

Here, MATTHEW WILLIAMS looks at the impact of history's favourite tyrant on Surrey

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2009


Five hundred years ago, a strapping 18-year-old with big ideas sat down on the throne at Westminster Abbey after being crowned king at Richmond Palace. On June 24, Henry VIII began his reign unaware that during his 36 years in power he would go on to become one of history's favourite tyrants - an oft-told tale of deception, divorce and death.

He left his imprint firmly on England's landscape, influencing both culture and religion - and Surrey was to change drastically too during his reign, which was centred largely on Hampton Court Palace in East Molesey.

By the time of his death in 1547, Henry VIII had at least five royal palaces in Tudor Surrey. "Buildings express your power: it's as if you are there, even when you are not," says Kent Rawlinson, curator of historic buildings at Historic Royal Palaces, which looks after Hampton Court. "So by having this complex of palaces, he was ever-present.

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"Though most kings had always built and built dramatically, Henry did it continuously throughout his reign and on a scale that had never been seen before - partly because he had resources that no other king ever had, largely due to the dissolution of the monasteries." While it was at Richmond Palace, which was sold off as raw materials after the death of Charles I in 1649, that Henry was proclaimed king, his most famous residence was undoubtedly Hampton Court - and, to celebrate the 500th anniversary, the past few years have seen the palace undergo extensive restoration work to return it to something close to what it would have been like during Henry's years.

Pieces of the puzzle

"We have been going back to as many sources, historic images, plans and other similar evidence, to piece it all together," says Kent. "Obviously, these tend to be interpretations and often just ideas, so you have to be careful. But there are over 6,000 building accounts for Henry's palaces as well, so we have been looking at those - it can be quite a detective exercise.

"So, for example, Base Court, the central courtyard, now gives visitors an idea of what it would have been like to arrive at King Henry's court." While people often consider footballers' wives-style garishness to be a modern phenomenon, Henry's Hampton Court would have had the bricks and mortar painted red and white respectively; while inside there wouldn't so much have been a colour scheme as a motley palette of the bold, the bright and the grandiose, all making a very obvious statement: I've arrived, look at me, see how wealthy and powerful I am.

There's a tapestry worth almost as much as the crown jewels and Henry even had a giant clock - recently restored to its former glory - devised by the scientific leaders of the day. One of the most remarkable feats of engineering that has survived, it didn't just tell the time: you could tell the tides, the day of the year, what quarter the moon was in - perfect if you happened to be sailing past along the much-travelled Thames with your goods.

"Around Henry's time, there was an unbelievable difference between the kind of buildings normal people would live in, which were timber frame, and buildings like this that used materials that were just not widely available," says Kent. "Brick at the time was a really high-status material. What you tend to find in the surrounding areas is the gentry - the people at court or those who aspire to be at court but aren't - starting to build houses in brick near to the palaces and often trying to emulate the king's style."

"He was very hands-on in the design of the buildings, too, and used to travel around to see the work taking place. There's a story I love about the carpenters working on Hampton Court's roof being paid overtime and being given candles, so that they could work at night, to make sure things were ready by the time Henry arrived."

It wasn't just at Hampton Court, however, that Henry left his mark. For Nonsuch Palace in Ewell, which is sadly no more, he literally moved a village and even landscaped the area so that the palace was perfectly situated. Grand designs indeed. After all that effort, Henry only ever visited for two weeks at a time. His presence was certainly felt, however, and the village of Cuddington was no more.

Nonsuch Palace as seen in a hand-coloured engraving from Braun and Hogenberg's Civitates Orbis Terrarum, 1582

Nonsuch Palace as seen in a hand-coloured engraving from Braun and Hogenberg's Civitates Orbis Terrarum, 1582 - Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By 1682, neither was Nonsuch as it was demolished - an unfortunate loss for Surrey's tourism trade today, no doubt, as this palace was said to be his most extravagant work. Much of Henry's architectural legacy has gone the same way, largely because the estate he left behind was so big it was almost impossible to maintain.

His daughter, Elizabeth I, gave away many of his houses to leading nobles, while others fell into disrepair. "Woking was a favourite residence of the Tudors and Henry continued the extension and enlargement of Woking Palace during his years," says Philip Arnold, local historian and until last year chairman of the Friends of Woking Palace.

"Since the king was often there, anybody who was anybody at court had lodgings at the palace." Following Henry's death, however, the palace was seldom visited by royalty and building work was largely restricted to repairs. In 1620, James I granted the manor, including the palace, to Sir Edward Zouch.

The palace now being in disrepair, Sir Edward soon abandoned it and built himself a new manor house at nearby Hoe Place. There is evidence that some of the materials from the palace were reused in the construction of the new house. It's also possible that some of the fine glass at Sutton Place was taken from the palace.

"The only remaining structures on the site are the sarsen stone-built barrel vault and the adjacent Tudor brick remains of the King's Hall, the latter begun by Henry VII in 1508. At least two houses in the village have reused wood and brick probably taken from the palace, namely the Old House and the Old Manor House. We are hoping to make a further archaeological investigation of the site later this year."

Henry's palaces weren't the only buildings that eventually ended up as piles of rubble across the Surrey countryside. Chertsey Abbey suffered its final demise during his reign, when on July 6, 1537, it was surrendered as part of the dissolution. The abbey and its orchards were demolished and stripped by the king to construct Oatlands Palace near Weybridge. Any remaining stone was taken to pave the streets of Chertsey and other local villages. "It is argued that Oatlands Palace in Weybridge was primarily the queen's palace, with Hampton Court the king's palace and Nonsuch the prince's palace," says archaeological unit manager at the Surrey History Centre, Rob Poulton, who is publishing a book on Oatlands Palace with Alan Cook and Simon Thurley of English Heritage.

"Henry VIII and his queens made considerable use of Oatlands, and so did subsequent monarchs, although excavations revealed little of their building activities. The demolition of 1650 was very thorough, leaving only part of an outer court wall standing. The contents of a series of garderobes, containing material of the 1640s, were sealed by demolition rubble, and these groups form the most interesting of the finds from the excavations."

The palace's main contribution to life in Surrey as we know it now was when, on its demolition in 1650, its bricks were used to line the lock walls of the new Wey Navigation, near Guildford. Today, Oatlands Park Hotel stands on the site of the former palace. A lasting legacy While Hampton Court Palace remains the obvious pointer to the great king's presence in Surrey, his legacy is left mostly among the more subtle landmarks of ruins and in the county's much-loved parks and greenery.

In later life, Surrey became a key base for the king's favourite occupation of stag-hunting. He acquired the manors adjoining Hampton Court, which included Esher, the Waltons, Oatlands and Byfleet, and converted the land lying south of the Thames into a fenced-off forest, to be known as the Hampton Court Chase, for the 'nourishing, generation, and feeding of beasts of venery, and fowls of warren'. This was reserved specifically for the king's sport and pleasure. The Act setting up the Chase has never been rescinded so, technically, the area remains to this day a royal forest, although of course much changed.

While stags remain very much icons of Surrey, in the likes of Bushy and Richmond parks, you do wonder what people's perception of the county might be if palaces such as Nonsuch, Oatlands and Woking had survived today. 

Henry VIII's Surrey: further kingly connections

Banstead: Henry VIII made Banstead part of Catherine of Aragon's dowry but took it away again and gave it to court favourite, Sir Nicholas Carew, who then fell out of favour and was beheaded for treason.

Chertsey: Chertsey Abbey suffered its final demise during the reign of Henry VIII, when on 6 July 1537 it was surrendered as part of the dissolution. The Abbey and its orchards were demolished and stripped by the King to construct Oatlands Palace near Weybridge.

Chobham: Chobham Park first appears in the records in 1535 when Henry VIII purchased it from the Abbot of Chertsey.

Croydon: Anne Boleyn was courted by Henry VIII in Addington. Tradition has it that Henry's courting of his future queen took place in an underground passage leading from Addington to Wickham Court, where Anne was living.

Guildford: In 1528 Henry VIII had a 'house of honour' built in the grounds of the Friary, which he then closed in1538 in the Dissolution of the monasteries. He then built himself a hunting lodge within the precincts. The treaty with Scotland was ratified at the house of the Blackfriars, Guildford, on 2 August 1534.

Reigate: After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1535 Reigate Priory was granted by Henry VIII to Lord Howard of Effingham who then converted the Priory into a residence.

Richmond: King Henry VIII's Mound is the highest point within the Royal Park at Richmond.

Walton: In 1583 Walton, like the rest of the neighbourhood, was incorporated with Henry VIII's Chase of Hampton Court. Although the village was outside the park fence, local cultivation suffered and everybody was inconvenienced.

Waverley: Materials from Waverley Abbey were used in the building of Loseley House in Guildford.


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