Saturday, 3 April 2021

Henry VIII's Lost Palace: Nonsuch

In 1538, Henry VIII began construction of a large palace on some 700 acres of royal land between Cheam and Ewell in Surrey. (Image: portrait after Hans Holbein the Younger)

Henry built the palace to celebrate the birth of a male heir, the future Edward VI. In his long quest for this son, he had broken with the Church of Rome, divorced one wife, and beheaded another. His third wife, Jane Seymour, died giving birth to Edward.

His dynasty now secure (he thought) he wanted to celebrate, show off his wealth and power, and add another hunting lodge to his collection. But not just another lodge. A lodge fit for a great king, as he saw himself. 

Henry named the palace Nonsuch, he said, because there would be nothing else like it. A foreign visitor is said to have written "This which no equal has in art or fame, Britons deservedly do Nonsuch name." It sounds like Henry may have paid him to write that. Building the Palace consumed a vast proportion of the royal budget. It was not completely finished when Henry died in 1547. 

The land is now a public park named for the palace. A visitor to Nonsuch Park today would find little evidence that a massive, ornate Tudor palace once stood there. All that is left is part of the foundations. 

In one of history's great blunders, King Charles II gave Nonsuch Palace to his mistress, The Duchess of Cleveland, in 1670. With his permission, she had it demolished twelve years later, selling off parts of it to pay off gambling debts. 

Only a few paintings and drawings exist to give us an idea of what Nonsuch Palace looked like. The first image below is a watercolor done in the late 1560s. The others are paintings from around 1600.

About ten years ago, Ben Taggart created a model of what Nonsuch Palace is believed to have looked like. His model was based on the work of an archaeologist begun in 1959.

Although the Palace is long gone, a large house can be visited in Nonsuch Park. It is called Nonsuch Mansion, and is sometimes mistakenly labeled in photos as "Nonsuch Palace"
The Mansion was built between 1731 and 1743 by Joseph Thompson. 

Samuel Farmer bought the house in 1799 and employed Jeffrey Wyattville to enlarge and rebuild it in the Tudor Gothic style. It incorporates some details and a block of stone from Henry VIII's demolished Palace. The stone is inscribed "1543 Henry VIII in the 35th year of his reign." (English translation from Latin). 

In 1937 the Farmer family sold Nonsuch Mansion to the local authorities of Sutton Borough and the Borough of Epsom and Ewell. It is normally open to visitors and has been used as a wedding venue. In this abnormal year of the Covid-19 pandemic it has been serving as a vaccination center for the local area. 

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