Nonsuch Palace

Nonsuch Palace is a former 16th-century English royal palace, built by Henry VIII between 1538 and 1547 on the site of the village of Cuddington, near Ewell (Surrey).

Nonsuch Palace, Watercolour

Nonsuch Palace Buildings

Construction of the Nonsuch Palace began on 22 April 1538, on the anniversary of Henry’s accession. The intention to create a nonpareil was there from the start, for the name first appears in the building accounts in June 1538. Although the main structure was complete by 1541, decoration continued until at least 1545.

The palace was built around two courtyards, the inner one timber-framed to hold the long sequences of external decorations for which Nonsuch was renowned.

The decorative scheme, composed of panels of stucco duro set between the wall timbers and framed by borders of carved, gilded slate covering the timbers, extended over the four interior walls, rising from the first floor, where the royal apartments were, to a height of c. 5.5 m.

It continued on the east, south, and west walls facing the garden, rising c. 9 m from ground level to the eaves; on the angle towers it reached a height of 18.3 m. The whole decorative scheme was thus around 274 m long, with a minimum average height of 7.5 m, and covered a surface of c. 2055 sq. m.

The garden fronts, especially the south front, are well recorded in a drawing by Joris Hoefnagel and in a view on John Speed’s map of Surrey (1610) but were never described; it is known only that they contained stuccos of scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The stuccos around the inner court, however, which are merely glimpsed over the roofs of the south front on Speed’s view, are recorded in several descriptions.

The decorations were arranged in three registers, the subjects reflecting the division of the inner court between the king’s side (west) and the queen’s side (east). The uppermost register depicted 32 Roman emperors.

The middle register contained 16 gods on the king’s side and 16 goddesses on the queen’s side. The lower register displayed 16 deeds from the Life of Hercules on the king’s side and the Liberal Arts and Virtues (16 personifications each with a representative, e.g. Justice with Aristides) on the queen’s side.

Thus, looking from the center of the south side of the court, there was a scene that was at once didactic (designed to teach Henry VIII’s young son Prince Edward the duties of a Christian prince), an apotheosis (placing Tudor king and prince among gods and heroes) and tutelary (invoking divine protection of the dynasty).

It was the single greatest work of artistic propaganda ever created in England and was inspired by the birth of Prince Edward (1537).

The decorations were probably designed by Nicholas Bellin from Modena, who, with his company, undertook the carving and gilding of the slate borders. The stuccowork was executed from at least 1541 to 1544 by Kendall (possibly one William Kendall) and his company and from 1544 to at least 1545 by Giles Gering, an otherwise unknown foreigner.

The program was probably devised by Henry VIII himself, assisted by the leading intellectuals of his court, but intensive research has not recovered the sources of much of the program or even of many of the mottoes that identified some of the figures.

When Henry VIII died (1547) the building was nearing completion and was finished by Henry Fitzaltan, 12th Earl of Arundel, after 1556. Nonsuch was demolished in 1682–3 and excavated in 1959. Spolia from Nonsuch was used to build Durdans Palace (1682–1688; destr. 18th century), Surrey.

Nonsuch Park Visitor Information

The few remains of the palace can be found in Nonsuch Park. Here is the main page where you can find more information about visiting and events.

Nonsuch Palace Gardens

Nonsuch Palace by Flemish School 15th-16th century

Nonsuch was set within its own Little Park (671 acres), with a Great Park (1000 acres) to the north, both ready to be stocked with deer by November 1538. Within the Little Park a brick wall, probably built 1538–1547, enclosed the palace, the privy garden, the maze, orchard, and kitchen garden.

A fenced wilderness led west towards a banqueting house (destroyed in 1667) around 274 m away on a low hill overlooking the palace. This was a two-story building set on a raised platform, and its balconies enjoyed distant views. Henry VIII probably created all this in 1538–1547.

The terracing of the site into a gentle slope was an essential preliminary that also created the level parterre of the privy garden on the west, south, and east sides of the inner court and probably the broad, level plain of the wilderness. There may have been an approach from the palace across the wilderness to the banqueting house.

The only written evidence of Henry’s gardening records the planting of 200 pear trees from France under the care of Guillaume de Dieppe in the 1540s. The Italianate garden ornaments, by contrast, were probably mostly acquired by John Lumley, 1st Baron Lumley, who owned Nonsuch from 1580, and were presumably installed before 1592, when Nonsuch reverted to the Crown.

Most information concerning the gardens is derived from travelers’ accounts and other descriptions (1590–1645), from the Red Velvet Book, and from Speed’s view. The gardens then described were mainly the matured result of Henry VIII’s efforts.

The privy garden was laid out in ‘several alleys quarters and rounds set about with thorne hedges’ in geometrical relationship to the palace behind it.

There were fruit trees around the walls and wooden porches, and at the intersections of the paths and beside the towers were a series of marble ornaments (around 1580–1590), including the so-called Venus Fountain at the central intersection. Set about the privy garden and in the wilderness were a variety of stone animals.

The wilderness was divided by broad sanded walks, which led through a dense wood; the central walk provided a vista towards the banqueting house. Parts of the walks were boarded and partitioned off for ball games. Some of the trees were trimmed and trained, both for shelter and as topiary, and among the trees were wire-netted aviaries.

In the hillside below the banqueting house lay the Grove of Diana, a wood that was presumably created by Lumley during the 1580s since it displayed his arms. It was intended to recreate the Vale of Gargaphy, and there were statues depicting the story of Diana and Actaeon in a grotto and fountain.

Nearby was a vaulted, presumably classical temple, perhaps a rotunda, with verses and maxims in Latin and English. Other features included an arch and a small banqueting house, as well as trick devices.

In 1665 Samuel Pepys ‘walked in the ruined garden’, which was probably destroyed by the palace. The garden ornaments (untraced) may have been removed to Durdans Palace, the seat of George, Lord Berkeley, the last Keeper of Nonsuch (from 1660).

Nonsuch Park Map

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