Search site

Nonsuch Palace

Nonsuch was Henry VIII's last and most fantastic palace.

It stood on the west side of Nonsuch Park and is often confused with Nonsuch Mansion on the east side of the park. The Palace was begun on the 22 April 1538, at the start of the 30th year of Henry's reign, and six months after the birth of his son, the male heir that he had so long desired and believed that he needed to secure the future of the Tudor dynasty. The palace was intended as a triumphal celebration of the power and the grandeur of Henry VIII and the Tudor dynasty, but it was also a product of the difficulties and insecurities of the reign, which Henry believed were now resolved.

The overall plan of Nonsuch Palace was not untypical of a large house of the period, despite the unique nature of the building. It was arranged around two main courtyards. The outer one was built of brick and stone, with a turreted gatehouse in typical late mediaeval style, exhibiting nothing to the approaching visitor that was new or exciting. This reflected its function, for it was lined with lodgings for important members of the household rather than the king. Only when the visitor crossed the courtyard and climbed the eight steps of the inner gatehouse, and looked through the archway, did he suddenly find himself, as did Anthony Watson, Rector of Cheam, writing c1582-92 "surrounded by huge figures of gods and goddesses gleaming white, ... so moulded that they seemed to be leaping off the walls" towards him. "Each one stood in a golden frame that shone so brightly in the sun that it looked as though the Palace was on fire..." (original in Latin, translation as quoted by Lalage Lister Nonsuch: Pearl of the Realm. 1992).

The courtyard walls of this inner court, on the ground floor, were of stone, but the rest was a timber-framed structure, supporting the stucco panels moulded in high relief, with the timbers covered with carved and gilded slate. The royal apartments were behind the stucco on the first floor of this court, divided into the King's side, to the west, and the Queen's side, to the east; each side ending to the south in a great octagonal tower, five storeys high, still covered with the relief stuccoes and golden slate. This was, at the least, one of the most extraordinary buildings in 16th century Europe.

Nonsuch Palace was substantially complete when Henry died in January 1547. The Palace remained in royal hands under Edward VI, but in 1556 Queen Mary sold it to Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel. He may have been responsible for completing the work and for laying out the gardens. He died in 1580, and left the Palace to his son-in-law, John, Lord Lumley, who was a great collector and built a major library in the palace and also had a large collection of paintings. He made an major additions to the garden, which was one of the most important in Elizabethan England. Lumley was forced to sell the palace to Queen Elizabeth to settle a debt.

James I inherited the palace on Elizabeth's death in 1603. He granted it to his queen, Anne of Denmark, and the palace was also used as a residence by his son Henry, Prince of Wales. When Charles I came to the throne in 1625, he again gave the palace to his wife, Henrietta Maria. His reign ended in the Civil War, which saw a skirmish between Royalists and Roundheads near the Banqueting House and the occupation of the palace by the victorious Parliamentary force. After the Civil War, Parliament sold the palace but when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 the palace returned to Henrietta Maria. She died, in 1669, Charles II gave the palace to his former favourite mistress, Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine in 1670. By 1679 had gambled herself badly into debt and in 1682 Charles II allowed her to demolish the building and sell the materials to raise money. She was also allowed, probably much more profitably, to dispose of the Great and Little Parks of Nonsuch. The building was broken up and the materials were carted away to make new buildings in Epsom and elsewhere. There is no trace of the building above ground but the site was excavated by Martin Biddle in 1959. The palace straddled the drive which runs into the park from the Ewell Road Gate. The site is marked by three granite bollards and, in the summer, by the mown area of grass.

The is an exhibition on Nonsuch in Whitehall which includes some of the original stucco and pottery and a stunning scale model of the Palace and its Privy Garden.