Old ruins, new world
Lest we remember
Editor Simon Denison
Great sites: Nonsuch Palace
David Gaimster recalls the excavation of Henry VIII’s most extravagant palace, which spawned the discipline of post-medieval archaeology
In 1959, the year Martin Biddle first excavated Henry VIII's vanished palace of Nonsuch in Surrey, the concept of post-medieval archaeology was virtually unknown. Within a decade the subject was established with its own academic society, and post-medieval sites were being investigated and rescued in their own right. Today the subject is routinely taught at universities, and archaeologists are increasingly specialising in the period which spans the transition between medieval and industrial society.
This remarkable development owes much to the excavations of 1959 and 1960 at Nonsuch which may also be regarded, in view of the crowds they attracted, as a key event in the history of public archaeology in this country. Even now, 40 years on, Nonsuch remains a touchstone site for all those concerned with the emergence of England from the Middle Ages and the arrival of the Renaissance.
Until the summer of 1959 the royal palace of Nonsuch remained almost a myth. This splendid but short-lived fantasy house had vanished hundreds of years earlier below a park on the edge of Ewell, Surrey, until John Dent, a local historian, and Martin Biddle, then an undergraduate of Pembroke College, Cambridge, independently worked out its possible location from documentary sources.
At the time, work was beginning on the History of the King's Works, an architectural survey of royal houses and associated buildings. The Ministry of Works agreed to support an excavation in order that the ground plan of this most extravagant of Henry VIII's houses could be included, as Nonsuch had played such a key role in the development of Tudor architecture and the introduction of the Renaissance style in England. Accordingly, a local excavation committee was established which galvanised the local council and community to provide temporary accommodation, meals and a large voluntary labour force. In the event, diggers came from schools, colleges, technical institutes and WEA branches around Greater London. In all, over 500 volunteers worked on the site, with an average of eighty per day.
The excavation of the main house went ahead on schedule and attracted more than 60,000 visitors over 12 weeks. A further pioneering initiative was the erection of a makeshift 'museum' (an aluminium hut used by the Council as a temporary polling station) which attracted over 26,000 people, each paying 6d admission. Donations and sales of John Dent's 'pictorial guide' to the excavations also ensured that a great deal more work could be carried out than had originally been planned, leaving a balance of funds for post-excavation analysis.
Indeed, the 1960 campaign on the Nonsuch Banqueting Hall proceeded entirely under the aegis of the Excavation Committee without the need for Ministry funding. By then the volunteer team of diggers, guides, museum attendants and receptionists had formed into the Nonsuch and Ewell Antiquarian Society.
In 1538 Henry VIII owned 13 palaces in and around London. Unlike most of these, Nonsuch was built from scratch to satisfy the King's desire for a splendid hunting lodge in his great new hunting estate close to London and to his riverside palace at Hampton Court.
The location chosen was Cuddington, near Epsom in Surrey, which was razed by an army of workmen who descended on the site on 22 April 1538, the 30th anniversary of Henry's accession. When he died on 27 January 1547, the palace was still unfinished, but what little remained to be done was completed after 1556 by Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel, who had part-purchased, part-swapped the palace and Little Park with Queen Mary I, who disliked hunting and had considered demolition, in exchange for Norfolk estates.
Elizabeth I stayed frequently at Nonsuch, firstly on her Summer progress of 1559. After Arundel's death in 1580 his son-in-law, John, Lord Lumley, inherited the palace, creating a splendid library of books and the first truly Italianate garden planted in England. Nonsuch returned to the crown in the last decade of Elizabeth's reign and was maintained as a royal palace until the Civil War. Along with all other royal properties, Nonsuch was confiscated by Parliamentary commissioners and sold off after the execution of Charles I in 1649. The 1650 survey of the house and its grounds, which survives in the Public Record Office, forms a unique record of the magnificence of the complex.
The final stage in the chequered history of Nonsuch followed its return to royal hands in 1660, when in 1670 Charles II gave the palace to his then mistress, Barbara Castlemaine. In 1682 the extravagant countess decided to embark on its demolition to save its upkeep and to realise the value of its building materials, and possibly also to express her dislike of the keeper of the palace, George, Lord Berkeley, who had previously and illegally demolished the Banqueting House for its hardcore value. The demolition process must have gone on for some time, for part of at least one of the gate houses was still standing in 1702.
The excavations of 1959-60 were designed to establish the ground plan of Nonsuch and to recover what had survived of its architectural ornament that was tantalisingly only partly visible on contemporary views, including the watercolour showing the south facade of the inner court painted by Joris Hoefnagel in 1568. Both objectives were achieved and have subsequently led to an exhaustive programme of study of documentary evidence, particularly visitors' descriptions of the palace, the pictorial record and the architectural fragments and domestic artefacts associated with life in a royal Tudor and Stuart residence.
The multi-storied palace was arranged around two principal courtyards. The visitor would enter from the north side, through a turreted gatehouse built of brick and stone in the usual Tudor style, into the outer court. A smaller gatehouse surmounted by a clock tower on the southern side led into an inner court which was reached by a flight of eight steps. On entering the inner courtyard, the visitor was surrounded on all four sides by panels containing near life-size stucco figures of gods and goddesses moulded in high relief. The ground floor of this court was built of stone, while the upper levels, corresponding to the principal apartments on the first floor, were of timber-framing designed to hold the stucco reliefs.
The ornate scheme of human and animal figures was arranged in three registers - Roman emperors above, then the gods and goddesses, and in the lowest band, the Labours of Hercules on the west (the King's side), and the Liberal Arts and Virtues on the east (the Queen's). The figure of King Henry VIII himself with Prince Edward by his side formed the centrepiece on the south side of the inner courtyard.
By contrast, Hoefnagel's view of the exterior scheme on the south side facing the gardens suggests it included representations of Ovid's Metamorphoses rising the full height of the walls and octagonal corner towers. The timbers separating the stucco panels were applied with carved and gilded slate forming glistening frames enclosing the white figure panels within. The effect must have been dazzling and unlike anything else ever seen in England. It is this inner court scheme decorating the royal apartments which vindicated Henry's own choice of name for the palace, 'none such'.
When Nonsuch was demolished in 1682-83, the stucco panels were broken up. From the average size of the pieces recovered in 1959, Biddle estimated that demolition resulted in some 100,000 individual fragments. Most were removed from the site, but more than 1,500 decorated fragments were recovered during the excavation together with a great quantity of plain pieces.
Of this number it has only been possible to reconstruct one entire panel, the fragments of which were found at the foot of the exterior face of the south-west tower. A figure seated on a shield can been seen on Hoefnagel's 1568 watercolour precisely above the spot where the fragments lay. The reconstructed panel, moulded with a Roman soldier seated by his shield, provided the measurements of what was clearly standard panel size of around 137 by 89cm. Using the figure of 2,055 square metres established for the surface area of the decorations, and leaving more than half for other architectural features, Biddle calculated that the original scheme may have involved as many as 700 or 800 panels.
Nonsuch's architectural scheme reflects the extent of Henry VIII's desire to compete with Francis I of France, at least in terms of princely magnificence. He vied with his rival to lure Italian craftsmen to his court. Although Biddle suggests that only Henry himself could have been the author of such an elaborate scheme, he would have required the assistance of a Continental 'artificer' with a technical knowledge of stucco duro and a familiarity with the Italian Mannerist style.
The only candidate at Henry's court with this experience was Nicholas Bellin of Modena who had worked as a stuccatore at Fontainebleau from 1533 to 1537. No documentary evidence links Nicholas to the Nonsuch stuccos, but he was paid for the carving of the Nonsuch slate. Although we know that an Englishman, William Kendall and, later on, a foreigner, Giles Geringe, were responsible for the actual work, it is most likely that Nicholas introduced them to this new technology of the Continental Renaissance.
Today none of the surviving Tudor palaces, including Hampton Court or St James's, contain anything approaching Nonsuch's luxurious early Renaissance design. As is so often the case - despite the detail of documentary descriptions or the quality of the contemporary iconographic record - it is only through excavation that the full magnificence and complexity of such a building can be revealed.
Martin Biddle's excavation achieved so many things, not least in terms of creating public interest and the placing of post-medieval archaeology firmly on the map, but also in achieving the reconstruction of a building which for so long was little more than a myth. The first of two monographs covering four decades of research generated by these excavations is about to appear in print. The myth is no more.
David Gaimster is a curator in the British Museum's Department of Medieval and Modern Europe. The reconstructed stucco panel of the Roman soldier and other architectural features from Nonsuch can be seen in the Museum's 'Europe - 15th to 18th Centuries' gallery.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005