It's exactly 500 years ago today since Henry VIII became King of England. I know I also said that yesterday, but a significant number of websites give 22nd April as the date of Henry's accession, so there might be a grain of truth in it. To celebrate I'm continuing my week-long wander through Henry's world with a visit to his finest royal palace. In a park a few hundred yards outside London. Near Cheam.
You could easily miss it. I'm sure most of the people who walk along The Avenue in Nonsuch Park don't realise the significance of the footpath they're walking down. It's a very ordinary strip of tarmac, very straight, overshadowed by a row of tall trees. There's a muddy verge, and a gnarled bench to sit on, and a dog mess bin in case any canine companions get overexcited. Nothing special, on the face of it. But the key to understanding the view is a line of three stone obelisks, each about fifty metres apart, set to one side of the pathway. Picture the obelisks imaginatively and a very different picture emerges.
This used to be the site of CuddingtonChurch, until Henry VIII acquired the entire surrounding village and promptly demolished it. In its place was to emerge a new royal palace, nothing huge, but destined to be more magnificent than any he had built before. This was NonsuchPalace, a multi-turreted wonder in the Italian Renaissance style, and the perfect base from which to hunt, feast or entertain. Work started on 22nd April 1538, the first day of the 30th year of Henry's reign, and the place was probably dedicated to Prince Edward, the king's long-awaited first-born son.
The northernmost modern obelisk is a placeholder for Nonsuch's outer gatehouse. Here visitors would have entered through a fortified archway into the first of two courtyards. Another gatehouse, marked by the central obelisk, then led up a flight of eight steps into a second, more outlandish courtyard. The walls above the ground floor were covered by large stucco panels on which were moulded figures of gods, goddesses and even Henry himself. The gilt-edged figures continued up two five-storey octagonal towers, and the roof was topped off by golden slates and spinning weather vanes. The effect must have been dazzling, and a very deliberate culture shock for those with medieval sensibilities. There was none such like it.
By the time Nonsuch was structurally complete Henry's hunting days were over, so his Royal court only visited a couple of times for a bit of sit-down shooting. The palace was only completed a few years after Henry's death. It then passed into the ownership of less-interested monarchs, until King Charles II decided to donate Nonsuch to his favourite mistress. Bad choice. She racked up huge gambling debts which could only be paid off through the palace's demolition, and from 1683 Nonsuch's constituent parts were sold off as building materials. So diligent was the clearance that nothing at all remains above ground, just three stone pointers to mark the palace's longitudinal extent.
We know a fair amount about the palace layout because of a groundbreaking archaeological dig in the summer of 1959. More then 500 volunteers uncovered the site over a twelve week period, documenting their findings and unearthing (for example) 1500 stucco fragments. Public interest was unexpectedly high, pre-empting the likes of Time Team by several decades, and a temporary museum was set up close by. Then immediately afterwards everything was covered over again, so all that's visible today is a patch of grass and a bench and a dog mess bin. And those three obelisks, of course, one of which now displays a plan of the palace for those who pause to look.
To find out more about Nonsuch Palace it's best to walk a mile to the east, through the park, across the border from Surrey into London. There's a permanent explanatory exhibition inside a preserved Tudor farmhouse named Whitehall, just to the north of Cheam Village. The building's owned by Sutton Council and houses a more general local museum, with the Nonsuch exhibits on the mezzanine floor overlooking an original half-timbered wall. There's probably more to read than to see, and you need quite a good imagination to view these demolished chunks as anything more than ornate rubble. Shame, because had Nonsuch Palace survived it would undoubtedly have become an important heritage site and a major tourist attraction. Instead you'll have to make do with a charming small museum (and tea room), and a wistful walk through a rather beautiful park.
Visiting » Whitehall is open on Wednesday to Sunday afternoons, with earlier opening on Saturdays. It only costs £1.60 to get in, which has to be a bargain, even for somewhere so small. Whitehall is a building with real character, no doubt much frequented by local schoolchildren on Tudor days out, although don't expect anything wildly exciting within. One downstairs gallery is currently hosting an exhibition on King Henry VIII's life, including a few more details about the Nonsuch dig. For further information, the volunteer Friends of Whitehall should be your first port of call. » There's also a group called the Friends of Nonsuch, whose attention is focussed more on the long-term preservation of the park. They have genuine concern that private development may be allowed to encroach on the park, and a blog set up as part of the campaign has only two posts but 818 comments. » The FoN run a small museum in the service wing of NonsuchMansion, a later estate building, featuring a Dairy and "restored Kitchens, Larders, Sculleries & Laundries". It's open to the public on a couple of Sundays a month during the summer months (next opening bank holiday Monday). » The uplifted foundations of Nonsuch Palace's separate Banqueting Hall can still be seen overlooking the Ewell by-pass. » If you're walking the London Loop, then section 7 passes both the Banqueting Hall and the old palace. » Or visit Hampton CourtPalace instead, if you must. Personally I rather enjoyed uncovering Nonsuch's invisible secrets at a fraction of the cost.