Nonsuch palace Andrew Selkirk reviews the genesis of a remarkable new model, 60 years in the making. Andrew Selkirk
Editor-in-Chief Andrew Selkirk
One of the most memorable excavations that I visited as an Oxford undergraduate was that of Nonsuch Palace in the south of London. This was notable, indeed slightly scandalous, for two reasons. Firstly, whatever was anyone doing excavating a Tudor palace? In the
1950s, Medieval archaeology was just beginning to creep in. It was not yet really respectable, regarded by many as little more than a poor relative to ‘proper’ archaeology. Surely then a postMedieval Tudor site – even a palace – was a little too recent to be considered archaeology? The second scandal was that it was being dug by an undergraduate.
Now, nearly 60 years later, a magnificent model of the palace has been crafted, showing it in all its glory. To celebrate we were invited down to Nonsuch to view the unveiling, and revel in one of the most remarkable of 20th-century excavations and excavators.
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Martin Biddle began his archaeology early. As a schoolboy he dug another Tudor palace, the Manor of the More – also once part of Henry VIII’s enviable property portfolio. After school he did his National Service, which ended with him digging he did his National Service, which ended with him digging at Jericho with Kathleen Kenyon. He at Jericho with Kathleen Kenyon. He then excavated the deserted Medieval then excavated the deserted Medieval village at Seacourt, on the Oxford bypass, where I first met him. I was amazed that someone who village at Seacourt, on the Oxford bypass, where I first met him. I was amazed that someone who had not yet started university was already directing a major had not yet started university was already directing a major excavation for the Ministry of Works. By then he was interested in Nonsuch.
excavation for the Ministry of Works. By then he was interested in Nonsuch.
Nonsuch was designed by Henry to be literally a ‘non-such’ palace – an
Nonsuch was designed by Henry to be literally a ‘non-such’ palace – an architectural glory like no architectural glory like no other. His great French other. His great French rival, François I,
rival, François I,
was building was building a fabulous palace at Fontainebleau, and Henry wanted to go one better. He did not want it to be particularly big – after all, he had been for many years hard at work on Hampton Court amongst other projects. But he was passionate about hunting and desired a palace in the rich hunting ground of south London where he could watch the action from the battlements, and show foreign dignitaries that anything the French could do, the English could do better. When work commenced in 1538, however, as the king neared the grand age of 47, he was no longer much of a huntsman himself. It was destined to be Henry VIII’s last, and greatest palace.
Alas, Henry died two years after the palace was completed, and never really enjoyed his triumph, having spent only a few nights there. Edward VI, who followed him, was crowned while still a child, and grew to become a sickly adolescent, dying aged only 15. Edward did not inherit his father’s love of hunting, and neither did Mary, who loathed such sport. It was only Elizabeth who really appreciated Nonsuch. Used briefly by James I as a ‘courtly college’ for the education of Princes Henry and Charles, and well maintained until the execution of Charles I in 1649, it began to look a bit shabby. Eventually, in 1671 Charles II gifted it to his mistress, Barbara Villiers, so she could pay off her gambling debts. Barbara retorted that she did not want a palace, she wanted money, and in 1682 she received permission to pull it all down and sell off the park and the building materials for cash. The palace was demolished, and the site flattened. When, 150 years later, the park was sold to a clothing manufacturer who had done well out of the Napoleonic wars, the present Nonsuch Mansion was built a mile away from the palace ruins.
So matters rested until the 1950s when John Dent, the Borough Librarian, was working on the history of the palace and there was talk locally of excavating. At the other end of the scale, The History of the King’s Works was making its stately progress under the editorship of Howard Colvin and John Summerson, and they wanted a plan of the palace. And so when the gifted and experienced undergraduate Martin Biddle offered to provide one for £4,000, and put it together with another £4,000 already raised by John Dent for excavations, the stage was set. For ten weeks over the Cambridge University summer vacation of 1959, Martin Biddle – assisted by other undergraduates who
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December 2011 |