Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 19 November 2012


I mentioned in my previous post that I had been close to the site of Nonsuch, the palace built by King Henry VIII in the years after 1538. It was demolished for the sake of selling off the rubble as building materials, so as to pay her gambling debts, in 1682-3 by Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, who had been given the house by King Charles II

Although often termed a palace Nonsuch was perhaps more a very opulent hunting lodge, being only a third of the size of Hampton Court, which lies a few miles to the north. In one way it may have been similar in its status as a royal retreat to the function of the Grand Trianon or Marly to Versailles for King Louis XIV.

Begun on the anniversary of the King's accession, April 22nd, in 1538, the building very soon had gained its distinctive name, there being none such a structure in the country. It is often compared with Chambord, and seen as a response to King Francis I's palace; the seventeenth century, the English Catholic priest Richard Lassels (1603?–68), in his posthumously published The Voyage of Italy, however referred to Fontainbleau as ‘the Nonsuch of France’.

Sometimes described as arguably the first Renaissance building in England Nonsuch appear to me too eclectic for such a description. It incorporated Renaissance features - notably its stucco decoration - and the gardens may well have been the first truly Italianate landscape feature in England.  Much of it was however fairly typical of the late Perpendicular domestic style of the age, and the two towers on the south front wondrous pieces of exuberance. In many ways it was King Henry VIII's late medieval fantasy toy castle - inspired by perhaps by Arthurian romances and the like. It was the King's equivalent of the Brighton Pavilion created by King George IV around a place for royal recreation. In both cases the expenditure to create them was lavish, and the emphasis on the exotic.

Like the Brighton Pavilion Nonsuch was less favoured by the King's successors. It was leased by King Edward VI and sold by Queen Mary I, but was reacquired by Queen Elizabeth I in 1596, and in her last years she liked it as much as any of her other residences.  Under the early Stuarts it was used occasionally, housed the Exchequer after the Fire of London and in 1670 was given to to Lady Castlemaine, only for her to destroy it a little over decade later. It's loss is, of course, to be greatly deprecated. Only a four contemporary pictures survive of the building, but the excavation of the site in 1959 revealed the plan. The excavation was also important in establishing archaeological investigation of post-medieval sites as an important means of recovering the past.

There is an illustrated online history of Nonsuch here, and there is another online article about the Palace from a local history group, which has more detail as to its history, here

From the same group is an illustrated account of the gardens, which appear to have been both lavish and spectacular and with strong Italianate influences alongside the formal knot gardens of the era. That site can be viewed here.

In addition to that link there is now also, I find, a very fine reconstruction model of the Palace by Ben Taggart on display at Cheam. There is a splendid illustrated article about it here.  It is also featured, with basically the same illustrations, in a Daily Mail article from 2011 which can be viewed here. These include details of the stucco decoration of the inner courtyard.

I have selected two of the pictures to give an idea of both the model and of what has been lost. I think an excursion to see the reconstruction is definitely called for.



Image: countrylifeimages.co.uk

nonsuch palace model

The south front of Nonsuch

Image: Copyright Roger Poynter/ Friends of Nonsuch

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