Season 3 of ‘The Tudors‘ shows the death of Jane Seymour and the subsequent madness of Henry VIII. Beside himself with grief, Henry retreats to his private chambers with no one but his fool, Will Somers, to attend him. The very first thing he does in this aggrieved and almost unhinged state is design a palace, the greatest palace the world has ever seen. There will be “none such like it” and from there, his fantastical creation is named, Nonsuch Palace. The designs are extravagant, sketched out by Henry’s own hand with images of various details hanging from every possible place and carpeting the floor. His courtiers are aghast, none more so than Sir Richard Rich, the Chancellor who must release the funds for such an undertaking. It is decried as a fanciful, outrageously expensive, “fantasy work.” For the moment Henry holds to the idea of Nonsuch as the only thing he has left in the world now that Jane is gone, and then it shall be his legacy; even if it should turn to ruin, “in so little space,” as Somers suggests, everyone shall remember that there was once a magnificent palace there and that Henry built it.
Although the details are, as ever in ‘The Tudors‘ dramatised to excess, ultimately Henry’s prediction that its name shall remain, if nothing else, rings true (as we might expect from scriptwriters with the benefit of hindsight). Work on Nonsuch Palace began in 1538, the thirtieth year of Henry’s reign and it was probably that, rather than a grief-fueled hysteria that saw it’s conception.
In 1538 Henry acquired the manor of Cuddington which he then proceeded to demolish. He also razed the nearby village and church, turning the land into two parks intending to turn his new construction into a luxurious hunting lodge. Across the Channel, the King of France, Francis I had long begun construction of the magnificent Chateau de Chambord and it was from this that Henry likely took his inspiration. Nonsuch would share many similarities with the Chateau de Chambord, both were conceived as a magnificent hunting lodge for the king, both were incredibly expensive to build, both were incomplete when the king they had been built for died and despite their magnificence, both would be hardly used and then neglected.
Construction of Nonsuch Palace began on the 22nd April 1538, the thirtieth anniversary of Henry’s accession and unlike Henry’s other palaces it was not an expansion or a remodeling of an existing structure. Instead, it was built entirely from scratch and at great expense. Even though it was significantly smaller than the other royal residences (when visiting, the court had to remain in the palace grounds in tents as there was no other accommodation available for them) it was significantly more expensive, costing an incredible £25,000. Aware that such a feat of architecture wouldn’t be cheap, Henry allayed costs from the outset by using stone from dissolved abbeys in its construction, though that only accounted for a fraction of the stone needed and the rest had to be bought.
With octagonal towers and extensive grounds, Nonsuch lived up to its name of having ‘Nonesuch’ like it anywhere. The white stucco walls were patterned with gold and the palace and gardens held a wealth of depictions and references to classical and mythical figures. In the centre of the palace was a statue of Henry VIII and his son Edward VI; if Nonsuch was to demonstrate the pride of Henry’s reign it seems only fitting his son should take pride of place.
Given the expanse of Henry’s vision for Nonsuch, and its reputation throughout Europe for magnificence, you would be forgiven for assuming it would become one of his favourite retreats, however, Henry visited the palace only a handful of times. His heir, Edward seemed to take no interest in it whatsoever, and when Mary I became Queen she handed it over to the Earl of Arundel, rather than keep it as a favoured royal residence (or a royal residence at all).
It was not until the reign of Elizabeth I that Nonsuch would become the retreat that Henry had envisioned twenty years before his youngest daughter would ascend the throne. Under Arundel’s ownership the exterior decorations to Nonsuch were at last completed and Elizabeth I so enjoyed his entertainments there she made a point to visit often. In the early 1590s she acquired the palace from Arundel’s heir and from that time she stayed there at least once a year during the summer months. Under Elizabeth Nonsuch became the site of several notable incidents of her reign. In 1584 Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester received word of his son and heir, Lord Denbigh’s, illness and rushed to his side, famously without taking his leave of the Queen or asking her permission. The following year Elizabeth signed the Treaty of Nonsuch, named for the palace where it was signed, which Philip of Spain took as a declaration of war. In 1592 Elizabeth discovered Sir Walter Raleigh’s betrayal in marrying one of her ladies in waiting while playing the favourite to her, and after imprisoning him it was to Nonsuch that she retreated, away from the court. It was also the site where the Earl of Essex broke into the Queen’s chambers after she had retired, while she was in a state of undress, to beg her mercy over his campaign in Ireland. The last incident was almost ten years after Elizabeth had acquired the palace and over almost forty years after she had first visited it as Queen, yet it was still among her favourite residences.
Her Majestie is returned again to None-such, which of all other places she likes best’; and it was on the occasion of this visit that the Earl of Essex, having returned from Ireland without the queen’s permission, burst into her bedchamber at ten o’clock in the morning, and though received kindly at the time, was committed four days later to the custody of the Lord Keeper
Elizabeth would seem to be the sole person who appreciated Nonsuch for under the Stuarts it would fall into disrepair. James I used it occasionally as a hunting lodge and ultimately settled it on his wife, Queen Anne. Later, it would be given to Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I, James I’s heir. Charles visited the palace just four times and after he had been deposed during the English Civil War it was confiscated, along with the other royal residences by a Parliamentary Commission. After Charles II was restored to the throne, Nonsuch was restored to his mother Henrietta Maria, but after her death, he would grant it to his mistress Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine at the same time he created her Duchess of Cleveland, Countess of Southampton and Baroness Nonsuch.
Lady Castlemaine would be the last owner of Nonsuch. Heavily in debt, mostly through excessive gambling, she immediately let out whatever land attached to Nonsuch she could as farmland. At the same time, she had the palace stripped of all its materials and goods for sale. Only the outer structure of the palace remained until even that was pulled down and sold off leaving no sign of what had once been the most magnificent palace in Europe.