Nonsuch Palace Banqueting House

Nonsuch Palace By Joris Hoefnagel
Nonsuch Palace By Joris Hoefnagel
Image source Wikipedia

A Banqueting House is a hall, apartment or large room, designed or used primarily for festive or state functions.

Nonsuch Royal Palace and park were built by Henry VIII between 1538 and 1547, on the site of the medieval settlement of Cuddington. The Palace was set within its own Little Park (671 acres), and a Great Park (1000 acres) to the north, stocked with deer. Within the Little Park a brick wall enclosed the Palace, the privy garden, maze, orchard, and kitchen garden. A fenced wilderness led west towards a Banqueting House around 274 metres away on a low hill in the south eastern corner of the rectangular garden compartment, adjoining a grove.

Outline map showing the Great and Little Parks
Outline map showing the Great and Little Parks

According to English Heritage the Banqueting House was constructed between 1538 to 1546 and was situated on the highest point within the Little Park. Nonsuch Park Joint Management Committee, and the 'Nonsuch Trail', based on an idea by Professor Martin Biddle, describe the outlook from the Banqueting House as 'delectable for prospect', commanding panoramic views on all sides to Windsor, Richmond, Hampton Court, London, and the surrounding Downs. During hunting in the Little Park, the Banqueting House would have been used as a grandstand to watch the sport - perhaps the deer were driven past it - and as a place for light refreshments. From it could be seen the Palace, across the grove and the wilderness. The first building was demolished in 1621. The Parliamentary Survey of 1650 showed the replacement to be a timber-framed, two-storey building, surmounted by a lantern. It was demolished in 1667.

Detail from the 1933 OS Map - click to enlarge.
Detail from the 1933 OS Map - click to enlarge.
The approximate location of the Palace and the location
of the smaller Banqueting House are marked in red.

Excavations in 1930 by A.W.G. Lowther, and 1959 to 1960 by Professor Martin Biddle, which attracted large crowds, showed that the Banqueting House resembled a Tudor artillery fort, situated on a raised platform and enclosed by a wall. In the 19th century the retaining brick wall of the Banqueting House platform was rebuilt as part of the area's conversion into an arboretum - mostly of coniferous species. The 1960 dig on the Banqueting House proceeded without the need for Ministry funding as a volunteer team of diggers, guides, museum attendants, and receptionists had formed into the Nonsuch and Ewell Antiquarian Society (now the Epsom and Ewell History and Archaeology Society).

Northern part of the cellar with oven.
Banqueting House Excavation 1959,
showing the northern part of the cellar with oven.
Photo by Fellows ©2014
Image courtesy of Surrey Libraries and is held in the
Epsom and Ewell Local and Family History Centre

An archaeological survey by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) Cambridge field staff between January to February 1994, contributed to the forthcoming report by Professor Biddle on his excavations, following a request by him. The survey found the ruined remains of the Banqueting House, which had survived as a raised, one metre high octagonal platform, with four circular corner bastions, edged by a brick revetment constructed during the early 20th century, incorporating some original Tudor bricks. Evidence revealed that the Banqueting House was a small, roughly square timber-framed building of two storeys with viewing balconies and an underground cellar. There was also an earthen terrace bounded by brick retaining walls, partly of 16th century brick, together with original Tudor cellars and fireplace having been filled in but intact.

Publications on the survey include:
  • Full report Virtual Catalogue Entry to support E.I. Migration Oswald A/1995/Archaeological Field Survey Report. Nonsuch Park, Surrey.
  • Full report Pre-Construct Archaeology [reports] Brown J E/2004/An archaeological building recording watching brief of Nonsuch Palace Banqueting House, Epsom and Ewell.

Nonsuch Palace Banqueting Hall
Nonsuch Palace Banqueting Hall Retaining Wall
Photo by Matt Brown and reused under this Creative Commons licence.

Elizabeth I frequently stayed at Nonsuch, firstly on her Summer progress of 1559, overseeing extravagant banquets, hunts and merrymaking. James I inherited the palace on Elizabeth's death in 1603. He granted it to his queen, Anne of Denmark, and the Palace was also used as a residence by his son Henry, Prince of Wales. When Charles I came to the throne in 1625, he gave the Palace to his wife, Henrietta Maria. His reign ended in 1649 in the Civil War, which saw a skirmish between Royalists and Roundheads near the Banqueting House and the occupation of the Palace by the victorious Parliamentary force.

The site is a scheduled monument protected by law, now Listed Grade II. It is jointly managed by the London Borough of Sutton, and the Borough of Epsom & Ewell.

Louise Aitken ©2014

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