The Nonsuch Trail

Based on an original devised and described
by Martin Biddle for the 450th Anniversary
Celebrations of the Building of Nonsuch Palace
by King Henry VIII. 1538-1988.

Produced by Bourne Hall Museum,
Epsom & Ewell Borough Council on behalf of
Nonsuch Park Joint Management Committee
June 2009

NONSUCH PALACE - A Short History

King Henry VIII began to build Nonsuch Palace on 22 April 1538, the twenty-ninth anniversary of his accession. The King's advisors chose a site then occupied by the village of Cuddington, with its church and manor house. These were cleared away and the owners compensated. Within two months of work beginning, the name 'Nonsuch' first appears in the building accounts. The structure was perhaps substantially complete by January 1541, but the decorations of the outside walls, which were to be the fame of Nonsuch and the explanation of Henry's purpose in its creation, were still in progress five years later. By November 1545 the work had cost £24,536 - half as much again as was spent at Hampton Court in the same period. When Henry died on 28 January 1547, the palace was still unfinished, but what little remained to be done was completed by Henry Fitzalan, twelfth Earl of Arundel, after his purchase of the palace from the crown in 1556. Elizabeth 1 regained Nonsuch in 1592. It remained in Royal hands (apart from the Commonwealth) until 1670, when Charles II gave it to his erstwhile mistress Barbara Villiers, created Baroness Nonsuch, Duchess of Cleveland. She had the Palace demolished in 1682-3 and broke up the parks. The site was excavated in 1959.


Nonsuch had two parks, the Great Park of 1,000 acres, where Stoneleigh and Worcester Park now lie, and the Little Park of 671 acres, part of which survives today as Nonsuch Park. The palace with its gardens lay at the heart of the Little Park. The Nonsuch Trail is entirely within the Little Park, and begins at the London Road car park (NGR TQ 227 636). It covers a distance of about one mile, there and back. If you want to visit the Mansion House, where a tea room and toilets are available, the total distance is about 2¼miles.

The numbers on the map refer to numbered bollards set in the ground.

You are now standing on the east side of the avenue leading south from the London Road Gate of the Little Park directly towards the palace. The Tudor avenue lay slightly to the east of the present avenue, on the line of marker 2. On top of the hill to your half-right you can see the great cedar trees on the site of the Banqueting House (7 on map). Follow the avenue towards the palace.

As you approach the site of the Palace, you pass over the site of the Bowling Green and can see before you the ground rising over the site of the outer gatehouse and north range of the Palace. If you look straight ahead you can see a line of three granite pillars. The first marks the site of the outer gatehouse, the second that of the inner gatehouse, and the third that of the central bay of the south front, seen on the engraving above. The extent of the area once occupied by the palace is indicated by a mown strip on your left hand side and the building extended over an equal area on your right. As you walk along the line of markers across the outer courtyard, remember the ranges of buildings, like Hampton Court, which would once have surrounded you. As you pass the second granite pillar, through the site of the inner gatehouse and into the inner court, you would have seen on all sides the decorations looking down upon you from the walls. At the top, the figures of thirty-two Roman emperors. Below them to the right, on the King's side, the gods of antiquity, Mars, Saturn, Mercury, to the number of sixteen. To the left, on the Queen's side, the goddesses Venus, Ceres, Diana, again sixteen in all. Below the gods and goddesses on the King's side, the Labours of Hercules - a life story of sixteen episodes rather than the usual Twelve Labours; and on the Queen's side, the Seven Liberal Arts (Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, Astrology) and the Nine Virtues (Patience, Humility and Fortitude; Temperance, Prudence and Justice; Faith, Hope and Charity). As you looked beyond the tall fountain playing in the middle of the court (exactly on top of the demolished medieval church of Cuddington), you would have seen, high on the south wall of the inner court, the seated statue of King Henry VIII treading on a maned lion, holding a sceptre, with his son Prince Edward by his side.

Passing by the third and last granite pillar, you cross the site of the Privy Garden and climb the short slope at the end to stand beside Bollard 2, which lies on the site of the Privy Garden wall, on the axis of the Palace. If you turn around and look back down the line of granite pillars, you would have been looking at the south front of the Palace, just as in Speed's engraving on the cover of this leaflet. The Privy Garden with its Venus Fountain and the `Falcon Perches' and pyramids, built by Henry Fitzalan and his son-in-law John, Lord Lumley, after 1556, would he right before you. And as a backcloth to the garden, as in the engraving, the walls of the palace, covered from ground to eaves by figures from classical mythology, flanked by the huge corner towers, would have risen before you.

The Trail now takes us away from the Palace along the south side of the gardens lying to the west. The Trail continues past the south-west corner of the Privy Garden to Bollard 3. This lies to the south and at about the mid-point of the flattish open space which was once the Wilderness. This was not untamed at all - rather it was carefully contrived and tended woodland - here sanded walks, menageries of stone animals, and aviaries of real birds stood under topiaried trees. A great plane tree, its branches supported by props, provided a setting for walking or for playing games along the paths which were enclosed by high board fences like those around courts for royal tennis.

At the far end of the Wilderness, the ground begins to rise towards the Banqueting House (at 7 on the map). Here, in the side of the hill between the Wilderness and the Banqueting House, there was once the Grove of Diana. Dedicated as it were to the goddess, this included a fountain, a grotto, a temple, and an archway celebrating the story of Actaeon who, for spying on Diana and her nymphs at their bath, was turned into a stag and hunted to death by his own hounds. Verses in Latin with English translations, fixed to the walls, told this salutary tale. No trace remains of the Grove of Diana, constructed some time between 1559 and 1580 by Henry Fitzalan - probably as a comment on his failure to win the hand of Elizabeth I, whom he had entertained to a great celebration at Nonsuch shortly after her accession.

Turn to the right here until you reach:

North from here were the fields of the Grove of Diana. Turn left here to climb to the side of the Banqueting House.

This marks the Banqueting House, built in the 1540s. The house itself is gone, although its cellars were excavated in 1960. It stood at the centre of the bastioned platform which still Survives. 'Delectable for prospect' it marked the highest point within the Little Park, commanding long 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 - the deer perhaps were driven past it - and as a place for light refreshments, for that was the meaning of a banquet in the sixteenth century. From here you can look back to the site of the Palace, across the Grove and the Wilderness, along the route which centuries ago everyone who ever visited or lived in the palace must so often have taken.

You can now retrace your steps to Bollard 2, or, for the adventurous, ramble through the area where claypits from the old Nonsuch Potteries cause some steep slopes, to reach the path via the site of Cherry Orchard farm, and so back to the Old Palace position at Marker A.

At Bollard 2 you can walk to the Nonsuch Mansion House (open daily for refreshments 10.00 ant - 5.00 pm). The house was built between 1731 and 1743 by Joseph Thompson, but greatly enlarged into its present form by the architect Jeffry Wyatt in 1802-6. The chequer-work wall of flint and chalk on the east side of the house, beside the drive from the car park, is certainly .of Tudor date. Inside the porch of the Mansion House, set into the wall on the right, is a stone, rather crudely inscribed: 1543 HENRICV OCTAVS + 35 ('1543 Henry the Eighth, the 35th year of his reign'). The chequered wall and the date stone suggest that the Mansion House occupies the site of, and was perhaps originally converted out of, one of the lodges within the Little Park. From the Mansion you can walk by the route you came to Bollard 2 and the car park, or you can walk across the grass in a more direct line (this can be boggy).

King Henry VIII built Nonsuch and Oatlands (near Weybridge), as hunting lodges in his newly created hunting estate based on Hampton Court. He decorated the walls of Nonsuch to celebrate the birth in October 1537 of Prince Edward, the long-awaited male heir to the English throne. The decorations on the walls of the inner court were designed to show the young prince the duties he should fulfil and the pitfalls he should avoid. They covered some 900 feet on the inward and outward walls of the inner court, and were carried out, in stucco and carved slate, in the Renaissance style. They imitated the French-Italian manner of Fontainbleau, the palace built by Henry's rival Francis I, near Paris. Nothing like this had ever been seen in England before. It was work of the highest quality, on an immense scale, celebrating the Tudors and their hope for the future. Nonsuch was created as a non pareil, a palace without equal, at a moment when Gothic art and architecture were beginning to yield before the new styles and ideas of the Renaissance.

The site of the palace, the Privy Garden, the Wilderness, the Grove of Diana, and the Banqueting House are owned by the local authorities. The Nonsuch Trail has been devised to show on the ground what a great opportunity this represents - both a responsibility and a challenge. The Nonsuch Trail is the first tentative step towards the proper management, preservation, and presentation of the site of one of the great houses and gardens of England.

The fullest account of the history of Nonsuch is by John Dent: "The Quest for Nonsuch" (paperback edition, 1981). A shorter well illustrated account is "Nonsuch: Pearl of the Realm" by Lalage Lister (John Dent's daughter). Both are available from the London Borough of Sutton Leisure Services Department, the Bourne Hall Museum Shop and selected bookshops. The art and architecture is described by Martin Biddle in "The Stuccoes of Nonsuch" in the Burlington Magazine July 1984.

There are permanent displays of Nonsuch at Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell; Whitehall, Malden Road, Cheam; in the Tudor Gallery in Sutton's Heritage Centre "Honeywood", Honeywood Walk, Carshalton (by the ponds); and in the "Europe 15th - 18th Century" gallery in the British Museum. There is also a small display at the Museum of London.

At this ancient monument there is a limited amount of work that can be done to make the footpaths permanent; and therefore the public is advised that the Nonsuch Joint Management Committee and the Borough of Epsom & Ewell are unable to accept any liability for accidents or mishaps arising from the state of the paths at any time.


Location Map

Train: BR to Stoneleigh (then 15 mins walk) or Ewell East (then 15 mins walk)
Bus:   293
Car:   Car Park off London Road, A24

Related Links:

Nonsuch Palace
Nonsuch Palace
Nonsuch Gardens
Nonsuch Gardens