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Nonsuch Palace in Surrey was perhaps the grandest of Henry VIII's building projects. It was built on the site of Cuddington, near Ewell, the church and village having been destroyed and compensation paid to create a suitable site. Work started on 22 April 1538, the first day of Henry's thirtieth regnal year, and six months after the birth of his son, later Edward VI. Within two months the name 'Nonsuch' appears in the building accounts, so called because it was claimed there was no such palace elsewhere equal to its magnificence. Construction had been substantially carried out by 1541, but it would take several more years to complete. As the Royal Household took possession of vast tracts of surrounding acreage, several major roads were re-routed or by-passed to circumvent what became Nonsuch Great Park.
The palace was designed to be a celebration of the power and the grandeur of the Tudor dynasty, built to rival Francis I's Château de Chambord. Unlike most of Henry's palaces, Nonsuch was not an adaptation of an old building; he chose to build a new palace in this location because it was near to one of his main hunting grounds. The palace cost at least £24,000 (£104 million in 2009) because of its rich ornamentation and is considered a key work in the introduction of elements of Renaissance design to England.
The palace was incomplete when Henry VIII died in 1547. In 1556 Queen Mary I sold it to the 19th Earl of Arundel who completed it. It returned to royal hands in the 1590s, and remained royal property until 1670, when Charles II gave it to his mistress, Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine. She had it pulled down around 1682–3 and sold off the building materials to pay gambling debts. Some elements were incorporated into other buildings; for example the wood panelling can still be seen today in the Great Hall at Loseley Park. No trace of the palace remains on its site today but some pieces are held by the British Museum. There is, however, a discernible rise of land where the old Cuddington church used to be, before it was demolished to make way for the palace. Nonsuch Palace should not be confused with Nonsuch Mansion, which is at the east of the park, nor its associated banqueting hall whose foundations are still visible to the south east of the palace site.
Only about three contemporary images of the palace survive, and they do not reveal very much about either the layout or the details of the building. The site was excavated in 1959–60. The plan of the palace was quite simple with inner and outer courtyards, each with a fortified gatehouse. To the north, it was fortified in a medieval style, but the southern face had ornate Renaissance decoration, with tall octagonal towers at each end. It was within one of these towers that the premiere of Thomas Tallis' masterwork, Spem in alium, was perhaps performed. (The premiere far more likely took place in Arundel House, London, in 1568.) A motet for forty voices divided into eight choirs of five it is rumoured that each choir took position in one of the eight balconies of a tower and sang the piece for the patrons below.( What is believed to have been the original manuscript of Spem in alium was brought to the library of Nonsuch Palace perhaps around 1569 and was kept there until 1609 or 1610.) The exterior and outer courtyard were quite plain, but the inner courtyard was decorated with breathtaking stucco panels moulded in high relief.
Following the digging of the trenches in World War II, it was reported that pieces of pottery had been discovered in the area, later found to be from the site of the palace. An outline of the site layout was also visible from the air, providing additional evidence in the search for the location of the site. The 1959 excavation of Nonsuch was a key event in the history of archaeology in the UK. It was one of the first post-medieval sites to be excavated, and attracted over 75,000 visitors during the work. This excavation led to a major set of developments in post-medieval archeology.
John Speed's map of Surrey has an insert depicting the palace and a part of its gardens, including some of the principal ornaments. These are also known from detailed drawings in the "Red Velvet Book", the 1590 Lumley inventory.
A depiction of Nonsuch Palace appears in season 3 episode 8 of the television series The Tudors, seen in the distance when Henry VIII rides out to show it to his mistress Catherine Howard. Earlier in the series, the plot asserts that the Palace was designed by the King when incommunicado, wracked with grief over the death of Jane Seymour.
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