Nonsuch Palace Gardens

Photograph of the ruins of the Banqueting Hall c.1920s
Photograph of the ruins of the Banqueting Hall c.1920s
Photographs of the ruins of the Banqueting Hall c.1920s

Nonsuch Palace gardens, comprising of the Kitchen garden, the Privy Garden, the Wilderness and orchard, the Grove of Diana and the plot on which the Banqueting House stood covered some 16 acres and lay mainly to the west of the Palace.

The Kitchen garden lay to the east of the Palace outside the east wall of the kitchen building.

A rough outline of the Nonsuch Palace Gardens
A rough outline of the Nonsuch Palace Gardens

The Privy Garden lay on the three exposed wall of the Inner Court and was surrounded with a 14 ft wall faced in bricks with chalk foundations. (wall running across the southern frontage shown in the Hoefnagel view) Watson said that the wall stretched for 500 paces. The distance between the south front of the Palace and the Privy garden wall was 201 ft.

Only Speed's engraving gives a pictorial indication of the gardens.
Only Speed's engraving gives a pictorial indication of the gardens.

However, we do know that Henry VIII wished to outdo his rival, King Francis I of France, who was building new palaces and elaborate gardens, and we can look to contemporary engravings of French Renaissance palaces to get some idea of what Nonsuch may have looked like.

Blois was the earliest garden complex - it was laid out in squares planted with geometric knots and enclosed by covered galleries.

Gardens at Gaillon
Gardens at Gaillon

Gaillon, a more elaborate garden than Blois and its rectangular and circular mazes could have inspired Nonsuch.

Written descriptions of Nonsuch Palace.

The only comprehensive description of the palace and the gardens is by Anthony Watson, the Rector of Cheam, who would have visited the Palace frequently.

Other writers include William Camden, Paul Hennzer, and Thomas Platter, during the Tudor period. Each of them only visited for a day.

The Survey of 1650, in which surveyors were sent out by Parliament to report on the property of the late King and Queen, described in glowing terms, both the Palace and the gardens.

Samuel Pepys wrote a few details in his diary when he went to Nonsuch in September 1665, as does, John Evelyn who records a visit to Nonsuch on 3 January 1666.

The Privy Garden

The Privy Garden which was the King's private area, for his use and that of his invited guests, and lay between the three exposed walls of the Inner Court and the surrounding 14 ft wall. The wall was faced in bricks with chalk foundations and Watson said that the wall stretched for 500 paces. This was the wall running across the southern frontage shown in Hoefnagel view. From the 1959 excavations, the distance between the south front of the Palace and the Privy garden wall was 201 ft.

The gardens would have been designed to be seen from above and although there are no plans, contemporary engravings of French gardens layouts may give some indication of what they could have looked like. Speed has tried to indicate the layout of some of the knots with topiary trees immediately in front of the palace and the position of a fountain, columns, and an obelisk. There would have been many more of these, of varied shapes, sizes and design.

The restored Tudor knot garden at Hatfield House
The restored Tudor knot garden at Hatfield House

The knots were more likely to be far more complicated than those he depicted.

Watson described it as an open space immediately in front of the Palace, with symmetrical beds with small plants and patches of colour in patterns called knots, as they were designed "mingled in intricate circles" as though they were embroidered. Among them were small animals, deer, hares, rabbits and dogs, gave chase over the green. They possibly may have been built of stone and overgrown with some form of creeper, as from a distance they looked like real animals.

The beds were surrounded by walks and alleys, some with branches interlaced overhead. Sweet smelling roses, vines and honeysuckle would have been grown through them and also through trellis pinned against the high walls. Seats were painted in green, blue and russet. There were also tall plants and trees and twelve wooden arbours, some of which were coloured and others white. Each arbour had its own flower bed. They must have been splendid.

Erecting An Arbour
Erecting An Arbour

Accounts of Bartholomew Rogers, dated 1623, for the repair of the arbours, mentioned pedestals, bases, balusters, moulding, crown pieces, pendants, rails, seats and columns.

Watson writes about a fountain in the middle of the south front - this is illustrated in the Lumley Inventory. He said that it stood on a mound, and was set inside two circles of grass, one above another, each of which was reached by three steps. Round the fountain there were six lilac trees, and there were two more mounds on either side of the fountain.

An artists impression of the Privy Garden Obelisks
An artists impression of the Privy Garden Obelisks

The Privy Garden continued along the eastern wall of the Inner Court, and this too was similarly laid out with knots and walks.

By Watson's time the original garden would have matured, and more plants added by Arundel and Lumley. He writes that "the plants and shrubs fill the whole front of the royal court with a fragrant sweetness" The list of plants is quite short and it includes cherries, plums and mulberries, but if there were any other plants, they would probably have been new introductions, the names of which he may not have known.

The 1650 survey refers to one large garden, divided into several alleys, quarters and rounds set about with thorn hedges and to one hundred and forty fruit trees planted in the garden and "with care, would be a very handsome plot" The marble pinnacles are said to be falcon perches and the marble fountain was surrounded by six lilac trees. There were also 140 fruit trees, 2 yews and 1 juniper.

The Labyrinth

This was situated on the west side of the Inner Court. Here said Watson "you will enter a tortuous path and fall into the hazardous wiles of the labyrinth, whence even with aid of Theseus' tread you will scarce be able to extricate yourself".

Thomas Platter described "a maze or labyrinth surrounded by high shrubberies to prevent one passing through them"

The Wilderness

The first wilderness garden in England was probably laid out in the 1580s at the royal palace of Nonsuch. It was created by the garden lover, Lord Lumley, whose father bought the palace from Mary Tudor. Lumley had travelled to Italy and visited gardens there, so it is likely that he got the idea for a wilderness from the Italian "bosco", or little wood, often marked by straight paths and high hedges.

The Glade - An example of a straight path and high hedges
The Glade - An example of a straight path and high hedges

The whole area was a designed grove, an attractive area in which to wander or pause. Woodland, ornamental and fruit trees were generally laid out in rows, with open areas of grass, hedges and flowers. Seat and arbours and ornamental statues would have been placed throughout and the walks would have been surfaced with turf, sand or low growing herbs. They were often turned into shady alleys by planting trees alongside.

The Grotto

"Grotto" comes from the word "crupta", Latin for cave or vault. They were introduced in 16th century.

Italian gardens and were usually found in a cave like chamber, often decorated with minerals, shell or pebbles with water dripping through shady caverns containing statues.

The earliest grotto in England was probably the Grotto in the corner of Diana's Grove in the grounds of Nonsuch Palace and was obviously Italian inspired. Lord Lumley would have seen one of the earliest Italian grottos at Boboli and this may have given him the inspiration for building one as a tribute to Queen Elizabeth.

Watson's description was of a fountain around which stood statues of Diana, the mythological goddess of hunting, two of her nymphs and Acteon transformed into a stag to be devoured by his own hounds, as a punishment for seeing her bathing in her forest pool. The statue stood on a fountain fed by a spring. Surrounding rocks formed a grotto and flowers grew in the spray.

However, Platter thought that natural water sprang from a rock into a basin.

Descriptions of the Wilderness by visitors to Nonsuch

"To the north there is a wide spreading circular plane tree, its branches supported on posts of green which give out a pleasant smell, so that many people can sit beneath, talking and listening to the calls of animals and birds and gazing at the wire fenced aviary." [Watson]

He writes of wild beasts, poisonous snakes, fierce tigers, wolves, lions, boar etc. Whether these are real as in a menagerie or statues, or even people dressed in animal costumes, we do not know. He goes on to speak very dramatically of the pelican, pheasants, peacock and guinea fowl - could these have all been kept in the aviary?

"The tree trunks of the trees bordering the paths were used as posts for high boards to form alleys, like enclosed tennis courts, where ball games can be played." [Platter]

Trees and plants in the wilderness, from Watson.

Oak, walnut, ash, elms, planes, sycamore, fig, juniper, yew, elder, box, hazel, maple and olive.

Apples, pears blackberries, strawberries, and cherries. Ferns and vines, berberis, briars, thorns and dog rose.

The Grove of Diana

This was a symbolic garden with topiary arches, walls and sandy walks. Watson described a "stately bower for Diana, a woodland palace, but Platter referred to it as small vaulted temple. The clerks responsible later for repair bills referred to it as "the Banqueting House in the walks below the fountain, a timber framed summer house. (not to be confused with the Henry VIII's Banqueting Hall.

A Summer Banqueting House
A Summer Banqueting House

Within the Grove, there was a handsome pyramid with heads disgorging streams of water [Watson] or "a pointed tower spirting water"[Platter] and it was this fountain which according to Hentzner, contained concealed pipes which squirted water on the unsuspecting who came within reach.

The Orchard

This lay behind the labyrinth alongside the west wall of the Outer Court and was planted out with a wide variety of fruit. The high brick walls were suitable for fruit growing especially the newly imported apricot. Two hundred pear trees were sent to Henry VIII from France and most of them would have been for Nonsuch.

Until Henry's time most dessert apples had been imported, but he sent his fruiterer, Robert Harris, to France to acquire a large number of "Grafts", especially pippins. Some of these probably reached Nonsuch as in later years apple trees abounded.

Cherries, plums, figs, almond, peach and quince would also have been grown.

The apple Nonparareil said to have been imported into England in the time of Mary or Elizabeth, may not have any connection with the nonpareil of palaces, but later the apple was referred to as a "Nonsuch"

Grafting Instruments

The Kitchen Garden

This would have been laid out in the similar in style to those of the Medieval garden, like those illustrated in "The Gardener's Labyrinth, with raised beds, paths between them for ease of planting, weeding and watering.

A surprising number of different varieties of vegetables were grown in the 16th C kitchen garden, including cabbage, onion, garlic and shallots and certain varieties of lettuce. Melons, gourds and cucumbers may have been grown in hot beds. Parsnips, carrots (purplish brown in colour, turnips and beet also would have been eaten and a wide variety of culinary herbs, rocket, parsley, sorrel, chervil, dill, mint and fennel, grown in either separate beds or all together in a herb garden.

In the painting of the Palace by Danckerts, there are numerous large trees shown within the kitchen garden and the 1650 Survey records that the garden was "very useful and commodiou.

This article was researched and written by Carol Hill © 2009

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