THE KING AND I (and the General)

Alan Hemsworth

 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

For the last four years the Nonsuch Singers have entertained Trust members at our Annual Christmas Party. I have been asked on several occasions how I came to choose the name Nonsuch. What follows is an attempt at an explanation.

When I formed my own small choral ensemble ten years ago it was with the express purpose of singing unaccompanied Renaissance music. I needed a name for the group - a name that would be both distinctive and apposite. Through my involvement in early music I had a vague knowledge of the Palace of Nonsuch but it was the later realisation that the madrigals we were singing with such relish would also have been performed at Nonsuch suggested the answer to my quest. Henry VIII and I, therefore, have something in common in that we both think the name Nonsuch is utterly desirable although I will concede that his Majesty thought of it first.


Why Henry needed another palace is open to question he already had fourteen in the London area and his new creation was to be so near to both Richmond and Hampton Court. Maybe he wanted to impress Frances I, who had commissioned the building and layout of Fontainebleau; or was it to acknowledge the birth in 1537 of his long awaited son, Edward; or yet again could it be to celebrate the 30th year of his accession? Whatever the reason, the village of Cuddington near Ewell and Cheam in Surrey was demolished early in 1538. Then on the 13th April the nearby Merton Priory was dissolved and surrendered to the King and within ten days the first of hundred of tons of stone were taken from the Priory to the building site of Nonsuch Palace, where over 500 workmen were encamped to begin the construction. The edifice was eventually reputed to exceed even the splendours of Hampton Court Palace it certainly cost half as much again. Its main claim to fame was the extraordinary decoration of the Courtyard walls stucco and carved slate worked in the French/Italian style. Nothing like this had been seen in England before. Covering over 900 feet the work depicted (to wit): 32 Roman Emperors, 32 assorted Gods and Goddesses, the Labours of Hercules in 16 episodes, the 7 Liberal arts, the 9 Virtues and finally, dominating all, a seated statue of the King treading on a maned lion, holding a sceptre and with his son, Edward, by his side. By the time of Henry's death in 1549 the outlying parts of the Palace were still two years off completion but the main construction and decoration, together with a 1700 acre deer park complete with 1000 head of deer, were in place.

There is no record of young Edward VI having any input to the Palace, whilst his half sister, Mary I, never set foot in it because it was "too much stamped with her father's personality". Indeed, Mary contemplated pulling it down but instead was persuaded to sell it in 1556 - to Henry Fitzalan, the 12th Earl of Arundel. During the reign of Elizabeth I Nonsuch became the setting of a brilliant court masques, balls, minstrels, players all presided over by the Queen who actually repurchased it for the Crown in 1592. Sadly after Elizabeth's death in 1603 the decline set in. James I thought Nonsuch a "lavish piece of nonsense". Charles I gave it to his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, as a dower house.

During the English Civil war, Nonsuch was taken over by Parliamentary forces although it was immediately returned to the Crown in 1660. The Chancellor of the Exchequer found it a convenient and salubrious escape from the 1665 Bubonic Plague in London. Charles II then gave it in trust to his mistress Barbara Villiers (created Baroness Nonsuch, Duchess of Cleveland) but after her fall from royal favour she pulled down the Palace in 1682 and sold off the deer park in lots. Thus the procession of stone and fittings started in 1538 was reversed in 1683.

Two years ago I was a member of a small group of singers performing in Calton Hall. I knew of the association with John Lambert and had read that he was highly favoured by Oliver Cromwell being regarded as the Protector's likely successor. I knew also that Lambert had lived in London for a while and it occurred to me that it would be a splendid coincidence if Lambert had had connections with Nonsuch Palace during the Parliamentary occupation. It transpired that following the Civil War, and whilst retaining his ancestral home in Yorkshire, Lambert bought a royal residence - Wimbledon House in Surrey - for 7,000. Court Rolls of the Manor of Wimbledon for 1653 and 1655 mention "the Rt. Hon. John Lambert Esq. Lord of the said Manor and one of the most honourable Council of his Highness (!) Oliver Lord Protector".

In June 1653 Lambert was offered the opportunity to purchase Nonsuch Palace and Parks. Lambert's agent, a Captain Henry Baynes, asked the vendors to quote the price of the house, land and woodland separately but was told it could only be sold undivided. They wrote "Truly, we shall be very glad if Major General Lambert have it, hoping it will prove a good pennyworth. We formerly writ to you we would abate Maj. Gen. somewhat of 9,500". Ultimately Lambert bought the Palace and the Little Park whilst the remainder of the property was bought by a Colonel Pride.

In 1659 attempts were made to get Lambert into a military alliance with the Royalists. A proposal put to Charles (as King in exile) would have brought Lambert's daughter, Mary, into the royal family as a prospective bride of the Duke of York (the future James II) or even the King himself. What the King - and Lambert thought of the proposal is not known, whilst the Duke of York had already secretly become engaged to Anne Hyde. Following the Restoration, Nonsuch Palace was promptly seized and returned to the Crown and Lambert's star waned culminating in his imprisonment as a traitor on Guernsey and finally Plymouth Sound. My Nonsuch quest was, and is, sated. Having brought together two of the most significant and stirring periods in English history through a musical adventure has been as unexpected as it has been satisfying.