Nonsuch Palace

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Last year's stories about scandals in royal palaces were nothing new. Take Charles II, for example. He got himself a mistress just as soon as his kingly bottom was back on a throne retrieved from those who had removed his father's head. Born Barbara Villiers (below), she grew up an unscrupulous spendthrift, labelled the "Curse of England" by diarist John Evelyn. She bore the king six children and he granted her several titles, including Countess of Southampton, Duchess of Cleveland and Baroness Nonsuch.

Nonsuch was the great royal residence of the Tudors, built by Henry VIII to prove himself equal to his French rival Francis I, who had Fountainbleau Palace. In 1538, Henry ordered the destruction of Cuddington village in Surrey, near modern-day Ewell. In place of peasants' shacks he erected a palace at great speed, using money he had plundered from the monasteries.

There was to be "none such" like this palace, he decreed, and, judging from the comments of visitors, he succeeded. One talks of Nonsuch's "great sumptuousness and rare workmanship...all the skill of architecture is in this piece of work bestowed and heaped up together".

There were extravagant octagonal towers with onion-shaped domes encrusted with pinnacles. There were splendid windows, huge rooms and the earliest Italianate garden in England. But most famous of all was the palace's decoration. Uniquely, every outside wall was covered with huge stuccoed panels. Those of the inner court depicted gods, emperors, the labours of Hercules, and, of course, Henry himself. The panels, framed in gilded slate and covering 900ft (274.3m) of wall, were a triumph of early English renaissance sculpture. They are no more. In 1670, Charles II gave Nonsuch to Barbara Villiers. She never lived there, disliked its caretaker, and probably resented spending money on it. So she had it knocked down. Which is a shame, because one of her descendants, Diana, Princess of Wales, would probably have quite liked the place.

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