Henry VIII's seal showing the king on a throne

Henry VIII’s seal showing the king on a throne

The Tudors were not the first English monarchs to build the royal houses that we know today as palaces, but they are certainly the most famous for it. Henry VIII (1509-1547) in particular was an enthusiastic acquirer and builder of palaces and by the end of his reign owned more properties than any English monarch before or since.



It was traditional for the king and his court to travel between palaces all over the country in order to fulfil his administrative duties and make himself known to his subjects. It was also important for the court to move around so that their large numbers did not drain the supplies of any one area. However, the centralisation of administration at Westminster and the growing stability in the rest of the country led to a greater concentration of royal residences in and around London.

From below the Chalk Cliffs, Guildford and its Castle; by Henry De Cort. 18th Century watercolour (SHC ref 4348/3/63/5)

From below the Chalk Cliffs, Guildford and its Castle; by Henry De Cort. 18th Century watercolour
(SHC ref 4348/3/63/5)

This explains why Henry VIII owned as many as 11 houses in Surrey, and has been estimated to have spent around one quarter of his reign in the county. These royal houses included the Royal Palace at Guildford, Richmond Palace, Woking Palace, Oatlands Palace and Nonsuch Palace. Journeying between palaces was most often by boat, which is why so many of these palaces were located near rivers, such as Richmond Palace, which is connected to Hampton Court Palace and the other London residences by the River Thames.

Guildford Castle today. Image: Richard Purkiss

Guildford Castle today.
Image: Richard Purkiss

The Tudors understood that a medieval monarch had to own the best houses, wear the most fashionable clothes and put on the most lavish displays in order to show off their wealth and demonstrate their right to the Crown.

This policy was demonstrated at Nonsuch Palace. Although nothing of this palace remains, paintings and records suggest that every wall was covered in colourful paints and expensive tapestries, and even the floors were a bright mosaic.

 

Nonsuch Palace from a print by George Hoefnagel, 1582 (SHC Ref PX/49/3)

Nonsuch Palace from a print by George Hoefnagel, 1582
(SHC Ref PX/49/3)

Nonsuch Palace was built from scratch in line with the most fashionable European trends, and is said to have been named Nonsuch because Henry VIII declared that there would be nonsuch like it. Fashions in design and architecture were heavily influenced by the European courts, and the Tudors were constantly competing for the position of most extravagant ruler. Henry VIII was especially keen to outdo his rivals, as can be seen by the sumptuous Field of Cloth of Gold celebrations held in France, where Henry had an entire palace erected for just three weeks of festivities which were intended to increase the bond of friendship between King Henry and King Francis I of France.

Weybridge, Oatlands Palace - inner court from old print (British Museum) 1559 [Antonio van Wyngaerd] (SHC Ref 7828/2/155/15)

Weybridge, Oatlands Palace – inner court from old print
(British Museum) 1559 [Antonio van Wyngaerd]
(SHC Ref 7828/2/155/15)

Tudor palaces were often designed to a set plan that could be changed according to the needs of the king and his court. For example, Woking Palace is believed to have had almost the exact same layout as Eltham Palace in London, but in reverse.

Not all palaces could accommodate the whole court, which by Tudor times numbered many hundreds of people. Those that could were known as greater houses, and those that could not were called lesser houses. When Henry VIII created a chase, or private forest, in Surrey to be used as hunting grounds he acquired Oatlands Palace as a greater house where the court could remain while he went hunting, and built Nonsuch Palace as a lesser house to accommodate his select hunting party. Hunting was not the only popular Tudor sport; Woking Palace was home to two bowling alleys and Hampton Court boasted real tennis courts which are still in use today.

Woking Palace today. Image: Richard Purkiss

Woking Palace today.
Image: Richard Purkiss

Many of Henry VIIIs building projects were funded by the money he acquired through the dissolution of the monasteries. However, funds were not as readily available to successive monarchs and the upkeep of so many properties proved too expensive for them. Some were sold; others were used as political tools to be given as rewards to loyal supporters. For example, James I bestowed Woking Palace upon his court jester, who promptly demolished the buildings to use the land for farming.

 

Further Information

To find out more about each of Surrey’s palaces, click these links:

Nonsuch Palace

Woking Palace

To view Surrey’s Historic Environment Pages for these palaces, click here:

HER no 463 – Woking Palace

HER no 1095 – Nonsuch Palace

HER no 4562 – Richmond Palace

To find out more about Surrey’s Historic Environment Record, click here:

Historic Environment Record

Contributor: Laura Joyner

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