None of us, educated by Puritans in Britain, believed for a moment that the reason we learnt so much about the Tudor king, Henry VIII, was because he renounced allegiance to the Pope and set himself up as his people’s spiritual overlord, as if temporal were not enough. A move which set in motion many grand movements across the world.
We never learned half as much about the goings-on, after all, of the reign of Queen Victoria which went on for ever and in which Britian confirmed itself as a World Power: one of the many distant results of the libido of Henry VIII.
After years of studying and studying under our Puritan teachers, we understood that all this with Henry VIII allowed them to enjoy, vicariously, the king’s expression of his libido, his licentiousness, his love of luxury to the max.
And so to Nonsuch Palace.
The most fanciful and biggest of Henry VIII’s buildings, it was built in Surrey to rival the French Renaissance Chateau de Chambord.
Chateau of Chambord, Loire Valley, completed 1547
It cost a fortune and was unfinished when the king died in 1547. Its interior decoration was of artisanal work of the highest order and very little of that remains. Stone work, brickwork, marble, woodwork, plasterwork, silver, stained and clear glasswork, leatherwork, pewter, textiles. Gone.
Nonsuch Palace, watercolour of its south frontage, 1568. Georg Hoefnagel, 1542-1600, Flemish.
The palace passed in and out of Tudor and Stuart hands until Charles II gave it to his mistress. In 1682-’83, she had it pulled down and sold its buildings and interiors to pay off gambling debts.
This watercolour of the south front of the palace is almost all that remains of this wonder.
Except in memory.
It is the word ‘Nonsuch’. Of course, it is an in-your-face to the French. Utterly futile – as so much in-your-faces between the English and the French – because Chambord still exists in all its glory.
Nonsuch: a very English word reminiscent of realities – like elves – which point to something which existed, was magical, and which no longer exists in the flesh.
Only in memory. I have begun to forget many things but have not forgotten this word or this lost wonder since I heard of them as a child.
It is an absence which is a presence which in the Amharic of my native land is called ‘tezeta’ and in the Celtic ‘hiraeth’.
Words for which I am grateful because more and more I am aware of ever-present absences.