British Archaeology, Issue 60, August (2001)
In 1959, the year Martin Biddle first excavated Henry VIII’s vanished palace of Nonsuch in Surrey, the concept of post-medieval archaeology was virtually unknown. Within a decade the subject was established with its own academic society, and post-medieval sites were being investigated and rescued in their own right. Today the subject is routinely taught at universities, and archaeologists are increasingly specialising in the period which spans the transition between medieval and industrial society.
This remarkable development owes much to the excavations of 1959 and 1960 at Nonsuch which may also be regarded, in view of the crowds they attracted, as a key event in the history of public archaeology in this country. Even now, 40 years on, Nonsuch remains a touchstone site for all those concerned with the emergence of England from the Middle Ages and the arrival of the Renaissance.
Until the summer of 1959 the royal palace of Nonsuch remained almost a myth. This splendid but short-lived fantasy house had vanished hundreds of years earlier below a park on the edge of Ewell, Surrey, until John Dent, a local historian, and Martin Biddle, then an undergraduate of Pembroke College, Cambridge, independently worked out its possible location from documentary sources.