Sudeley Castle, in the Cotswold town of Winchombe, was one of the Tudors’ most beloved palaces and housed many of those closest to the crown. It’s where Anne Boleyn stayed with Henry VIII while he decided to dissolve the monasteries and where Katherine Parr, his last wife, later lived after he died.
Now, a small team of archaeologists from DigVentures are on a mission to unearth the remains of another remarkable moment in Tudor history buried in the castle grounds. Experts say the 400 year-old ruins include one of England’s last surviving Tudor gardens, and a long-lost banqueting house used by Elizabeth I to celebrate her victory over the Spanish Armada.
“This buried garden is believed to be one of England’s last surviving Tudor gardens. Most were destroyed in the 18th and 19th centuries when a popular landscaping craze swept the country. We think it is one of perhaps only two in the whole country where the original paths are still in place,” said Lisa Westcott Wilkins from DigVentures.
“Finding an intact Tudor garden like this is an astonishingly rare occurrence,” said Sudeley Castle’s general manager Wendy Walton. “Bringing it back to the surface would be an amazing achievement, and gives us the chance to find out what it would have been like in the days when Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I and Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife, walked its pathways” she added.
But there’s even more to this buried garden than meets the eye. When DigVentures archaeologists carried out a preliminary excavation in October 2018, they also found evidence of a substantial platform for a banqueting house right in the middle of it.
In the summer of 1592, on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the Spanish Armada’s defeat, Elizabeth I and her retinue arrived at Sudeley Castle, where she famously attended a three-day party. Experts from Sudeley Castle now believe that this long-lost banqueting house was its likely venue.
“Elizabeth was clearly in the mood to celebrate. Records indicate that the ensuing party continued for three whole days, and nearly bankrupted her host – the third Lord Chandos,” said Lisa Westcott Wilkins.
“What’s really interesting is that our preliminary investigation suggests that this banqueting house may have been a temporary structure, built especially for the occasion. This is consistent with increasing evidence that historians are putting forward to suggest that temporary structures were far more important in the Elizabethan period than previously thought,” she said.
DigVentures is now crowdfunding a two-week excavation to unearth the remains, and are inviting Tudor history enthusiasts to take part.
Elizabeth I’s love of display – and of gardens – meant that Dudley and Cecil, her two closest advisers, famously competed for her attention by creating ever more elaborate gardens, filled with extravagant statues, ornamental features and exotic plants.
Every summer, Elizabeth and her court would leave London on a royal ‘progress’ around the country, visiting towns, villages and cities, and staying at the grand houses of her noblemen. Everywhere she went, her hosts were expected to improve their streets, their homes, and especially their gardens, ahead of her arrival – and Sudeley Castle was no different.
In 1592, she arrived at Sudeley Castle on the fourth anniversary of her defeat of the Spanish Armada. The celebration, which included fireworks, feasting and music, is said to have continued for three days, and to have nearly bankrupted her host, the third Lord Chandos.
The importance of gardens, as well as temporary structures, Tudor royal tents and timber lodgings is being increasingly recognised by archaeologists and historians. These temporary structures were often enormous and elaborate undertakings that took weeks to build.
One particularly detailed description of a temporary banqueting house built at Whitehall in 1581, ahead of negotiations for Elizabeth’s potential marriage to the Duc d’Alencon, states that the 332 foot long structure took 3 weeks and 3 days to build, was held up with 30 masts, and involved 375 people. The canvas walls were painted to look like stone, the roof was painted with stars, clouds and sunbeams to look like the sky, while the insides decorated with “292 glass lights… and… all manner of strang[e] flowers… garnished with spangs of gould [and fruits like] pomegarnetts, orrnges, pompions, cowcumbers, grapes, carettes, peas and such like” (B.M. Harl. MS. 293, f. 217.)
“This discovery gives Tudor history enthusiasts a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help investigate an absolutely stunning piece of Tudor history, and to learn more about the role of gardens and temporary structures in the Tudor period, especially during the reign of Elizabeth I” said Lisa Westcott Wilkins.
“Sudeley Castle was always one of the most treasured by the Tudor monarchs and I’m sure there is a great deal that archaeology can teach us about this fascinating historic site. We’re delighted to invite Tudor history enthusiasts and budding archaeologists join us in the process, and we are ready to see what else might be uncovered!” added Wendy Walton.
Crowdfunders will be able to choose whether they want to watch the discoveries online through a series of live broadcasts, or to get hands-on and spend a day digging with archaeologists, learning how to excavate, interpret finds and make real Tudor discoveries of their own.
The crowdfunded excavation is also being championed by historian and author Philippa Gregory, who will be giving a talk to the project’s crowdfunders when the excavation takes place in May.
“There’s a tremendous amount of history in the ground there, which no one has seen since it was buried. I’m really excited about this project and can’t wait to see what gets found” Philippa Gregory has said.
“Wherever you are in the world, you can support this wonderful project by crowdfunding the dig. Thanks to DigVentures, even those who can’t attend in person will be able to watch live events from the dig online, including my talk,” she added.
The project has strong local support, and is already over 45% funded, but is also gaining support from Tudor history enthusiasts around the world, including America, the Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand and Australia.
If you would like to contribute on the link below, you’ll be able to help unearth evidence of a remarkable moment in Tudor history.
Contribute at digventures.com/projects/sudeley-castle
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