81: The Duke's Palace

Wednesday, April 14, 2010
5:14 PM

“When I am in the tennis court of my palace in Norwich,” said the Duke of Norfolk, “I think myself as great as the king”.

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Some palace some duke!

A sketch of the old Duke's Palace from A History of Norwich by Frank Meeres.

Thomas Howard, third duke of Norfolk, was quite a character. The kings Earl Marshall, commander of his army, leader of the conservative faction at court and uncle of Anne Boleyn, he cut a powerful figure at the court of Henry VIII. Members of a Norfolk family who had come to prominence in the 15th century, the Howards spent much of the 16th century coveting power at Westminster. But they never forgot their East Anglian roots, being major landowners in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Such local magnates needed a suitably grand headquarters in Englands second city Norwich. In 1540 the duke set up his town house in what was to become Duke Street. Theres no sign of a Tudor palace there now. Well never really know just how grand the palace was it was largely demolished 300 years ago. Recently though, excavations have given us more clues to the scope of the palace.

A home fit for a duke...

The palace on the banks of the Wensum wasnt the first grand city house the family built. Mount Surrey was constructed near former monastic land at the top of St Leonards Hill to the east of the river. The earl of Surrey, Norfolks brilliant poet son, started building it in 1544 in the Italianate style, then becoming popular. Surrey also put up a house closer to the centre of Norwich; called Surrey Court it was in what is now Surrey Street. All was going well for the 30-year-old Howard heir, but it rapidly went horribly wrong. Paranoid and ageing Henry VIII had him executed on what looked like a trumped-up charge of treason in 1547; two years later Robert Ketts rebels sacked Mount Surrey, of which not a stone remains. His father, the great survivor of Tudor politics, sold Surrey Court today the Norwich Union building is on the site.

Too bad for Surrey. What about Norfolk?

It was left to Surreys son, who became the fourth duke following the death of his grandfather, to lavish money on the palace. It too was built in Italian style in the form of a quadrangle with a court in the centre and an entrance in the middle of the south side. Sportsmen would have no cause for complaint the palace housed a bowling alley and covered tennis court. The north and south ranges were three storeys high, the other two boasted four. Before long the palace was the largest private house in the city. Not everyone was impressed. Thomas Baskerville said it was seated in a dunghole place surrounded as it was by tradesmens and cloth dyers houses on the other side of the river.

Just no pleasing some people!

In 1671 the palace entertained its most distinguished visitor. Charles II, restored to the throne a decade earlier, came to Norfolk to reward the loyal and build bridges with former enemies. Apart from knighting the distinguished Norwich antiquarian author and doctor Thomas Browne, he also stayed at Blickling Hall with former parliamentarian Baronet Hobart, and at the palace with leading royalist, Lord Henry Howard. His elder brother, the duke, was insane and lived abroad.

The Howard family had only recently been restored to the title, having forfeited it on the execution of the fourth duke a century earlier under Elizabeth I. For too long they had been under a cloud because of their adherence to Catholicism in Protestant England, and the visit of a hopefully more tolerant monarch was a coup. Charles stayed at the palace along with the usual extended and expensive entourage that monarchs brought with them; the queen alone brought 55 people, and many had to be housed in the tennis court. The title of Duke of Norfolk remains in the Fitzalan-Howard family.

Grand palace, visiting royalty how did it all go wrong?

The glory days of 1671 were a distant memory 30 years later. In 1710, amid fears of Catholic Jacobite mobs rioting in the city, the mayor of Norwich, Thomas Havers, refused the duke permission to hold a processional entry. He feared pro-Catholic riots. The duke was outraged. Almost at once he severed links with Norwich, and ordered the demolition of the palace.

The site went into a long decline. He let one wing to the city to use as a workhouse, where conditions left much to be desired. In the later 18th century and first half of the 19th, unemployment in Norwich was rising, and as many as 1,200 people out of a population of about 30,000 were forced into the workhouse. Overcrowding became scandalous. More than one inmate committed suicide. Visiting journalist James Neild wrote in 1805: In the first room I visited there were 42 beds, 10 of them cribs for single people, and the others had two in each, there being 74 persons in this room. Although the Poor Law guardians refuted these charges, which were published in the Gentlemens Magazine, charges like this helped bring about gradual change. The building was falling apart; in 1739 three children died when a wall in the palace yard fell on them. Its days were numbered.

And today?

In modern times the site has been used as an electricity works, a brewery and a multi-storey car park (recently rebuilt), and now luxury apartments are being built there. A Catholic chapel survived until the 1960s as a billiard room before making way for the car park.

This summer the EDP reported on the progress of archaeological excavations undertaken before housing goes up. It uncovered 6ft-deep foundations, part of a flint wall, along with evidence of earlier industrial activity at the site it appears there was a 13th/14th century cloth-dyeing business, and a 12th century quarry before the palace was built. What more surprises will the Dukes Palace reveal? Hopefully, these finds will enable archaeologists to give us a fuller story.

Further reading

A History of Norwich, by Frank Meeres.


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