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Rediscovering Enfield’s lost royal palace

Judith Stones from Enfield Archaeological Society on the progress made this year in uncovering more of Elsyng Palace’s secrets

Volunteers help to uncover the inner gatehouse at Elsyng Palace  in July (credit Martin Dearne/EAS)
Volunteers help to uncover the inner gatehouse at Elsyng Palace in July (credit Martin Dearne/EAS)

You wouldn’t know to look at it, but in what are now the grounds of Forty Hall Estate in the north of Enfield was once a palace owned by Henry VIII and where Elizabeth I spent some of her childhood.

Elsyng, or Enfield House as it was also known, was a large moated palace with royal apartments, large kitchens, a great hall for feasting and an attached service court full of barns, stables and accommodation for at least 100 servants.

Elsyng Palace would have literally been fit for a king (or future queen) and Henry had visited many times with his father, Henry VII, when it was owned by Sir Thomas Lovell, one of the most important figures in early Tudor government.

One of Elsyng’s big attractions was its access to the royal hunting forest of Enfield Chase and, in 1539, Henry acquired it as one of his many palaces. Both the future Edward VI and Elizabeth I also lived in Elsyng at times (indeed Edward was even told he was king there, after the death of his father in 1547).

However, by 1600, the palace fell out of royal favour and was demolished in around 1657 by its new owner, Nicholas Rainton of Forty Hall. The buried remains of the palace were rediscovered by Enfield Archaeological Society (EAS) in the 1960s and, for the past two decades, our community-based team has gradually been excavating parts of the large complex.

The site is so historically important to have been scheduled as an ancient monument, meaning government permission is required for every excavation, and there are also strict laws restricting activities such as metal detecting.

Having previously worked out the plan of most of the palace and excavated one whole wing of the service buildings (including a huge furnace which fired a vat for boiling large joints of meat), in July this year we started to examine a key part of the site, known as the inner gatehouse. Fronted by an impressive moat many meters wide, which will have been crossed by a bridge, this was a four-storey building that restricted access between the service court and the inner court where the royal apartments lay.

Recent excavations have shown that the foundations of the inner gatehouse survive surprisingly intact, allowing archaeologists to reconstruct the grandeur of a building that may have been built as early as 1430 by the palace’s first owners, the Tiptoft family.

How Elsyng Palace may have looked circa 1539 (credit John PInchbeck/EAS)
How Elsyng Palace may have looked circa 1539 (credit John PInchbeck/EAS)

Though excavations are at a fairly early stage and may continue annually for some years, already sections of very early brick walls (then terribly prestigious) are suggesting just how large the gatehouse was. We have uncovered the upper levels of a cellar, whose roof was supported by massive brick-built, probably eight-sided columns.


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Among the debris backfilling the cellar there are also clues to what the upper storeys would have been like, such as high-quality carved stonework from its grand fireplaces. Because the gatehouse didn’t just control access to the private royal quarters, it was also where some of the chief members of the royal court would live when the king or queen were using the palace.

One of the questions the archaeologists are trying to answer is how much successive owners, including the king, elaborated the gatehouse even further, and a significant discovery has been free-standing walls running off one side of it. These very skilfully and solidly-built brick walls again feature the bases for octagonal columns at intervals along them and, as they approach the gatehouse itself, have an ornamental turret projecting from them.

Walls running off the inner gatehouse revealed during this year’s dig (credit Martin Dearne/EAS)
Walls running off the inner gatehouse revealed during this year’s dig (credit Martin Dearne/EAS)

Following generous grants from Enfield Council’s ‘Stories of Enfield’ project, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and The Enfield Society, EAS has published two new books about Elsyng Palace. Monarchs, Courtiers and Technocrats; Elsyng Palace, Enfield: Place and People, written by Dr Martin Dearne, details archaeological discoveries since the 1960s, with research into the extraordinary range of available historical sources, while Neil and John Pinchbeck’s Elsyng: Enfield’s Lost Palace Revealed takes a more condensed and popular approach to the story.

Both books are available from enfarchsoc.org, with the second also on sale at Forty Hall’s gift shop and at Dugdale Arts Centre in Enfield Town. The EAS website includes a short film about the 2022 excavations, created by Footpath Films, and make sure to look out for an episode of Digging for Britain on BBC2 early in 2024, featuring this year’s excavations!


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