The cowboy builders of the Tudor age

John Pinchbeck from Enfield Archaeological Society on the group’s most recent revealing dig on the site of Elsyng Palace

The exposed wall at Elsyng Palace
The exposed wall (credit John Pinchbeck/EAS)

Enfield Archaeological Society (EAS) returned to Forty Hall Estate’s lime tree avenue last month to continue exploring the former site of the Tudor-era Elsyng Palace.

In recent years we have been looking at the boundary between the palace’s inner and outer courts,

in particular trying to locate the four-storey gatehouse that controlled access between the two.

Our summer dig in 2022 found the moat, which had been backfilled with rubble when the palace was demolished in the mid-17th century, and the next year we found the nearby remains of a boundary wall and octagonal tower which may be the first evidence of the gatehouse structure itself.

The 2023 dig was featured on BBC2’s Digging For Britain series with Professor Alice Roberts and is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer service until December (series eleven, episode four).

We aim to return to the octagonal tower and other nearby features later this summer, but ahead of that we had some loose ends to tie up over the three-day bank holiday weekend at the start of May, continuing on from some nearby work we did back in 2006.

That year EAS dug more than 60 small evaluation trenches (or ‘test pits’) ahead of proposed tree planting by Enfield Council, to determine whether such planting would adversely affect important buried archaeology on the site of the palace. One of those pits, Pit 43, revealed the remains of a substantial and very high-quality 16th Century wall.

Due to time constraints, we were unable at the time to fully excavate the wall or to determine if it was part of a building or served some other function. The location of Pit 43 is quite close to the features we found last summer, so now seemed a good time to revisit this wall to try to find out its purpose and whether it might be related to our potential gatehouse and/or moat.

And so, on 4th May, we opened a two-by-eight metre trench next to the location of Pit 43 to expose more of the wall and to examine the area next to it for any evidence of either a building interior or a potential continuation of the moat.

Our diggers set to work and quickly revealed the top of the wall line as expected. What we did not expect, however, was to find that the wall appeared to be considerably narrower and much more poorly constructed than the section we had seen in 2006, less than 1.5 metres away.

Recording what we had found so far, we went home to scratch our heads and returned on Sunday to dig down either side of the wall, to see if it really was as shoddily constructed as it seemed. It really was!

Enfield Archaeological Society digging at the site in early May (credit John Pinchbeck/EAS)

Ultimately, we revealed three courses of very crude brickwork including odds and ends of ceramic roof tiles probably added in an ad-hoc attempt to keep the brickwork level. This was far from the best work Tudor bricklayers were capable of and was a world apart from the section of masonry we found in 2006.

This story is published by Enfield Dispatch, Enfield's free monthly newspaper and free news website. We are a not-for-profit publication, published by a small social enterprise. We have no rich backers and rely on the support of our readers. Donate or become a supporter.

The ragged inside edge of the wall indicates it was probably constructed against a bank of brick-earth, which together with its size (too insubstantial for a building) leads us to believe it was a retaining wall for one side of the moat. This theory is supported by the fact that, towards the other end of the trench, we once again found a deep rubble-filled feature probably corresponding to the moat itself.

The wall as it appeared in Pit 43 was no doubt much more than a simple retaining wall, so the possibility remains of a building nearby or, given its position next to the moat, a footing for a bridge.

Sadly, we once again ran out of time to tackle this question and, as is often the case with Elsyng, we left with as many new questions as answers! We will almost certainly revisit this feature, maybe next summer.

In some ways, this is the attraction of the site – it isn’t simple, but piece-by-piece we’ve been putting together the jigsaw puzzle over the last 20 years, building a picture of the palace and the people who lived there.

For a more complete background on the palace, our new book Enfield’s Lost Palace Revealed is available to buy alongside the complete technical archaeological publication Monarchs, Courtiers and Technocrats via our website.

We’ll be back at Forty Hall from 7th-21st July to revisit the octagonal tower that featured on Digging for Britain, but will also be further investigating what we think is a cellar within the possible gatehouse building, which turned up after the cameras stopped rolling.

If you’d like to help us get to the bottom of this and other mysteries yet to come, digging is open to all members of the society aged 16 and over. No experience is necessary.

Once again we would like to thank our hardy team of diggers who make the work of the society possible, most especially those who saw it thorough to the end, enduring the famous British bank holiday downpour throughout Monday as we slogged our way through the unglamorous but necessary backfilling process!

In the words of one of our novice diggers: “It was a fun and fascinating experience and I’m very much looking forward to the excavations in July.”

For more information about Enfield Archaeological Society, to buy one of the group’s publications or to get involved as a volunteer:

No news is bad news 

Independent news outlets like ours – reporting for the community without rich backers – are under threat of closure, turning British towns into news deserts. 

The audiences they serve know less, understand less, and can do less. 

In celebration of Indie News Week, Public Interest News Foundation's Indie News Fund will match fund all donations, including new annual supporter subscriptions for the month of June.

If our coverage has helped you understand our community a little bit better, please consider supporting us with a monthly, yearly or one-off donation. 

Choose the news. Don’t lose the news.

Monthly direct debit 

Annual direct debit

£5 per month supporters get a digital copy of each month’s paper before anyone else, £10 per month supporters get a digital copy of each month’s paper before anyone else and a print copy posted to them each month. £50 annual supporters get a digital copy of each month's paper before anyone else.  

Donate now with Pay Pal

More information on supporting us monthly or yearly 

More Information about donations