09 May 2024

2024 Early May Dig

lime tree avenue
Site location within the lime tree avenue

The EAS returned to Forty Hall's lime tree avenue this Early May bank holiday, in our continuing exploration of the former site of Elsyng Tudor palace.

Evidence from our excavations has shown that the site, towards the end of Forty Hall's lime tree avenue, was probably first occupied around the turn of the 12th century, but it rose to prominence under the ownership of Sir Thomas Lovell, Chancellor of the Exchequer to Henry VII, towards the end of the 15th century.

Lovell developed Elsyng into a 'courtier's palace' - that is a place sufficiently large and comfortable enough to be able to invite the royal family and their retinue to stay, which they often did through the late 1400s and early 1500s.

Those visitors would have included a young Henry VIII, and so years later when he was looking for safe places outside of London to accomodate his children, especially his precious infant son Edward, Henry would naturally have thought of Elsyng. Thus, in late 1539 Henry added Elsyng to his already impressive and growing property portfolio, documents at the time referring to it simply as "The Prince's Place".

As a 'prince's place', Elsyng was perhaps never quite as spectacular as the no-expense-spared palaces of for example Hampton Court or Greenwich, but nontheless it featured all the trappings of wealth and power and had all the essential features of a Tudor palace, including a two-courtyard layout.

The outer, or service court, where most of the numerous household servants would have lived and worked, lay mostly within what is now Forty Hall's lime tree avenue, and has until recently been the focus of most of our research.

octagonal turret
The boundary wall (foreground) and integrated turret that featured on Digging for Britain. The holly bush in the background prevented further exploration but will be cut back for this year's July dig so that more of the turret and wall can be excavated.

In recent years however, we have begun to turn our attention west of the avenue, to where the palace's inner court and the more high status buildings lay.

A crucial part of understanding the layout of Elsyng is defining the boundary between the inner and outer courts, and this is what we have been working on for the last couple of years. We know from surviving documents that the courts were separated by a moat and an imposing four-storey gatehouse reached by a bridge.

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 nearby in 2023 we found the 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 11 ep.4) with Professor Alice Roberts and is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer until December.

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, from some nearby work we did in 2006.

Pit 43
Test Pit 43 - October 2006

Throughout 2006 the EAS dug more than 60 small evaluation trenches (called 'test pits') ahead of proposed tree planting by Enfield Council in Forty Hall's lime tree avenue, to determine whether such planting would adversley 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 the moat.

busy trench
EAS diggers get stuck in

And so on Saturday 4th May, we opened a 2x8 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.

When the palace was demolished in the 1650s the site was carefully levelled, typically with dumps of gravel. We revealed and quickly removed this gravel deposit to reveal, as expected, the top of the remains of our wall. 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 shoddy as it seemed.

It really was!

top of the wall
The top of the wall as it was revealed

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 worlds apart from the section of masonry we found in 2006.

The ragged inside edge of the wall indicates that it was probably constructed against a bank of brickearth, which together with its size (too insubstantial for a building) leads us to believe it is a retaining wall for one side of the moat. This theory was 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.

This of course leaves a major unanswered question - why the dramatic change in size and quality of the wall? The wall as it appeared in Pit 43 was no doubt much more than a simple retaining wall, and so the possibility remains of a building very nearby, although now that we know that at least part of the wall is associated with the courtyard boundary moat, there are additional possibilities including footings for a bridge.

excavated wall
Not their best work: The wall fully excavated.

Sadly we once again ran out of time to tackle this question and as is very 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, rebuilding a picture of the palace and the people who lived there.

For a more complete background on the palace and the story of the people who lived there, our new book "Enfield's Lost Palace Revealed" is available to buy alongside the complete technical archaeological publication "Monarchs, Courtiers and Technocrats", which also includes summaries and complete transcripts of all the available documentary evidence and also a summary of the work carried out by the EAS from 1963-67 which first put the palace back on the map. See enfarchsoc.org/publications.

We'll be back in Forty Hall from July 7th-21st 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+. No experience is necessary. See enfarchsoc.org/dig for more details.

muddy backfilling

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.


 Previous Story Next Story