Oatlands: From Henry VIII's palace to First World War hospital

'The Little Castle, 18 miles from London, lies on a slope and commands the most glorious view' Composer Joseph Haydn, during a visit to Oatlands House in 1791.

This online exhibition explores the history of Oatlands Palace through the ages. This large site has witnessed significant periods of history as a royal palace and a country home, before being demolished in the 1600s. In time, it was replaced with another grand estate, seeing use as a First World War hospital and most recently as a hotel.

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Anon., Oatlands Palace exterior, watercolour after Antonio van Wyngaerd, 1559.
Anon., Oatlands Palace exterior, watercolour after Antonio van Wyngaerd, 1559.

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Royal Residence

Oatlands Palace was originally built for King Henry VIII in 1537. Although it was a notable new addition to the Tudor king's plethora of royal dwellings at the time, much of the stone used to construct this great royal residence actually dated back to the Norman era. In 1110, the great blocks had first featured in the impressive Chertsey Abbey building. When Henry's landmark break with Rome and Reformation began in the 1530s, the old Abbey, among many others across England, fell victim to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and its stone was swiftly transported to Oatlands.

The Palace was created on the site of the Read family home, Oatlands Manor. The family were wealthy London goldsmiths who had moved to the countryside. Oatlands Manor would have been a grand house, even before being made into a palace, and we know it included a moat. When William Read died, the family were evicted to make way for the Palace, despite his widow’s pleas that ‘It will be great undoing if I continue not your tenant at Otelands’.

The Palace stood in the middle of Weybridge and witnessed many important historical events. The Palace enlarged his hunting estate known as the Honour of Hampton Court. This estate extended from Hampton Court Palace out to Oatlands in Weybridge and down to Nonsuch Palace near Ewell, also now lost. It provided additional space near Henry VIII’s main residence at Hampton Court. At its largest, the palace covered 14 acres of land and housed many servants, courtiers and government officials.

Henry had intended the palace to be the residence of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, who he married in 1540. The union, however, was very short-lived, and it is thought that Henry married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, at Oatlands chapel later that same year. Later in the Tudor period Oatlands was the palace Queen Mary retreated to after a miscarriage, and the young Princess Elizabeth, born in 1533 just before the palace was built, avoided plague by escaping to Oatlands. After being crowned Queen in 1558, she became a keen huntswoman, and hunted deer in the park her father had created.


Destruction during the Civil War

Both Queen Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Maria (wives of James VI and I and Charles I respectively) made improvements to Oatlands Palace. Queen Anne commissioned Inigo Jones to design the Great Gate. She was also responsible for ‘the makinge of a new brick wall … to enclose her majesties vineyard at Otelands’.

Charles I was briefly imprisoned at Oatlands following the English Civil War, when the palace had been used to station Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian troops. After Charles’s trial and execution in January 1649, the palace fell out of favour. It was demolished to fund the Republican army, and some of the bricks were used in the construction of the Weybridge canal.

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Anon., Oatlands House, 1808.
Anon., Oatlands House, 1808.

 

Regeneration

When Charles II returned to the throne in 1606 as part of the Restoration following the long Interregnum, the Oatlands estate reverted to the Crown and the land was leased to a succession of noblemen. It was the Seventh Earl of Lincoln who eventually built Oatlands House in the 1720s, 500 metres east of the original Palace site. The Ninth Earl of Lincoln went on to transform the grounds of Oatlands House. A Temple of Vesta was added and Inigo Jones’ Palace gate became a folly (a building constructed for decoration). Later, a gothic grotto was built. This contained several rooms lined with stones, shells and stalactites.

In 1789, the Duke Frederick Augustus of York bought Oatlands House and moved in with his wife. The Duchess was an eccentric lady and surrounded herself and the estate with a menagerie of animals. Although the house sadly burned down in 1794, it was rebuilt in the popular Gothic style of the period. The Duke and Duchess had an unhappy marriage and the Duchess lived most of her life alone at Oatlands. After her death in 1820, the Oatlands estate was broken up and the land sold off. The area which once formed the middle and outer courts of Oatlands Palace became a commercial market garden.

 

Excavations of Oatlands Palace in 1964
Excavations of Oatlands Palace in 1964

 

Oatlands Hotel and The First World War

In 1846, the estate was broken up into lots and sold at public auction for development to a James Watts Peppercorne. He redeveloped Oatlands House into the South Western Hotel in 1856. By this time the London and South Western Railway made the Weybridge area accessible to London, and the hotel attracted visitors from far and wide who had come to admire the 18th century follies.

During the First World War, the hotel was requisitioned for injured New Zealander soldiers, specifically ‘medical & tuberculosis cases and limbless men’. Additional space was needed due to overcrowding at Mount Felix Hospital just up the road, situated next to Walton Bridge.

At the war's end, the hotel reopened in 1919. It has welcomed many guests over the years, including famous names such as Emile Zola, Anthony Trollope and Edward Lear. It is now known as Oatlands Park Hotel, and traces of its rich history can still be seen in the hotel and its extensive grounds. 


Objects from Oatlands Palace were found during archaeological excavations in 1964, 1983 and 1984 and tell us much more about life at the Tudor Palace. Elmbridge Museum holds and cares for this nationally significant collection along with items relating to Oatlands Palace and House.


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The Oatlands Palace archway at Tudor Walk, Weybridge, the only part of the original Tudor palace which still stands.
The Oatlands Palace archway at Tudor Walk, Weybridge, the only part of the original Tudor palace which still stands.