Eltham Palace is one of the few important medieval royal palaces in England to survive with substantial remains intact. Initially a moated manor house with vast parkland, it was acquired by the future Edward II in 1305 who subsequently passed it on to his queen, Isabella.
Under Edward IV significant changes were made, most notably the addition of the Great Hall in the 1470s which is still visible today. Henry VIII was the last monarch to spend substantial amounts of money or time at Eltham and in the 16th century the Palace was eclipsed by Greenwich Palace and declined rapidly. In the mid 17th century, the owner, Sir John Shaw, built Eltham Lodge in the Great Park and lived there. For the next 200 years Eltham Palace was used as a farm and the buildings were tenanted. In the early 19th century a villa was built within the moat walls and gardens and kitchen gardens laid out in the west and south moats. A campaign to save the Great Hall from demolition resulted in its restoration in 1828 but it was still used as a barn. Later in the 19th century Eltham Palace became a gentleman's residence, and glasshouses and gardens were laid out in the west moat. By the early 19th century the parkland had been reduced to two small areas of 21 hectares and 29 hectares, the rest had reverted to arable or pastureland. The larger park was cleared of its parkland trees between 1808 and 1828.
In the 1930s an important private house, boasting an ultra-modern design was built adjoining the Great Hall by a wealthy couple, Stephen and Virginia Courtauld. In 1935, an initial design for the gardens was produced by Andrew Mawson and Partners for the Courtaulds. This was then modified to incorporate ornamental plantations, shrubberies and specimen trees. The Courtaulds were keen horticulturists and new areas were laid out including lawns, a mixed border, a sunken rose garden, a spring bulb meadow, a rock garden and woodland garden. Stephen had a passion for orchids, which he raised in the glasshouses, and Virginia for roses. After they left Eltham, a red rose was created in their Rhodesian home and named 'Virginia Courtauld'.
The Courtaulds left Eltham in 1944 and the site was occupied by Army educational units until 1992. English Heritage assumed management of the palace in 1995, and in 1999 completed a major programme of repairs to and restoration of the 1930s interiors and gardens. Today the gardens are a rare and very fine example of a 1930s garden design with the fact that they incorporate elements of the medieval palace adds a further intriguing dimension.
Eltham Palace is Grade II* on the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest.