History of Eltham Palace and Gardens
Eltham is a unique marriage between a medieval and Tudor palace and a 1930s millionaire’s mansion. From the 14th to the 16th century it was an important royal palace, where monarchs often stayed and hunted in the surrounding parks. After centuries of neglect, Eltham was leased to Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in 1933, who built an up-to-the-minute house here that incorporated the great hall. The result was a masterpiece of 20th-century design.
A moated manor
Little is known of any settlement on the site until the Domesday survey of 1086, when the manor of Eltham is recorded as belonging to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror.
The estate changed hands several times until 1295 when Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham, acquired it. He seems to have rebuilt the manor house, and constructed a defensive perimeter wall of stone and brick within the line of the moat.
A cellar and the remains of Bek’s great hall with an octagonal stone hearth and elaborate tiled floor were excavated in the 1970s. A timber drawbridge, probably on the site of the present north bridge, led to the manor house.
Henry VIII and Eltham
Henry VIII passed much of his boyhood at Eltham, and was the last monarch to spend substantial amounts of money or time there. In July 1517 a tiltyard was laid out to the east of the palace and by the 1520s extensive works were under way including new royal lodgings and a brick-built chapel.
On Christmas Eve 1515 Cardinal Wolsey took the oath of office of lord chancellor there. In 1525 he drew up the Ordinances of Eltham, regulations designed to reduce waste in the royal household. The fact that they were ratified at Eltham indicates the palace’s continuing importance.
Eltham in decline
Over the next two centuries Eltham Palace was used as a farm and the buildings were tenanted. Towards the end of the 18th century the palace appears as a romantic feature in paintings and engravings by artists such as Turner, Girtin and Sandby.
In the early 19th century a substantial villa was built beside the north bridge, and gardens and kitchen gardens were laid out in the west and south moats. A campaign to save the great hall from demolition resulted in repairs in 1828 – with the main roof being shored up with props that remained in place until 1903. It was still used as a barn, however.
Another gentleman’s residence, Eltham Court, was built beside the great hall in 1859, incorporating parts of an earlier farmhouse. Glasshouses and gardens were laid out around the house and in the moat. The great hall was used as an indoor tennis court by the tenants of Eltham Court, and as an occasional venue for parties.
From the 1890s more repairs were made to the great hall, most extensively between 1911 and 1914 when the roof was dismantled, reassembled with steel braces and reroofed with tiles, under the direction of the Office of Works.
After the Courtaulds
Stephen and Virginia Courtauld remained at Eltham for most of the Second World War, retreating during air raids to the basement, which they had fitted out as a comfortable bomb shelter. The most valuable contents of the house were dispersed for safety. Four incendiary bombs severely damaged the east end of the great hall roof in September 1940 and bombs also damaged the glasshouses.
The Courtaulds continued to entertain – though on a reduced scale – at Eltham during the war, but eventually, in May 1944, they moved out, having reputedly become tired of the bombing. Army education units then occupied the site, staying until 1992. The Ministry of Works took over the maintenance of the palace remains and the great hall, which was repaired and opened to the public for three days a week. The emphasis was on the medieval work at the expense of the 1930s intervention, which had some unfortunate consequences, such as the destruction of the gondola-style Courtauld lanterns in the great hall.
English Heritage (the most recent successor to the Ministry of Works) assumed responsibility for the great hall in 1984, and in 1995 took over the management of the entire site. Since then it has been systematically restoring the principal interiors of the 20th-century house to their appearance in the time of the Courtaulds, and the gardens to conserve surviving features from the Courtauld era and maintain the integrity of a 1930s garden.
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