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.
Bek presented the manor to the future Edward II in 1305, though he lived there until his death in 1311. Both Edward and his father had frequently stayed at Eltham.
Edward II later granted the manor to his queen, Isabella. During his reign considerable improvements were made, including the construction of a new retaining wall around Bek’s, with buttresses to support the earlier masonry. Edward and Isabella’s second son, John, was born at Eltham in 1316 and baptised in the chapel there. He was known as John of Eltham.
By the early 14th century Eltham had become one of the largest and most frequented royal residences in the country. Edward III (reigned 1327–77) spent much of his youth there and frequently visited it as king. In 1364 he received John II of France (1319–64) at the palace amid ‘great dancing and caroling’ when John returned to voluntary captivity in England. John was accompanied by his secretary Jean Froissart, who subsequently recorded the event in his lively Chronicles and described Eltham as ‘a very magnificent manor’.
Extensive alterations and repairs were made in the 1350s and 1360s. The moat walls were altered again, and a new drawbridge and service buildings were built. New royal lodgings on the east side of the site featured a bathroom for the king with a tiled floor and glazed windows. There are references at this time to chapels for the king and queen and to a garden with vines.
Beyond the moat, to the south and east, more land was enclosed between 1367 and 1368 as part of what was later known as the Great Park. Further enclosures by Richard II (r.1377–99) and his successors brought the total parkland to almost 1,300 acres (525 hectares).
Successive monarchs lavished large sums on the palace. In the 1380s Richard II created a walled garden to the south beyond the moat ‘for the king and queen to have dinner there in the summer time’, as well as a dancing chamber and a new bathhouse within the king’s apartments. He also rebuilt the timber bridge in stone.
Henry IV (r.1399–1413) spent 10 of his 13 Christmases as king at Eltham, entertaining the Byzantine emperor there at Christmas 1400. He built a set of timber-framed apartments with stone chimneystacks for himself and two-storey lodgings for the queen, Joan of Navarre. In 1445 new buildings were erected for the arrival of Henry VI’s bride, Margaret of Anjou.
Eltham was a favourite residence of Edward IV (r. 1461–70, 1471–83). It was during his reign, in the 1470s, that the magnificent surviving great hall was built. One of the most lavish feasts ever held in the palace was given for some 2,000 people at Christmas 1482, during Edward’s last visit to Eltham before his death the following April.
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.Buy the Guidebook to Eltham Palace
Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts
In the 1530s, however, Henry VIII rarely came to Eltham. He increasingly embellished Hampton Court, as the focus of the royal court moved westwards. He also preferred Greenwich, which was more accessible from Westminster by river. Elizabeth I (r.1558–1603) only visited Eltham occasionally.
During the 17th century the buildings were poorly maintained. James I (r.1603–25) found the palace ‘farre in decay’, and Charles I was the last king to visit it. In 1651 Parliament sold it to Colonel Nathaniel Rich, who demolished many buildings and stripped the lead off the great hall roof.
When the diarist John Evelyn visited Eltham in 1656 he lamented: ‘Both the palace and chapel [are] in miserable ruins, the noble wood and park destroyed by Rich the Rebel’.
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.
The Courtaulds at Eltham
In 1933, millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld were looking for a semi-rural property within easy reach of central London. Eltham fitted the bill, and they took a 99-year lease from the Crown.
They commissioned the budding architects Seely & Paget to design a modern home on the site of the 19th-century buildings, while retaining as much as possible of the historic palace. After some controversy over the scheme, because of its impact on the palace remains, it was eventually carried through with the help of Sir Charles Peers, formerly Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments with the Office of Works, who acted as consultant for the repairs to the great hall.
The exterior of the new house, in a ‘Wrenaissance’ style partly inspired by Hampton Court, is designed to complement the great hall. The interior styles (ranging from historical to moderne) resulted both from the Courtaulds’ own tastes and from the architects, designers and craftsmen they commissioned. As well as Seely & Paget they included Peter Malacrida, Rolf Engströmer, Carlton Attwood and Gilbert Ledward.Find more about Seely and Paget at Eltham
The house was ideally suited to display the Courtaulds’ extensive collection of works of art, which included contemporary pieces as well as Old Masters. It also provided ample space for entertaining their broad social circle. As well as royalty – Queen Mary visited twice – celebrity visitors included Stravinsky, Gracie Fields, Malcolm Sargent, film producers Basil Dean and Michael Balcon, band leader Lew Stone, and politicians such as Rab Butler and Leo Amery.
The Courtaulds also took full advantage of new technology. There were electric fires and in most rooms synchronous clocks which were regulated by the incoming mains supply, and a loudspeaker system that could broadcast records to rooms on the ground floor. Siemens installed a private internal telephone exchange. There was a centralised vacuum cleaner in the basement. Gas was used to power underfloor and radiant ceiling heating throughout the house. Virginia Courtald’s pet lemur even had its own heated quarters on the first floor.
Keen horticulturalists, the Courtaulds also created a variety of garden features including a rock garden, formal rose gardens and a series of garden ‘rooms’, the latter being more typical of the Edwardian period or Arts and Crafts style.Find out more about the Eltham Palace Lemur
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.
At the suggestion of their close friend, the Conservative politician Rab Butler, they passed on the remainder of the lease to the Army Educational Corps. From its base at Eltham the now Royal Army Educational Corps (RAEC) ran Army schools overseas, administered examinations, provided language and other training for soldiers and helped with resettlement when they left the Army. In 1992 the RAEC was absorbed into the Adjutant General’s Corps and left Eltham, with the Corps flag being lowered at a ceremony on 5 April attended by serving and retired officers.Find out more about the army at Eltham
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.
READ MORE ABOUT ELTHAM PALACEFind more property histories
1. T Lawson, ‘Domesday Book, population, towns and landholdings’, in An Historical Atlas of Kent, ed T Lawson and D Killingray (Chichester, 2004), 36–7.
2. CM Fraser, A History of Antony Bek (Oxford, 1957), 107–8, 195, 210; RA Brown, HM Colvin and AJ Taylor, The History of the King’s Works, vol 2: The Middle Ages (London, 1963), 930.
3. H Woods, ‘Excavations at Eltham Palace, 1975–9’, Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, 33 (1982), 215–65.
4. Brown et al, op cit, 930.
5. ‘Altem, un moult riche manoir du roy’: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris MS Fr 2663, fol 254v.
6. Brown et al, op cit, 931–4.
7. The National Archives, E 101/473/2.
8. Brown et al, op cit, 935–6.
9. Ibid, 936.
10. M Biddle, HM Colvin, JR Hale, M Merriman and J Summerson, The History of the King’s Works, vol 4: 1485–1660, part 2 (London, 1982), 80.
11. Cited in R Brook, The Story of Eltham Palace (London, 1960), 48.