If the walls of Eltham Palace and Gardens could talk, they'd have some colourful stories to tell. Luckily for you, we can tell some of them in a brief history of the palace that has hosted royals, millionaires and even trainee gardeners! Nowadays it is visited by thousands of people each year who want to enjoy the scenery of the gardens and grab an insight into a life of decadence whilst admiring the art-deco interior. But the history of Eltham Palace starts all the way back in the 11th Century and since then it has told a story full of parties, war and even pet lemurs!
In 1066, the Manor of Eltham was recorded as being held by Hamo, sheriff of Kent, on behalf of Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror. In 1295, Antony Bek, Bishop of Durham, builds a grand manor house at Eltham and constructs the wall of stone and brick within the line of the moat.
Bishop Bek gave the palace to Edward II in 1305 but continued to live there until his death in 1311, when Eltham became a Royal Palace. Edward II granted the manor to his queen, Isabella, and they had a son in 1316, who was known as John of Eltham. Eltham Palace underwent a lot of major building work during the 1300s, including new kitchens, new drawbridge and lodgings. It became a regularly frequented royal residence, visited by Edward III and John II of France.
Richard II, who reigned from 1377 – 1399, added more enclosed land to the palace, known as the Great Park. The investment didn’t stop there as he created a dancing chamber, a walled garden and a new bathhouse. Richard II’s parkland work continued amongst his successors, until there were 1,300 acres of parkland at Eltham.
Henry IV was another monarch who enjoyed spending time at Eltham, welcoming Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus to Eltham over Christmas 1400. Henry IV’s queen, Joan of Navarre, was treated to newly-built two-storey lodgings and Henry VI’s bride, Margaret of Anjou, arrived in 1445 to new buildings as well.
The famous Great Hall was built under Edward IV’s reign (1461 – 1470), which still survives to this day. Edward’s last visit to Eltham in Christmas 1482, before his death in April 1483, saw him host a magnificent feast for 2000 people!
One of the most famous monarchs to have graced the halls at Eltham is Henry VIII, who grew up in Eltham Palace. The palace continued to be important, inspiring the 1525 Ordinances of Eltham, which were designed to reduce waste in the palace. However, by the time the 1530s rolled around, Henry VIII spent less time at Eltham, preferring to spend his time at Hampton Court instead. Eltham was mainly used for hunting because of the plentiful deer in the parks. It seemed that Eltham’s days as a royal hotspot were coming to an end by the 17th century and James I, who reigned from 1603 to 1625, saw Eltham Palace as tired and decayed. Charles I was the last king to visit Eltham and in 1648, during the Civil War, Parliamentary Troops stationed at Eltham ransacked the palace and surrounding royal park.
It was sold in 1651 to Colonel Nathaniel Rich. Eltham underwent a period of demolishment, with even the lead being stripped off the great hall roof. Colonel Nathaniel Rich came to be known as ‘Rich the Rebel’ and by 1656, Eltham was described as being in ‘miserable ruins’ by John Evelyn. Thus, Eltham was demoted, the ruins being used as a farm and the Great Hall as a barn throughout the rest of the 17th and 18th century.
It wasn’t until 1828 that Eltham inspired some attention, with architect Sir Robert Smirke devoting himself to repairing the great hall. Not only this, additional gardens and glasshouses were built, as well as a separate residence in 1859 called Eltham Court. Tenants of this residence used the great hall as an indoor tennis court and party venue! It seems the Great Hall could have its own history book, as it underwent more repairs between 1890 and 1914. The roof was dismantled, steel braces were added and it was reroofed.
In 1933, Eltham Palace caught the attention of millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, who took a 99-year lease from the Crown. They modernised Eltham palace and built a new house next to the medieval Great Hall. They attempted to fuse the traditional Eltham Palace with their new, more modern tastes, using architect Rolf Engströmer to realise their dream home. In 1936, the Courtaulds move into Eltham Palace with their famous pet lemur, Mah-Jongg, who had its own quarters! They were big fans of art, gardening and new technology, furnishing the house with all of the new mod-cons such as speaker systems, telephones and synchronous clocks. They also entertained royalty and famous faces throughout their time at Eltham Palace.
The Second World War meant a bomb shelter was fitted in the basement but unfortunately the Great Hall was damaged by German incendiary bombs in September 1940. The Courtaulds left Eltham in 1944 on account of the extensive bombing.
In 1955, Eltham became the home of the Royal Army Educational Corps and even attracted The Royal Parks Training School in 1975, where apprentice gardeners used the palace gardeners to train.
In 1992, The Ministry of Works were put in charge of restoring and maintaining the site and their successor, English Heritage, took over management in 1995. Their focus was on restoring the house to the Courtauld’s 1930’s design. It is now open for the public to visit, and we'd definitely recommend making some time to go!
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