Eltham Palace is one of the most beautiful landmarks in the Royal Borough of Greenwich and has quite an interesting history to go with it! From serving as a childhood home to the great Henry VIII to being home to 1930s philanthropists, we break down the passing owners of Eltham Palace and how it has shaped what the building looks like today.
The palace was first given to Edward II in 1305 by the Bishop of Durham and became a royal residence between the 14th and 16th century. Eltham Palace quickly became one of the largest and most popular royal residences of the 14th century. Edward III spent the majority of his youth and later visited the estate when he reigned. When Edward IV acquired Eltham Palace from his ancestors, he built the Great Hall, where a young Henry VIII grew up.
Edward IV (Ann Longmore-Etheridge)
Henry VIII (Phandcp)
Edward IV adored Eltham Palace and it was during his second reign of England that the Great Hall was built, where one of the most extravagant feasts ever was held in the palace during Christmas 1482, serving close to 2,000 guests! This event would have occured during one of Edward’s last visits before his death in the following April.
It seems the palace became a popular venue for the festive season, as Henry IV spend 10 out of his 13 Christmases there as king. This included the year of 1400, where he entertained the Byzantine emperor. Henry IV’s contribution to Eltham included timber-framed apartments and two-storey lodgings for the queen, Joan of Navarre.
However, in the 1530s, Henry VIII rarely visited Eltham Palace and instead favourite Hampton Court as the royal court’s focus moved to the west. He also was drawn to Greenwich. Elizabeth I only visited the palace on occasion.
The 17th century marked the decline of Eltham, as the buildings in the estate were poorly maintained. James I found the palace ‘farre in decay’ and Charles I was the last monarch to visit. In 1651, Parliament sold the palace to Colonel Nathanial Rich, who demolished many buildings and stripped part of the Great Hall roof.
Eltham Palace also suffered during the English Civil War, with the gardens stripped of its trees and deer. When John Evelyn visited the palace on 22 April 1656, he expressed his dismay at Colonel Rich’s contribution to Eltham. Evelyn likely gave this nickname, ‘Rich the rebel’, to Colonel Rich because he sided with Parliament during the English Civil War, whereas Evelyn previously joined the Royalist army. Sadly, the original palace did not recover from this tragedy.
In 1933, Eltham was given a new lease of life when Stephen Courtauld and his wife Virginia acquired the palace and restored Great Hall. Architects Seely and Paget were commissioned to design the wealthy couple’s new home. The Courtaulds intended to keep as much of the original palace as possible, yet transformed most of it into marvelous home with a signature Art Deco style of the decade.
Eltham Palace and Gardens
The house was intended to be used as a place to house the Courtauld’s extensive art collection, from contemporary pieces to Old Masters. The couple also took advantage of the vast space for entertaining their social circle. The palace was even treated to royal visits once more, as Queen Mary visited twice. Virginia Courtauld in particular was imagined to be quite a scandalous figure among her and her husband’s circle. Not only was she a foreigner from Romania, but was divorced, tattooed and not afraid to speak her mind. She even kept a pet lemur called Mah-Jongg, who she let roam free around the palace! Fasinated by this woman yet? You can read deeper into her life in The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger, which features the woman’s time at Eltham and beyond.
Eltham Palace and Gardens
The Courtaulds were also responsible for bringing Eltham Palace into the new age of technology. You would find electric fires were logs had laid, as well as synchronous clothes and a loudspeaker system playing the latest records of the 1930s. There was even underfloor heating throughout the house, including the separate quarters where the pet lemur slept!
Stephen and Virginia endured staying at the house throughout most of the Second World War, hiding in their basement that had been converted into a comfortable shelter during bomb raids. In the end, four incendiary bombs damaged part of the great hall’s roof, as well as the glasshouses. Despite this, the couple aimed to still entertain their guests in a bid to keep spirits up during the war. However, in the May of 1944, they left Eltham, claiming they could not endure the bombings any longer.
It was the Army Educational Corps that took over the lease on the palace, using the estate as a base of operations that included running overseas Army schools and helping with resettlement of soldiers after their service.
Eltham Palace and Gardens
One of the most relaxing and charming things you can do if you visit Eltham Palace today is take a stroll through the breathtaking gardens. Each of the seasons lends itself to the gardens, with deep scarlet leaves and tall shrub roses peppered with fruit in the autumn. Visit in the summertime, and you’ll be greeted with a burst of colours, with dozens of varieties of poppies and peonies.
Too cold to stay outside? You can step back in time and see reconstructions of rooms where the infamous Courtaulds lived during their time at Eltham, including Virginia’s walk-in wardrobe and their luxurious bomb shelter in the basement!
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