Eltham Palace is a large house in Eltham, within the Royal Borough of Greenwich, South East London, England. It is an unoccupied royal residence and owned by the Crown Estate. In 1995 its management was handed over to English Heritage which restored the building in 1999 and opened it to the public. It has been said the internally Art Deco house is a “masterpiece of modern design”.
The original palace was given to Edward II in 1305 by the Bishop of Durham, Anthony Bek, and used as a royal residence from the 14th to the 16th century. According to one account the incident which inspired Edward III’s foundation of the Order of the Garter took place here. As the favourite palace of Henry IV it played host to Manuel II Palaiologos, the only Byzantine emperor ever to visit England, from December 1400 to January 1401, with a joust being given in his honour. There is still a jousting tilt yard. Edward IV built the Great Hall in the 1470s, a young Henry VIII back when he was known as Prince Henry also grew up here; it was here that he met and impressed the scholar Erasmus in 1499 introduced by Thomas More. Erasmus described the occasion:
I had been carried off by Thomas More, who had come to pay me a visit on an estate of Mountjoy’s (the house of Lord Mountjoy near Greenwich) where I was staying, to take a walk by way of diversion as far as the nearest town (Eltham). For there all the royal children were being educated, Arthur alone excepted, the eldest son. When we came to the hall, all the retinue was assembled; not only that of the palace, but Mountjoy’s as well. In the midst stood Henry, aged nine, already with certain royal demeanour; I mean a dignity of mind combined with a remarkable courtesy…. More with his companion Arnold saluted Henry (the present King of England) and presented to him something in writing. I, who was expecting nothing of the sort, had nothing to offer; but I promised that somehow, at some other time, I would show my duty towards him. At the time I was slightly indignant with More for having given me no warning, especially because the boy, during dinner, sent me a note inviting something from my pen. I went home, and though the Muses, from whom I had lived apart so long, were unwilling, I finished a poem in three days.
Tudor courts often used the palace for their Christmas celebrations. With the grand rebuilding of Greenwich Palace, which was more easily reached by river, Eltham was less frequented, save for the hunting in its enclosed parks, easily reached from Greenwich, “as well enjoyed, the Court lying at Greenwiche, as if it were at this house it self”. The deer remained plentiful in the Great Park, of 596 acres (2.4 km2), the Little, or Middle Park, of 333 acres (1.3 km2), and the Home Park, or Lee Park, of 336 acres (1.4 km2). In the 1630s, by which time the palace was no longer used by the royal family, Sir Anthony van Dyck was given the use of a suite of rooms as a country retreat. During the English Civil War, the parks were denuded of trees and deer. John Evelyn saw it 22 April 1656: “Went to see his Majesty’s house at Eltham; both the palace and chapel in miserable ruins, the noble wood and park destroyed by Rich the rebel”. The palace never recovered. Eltham was bestowed by Charles II on John Shaw and—in its ruinous condition, reduced to Edward IV’s Great Hall, the former buttery, called “Court House”, a bridge across the moat and some walling—remained with Shaw’s descendants as late as 1893.
The current house was built in the 1930s on the site of the original, and incorporates its Great Hall, which boasts the third-largest hammerbeam roof in England. Fragments of the walls of other buildings remain visible around the gardens, and the 15th-century bridge still crosses the moat.
Eltham Palace today (1930s-present)
In 1933, Stephen Courtauld and his wife Virginia Courtauld (née Peirano) acquired the lease of the palace site and restored the Great Hall (adding a minstrels’ gallery to it) while building an elaborate home, internally in the Art Deco style. The dramatic Entrance Hall was created by the Swedish designer Rolf Engströmer. Light floods in from a spectacular glazed dome, highlighting blackbean veneer and figurative marquetry. Keen gardeners, the Courtaulds also substantially modified and improved the grounds and gardens.
Stephen was the younger brother of industrialist and art collector Samuel Courtauld, founder of the Courtauld Institute of Art (his study in the new house features a statuette version of The Sentry, from a Manchester war memorial, by Charles Sargeant Jagger, who was – like Stephen – a member of the Artists’ Rifles).
The Courtaulds’ pet lemur had a special room on the upper floor of the house which had a hatch to the downstairs flower room; he had the run of the house. The Courtaulds remained at Eltham until 1944 (during which time Stephen firewatched from the Great Hall roof, with the palace near the docks at Woolwich, a prime bombing target – in September 1940, the roof of the Great Hall was badly damaged by a bomb). In 1944, they moved to Scotland then to Southern Rhodesia, giving the palace to the Royal Army Educational Corps in March 1945; the corps remained there until 1992.
In 1995, English Heritage assumed management of the palace, and in 1999, completed major repairs and restorations of the interiors and gardens.
The palace and its garden are open to the public and can be hired for weddings and other functions. Most of the rooms have been restored to resemble their appearance during the Courtauld’s occupation (though it is uncertain how some of them were furnished) but some have been left as they were when the palace was used by the Royal Army Educational Corps. In September 2013 English Heritage staff at the palace said that there were plans to open more rooms to the public in 2014, including some of the servants’ accommodation.
The house and grounds are beautiful and walking around them carry’s you back in time. Romantic and decadent it has been used for a number of films and TV productions and even the ‘Gucci’ by Gucci advertisement (with James Franco)