Eltham Palace: once Medieval and now Art Deco – part three of my ‘Jolly.’
Welcome to part three of my recent ‘Jollies’.
In addition to our fab visits to Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral
we visited the amazing
set in 19 acres of stunning gardens in Eltham, Greenwich, London.
The palace was once an important royal palace, hosting Kings, Queens, and international statesmen.
It’s one of the few medieval palaces to survive with substantial remains intact, and was one of only six royal residences large enough to accommodate and feed the entire Tudor court of 800 plus people.
The court continued to host famous visitors there until well into the 16th century. These included John II of France defeated at the Battle of Poitiers, visiting on his way back to France and who was accompanied by Jean Froissart, who chronicled the event later. Froissart later returned to Eltham in 1395 to present Richard ll with a collection of his poems.
In 1385 Leo V the exiled King of Armenia came to seek support in regaining his throne from the Turks.
Richard’s clerk of works, the poet Geoffrey Chauncer, was mugged twice – in 1390 – on his way to the palace and lost £40 of official funds as well as his horse.
Henry IV received Manual Palaeologus, the Byzantine Emperor, at Eltham at Christmas 1400, where entertainment included a mime performed by 12 London aldermen and a parade with a jousting tournament on the outer court on New Year’s Day.
In 1416 Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor, discussed Church affairs there with Henry V (r.1413-22) and forged an alliance with him.
Prince Henry (later Henry VIII) spent much of his childhood at Eltham and in 1499 as a 9-year-old met the Dutch philosopher Erasmus, who he embarrassed by challenging him to write a poem. Within three days Erasmus produced a verse in praise of England, Henry VII and the princes Arthur and Henry.
Christmas Eve 1515 Cardinal Wolsey took the oath of office of Lord Chancellor in the chapel at Eltham.
Queen Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) visited Eltham occasionally.
James I (r.1603-25) found the palace ‘farre in decay’ and subsequent repairs were undertaken.
Charles l (r.1625-49) was the last King to visit the palace.
Anglo-Saxon pottery has been found at Eltham, although little is known about any settlement until mentioned in the Doomsday Survey of 1086 when the manor of Eltham is recorded as being in the possession of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror (r.1066-87).
It changed hands several times until Bishop Anthony Bek acquired it from William de Vescy.
Initially a moated manor house, it was given to Edward II (r.1307-27) by Bishop Bek in 1305. Under Edward IV (r.1461-83) significant changes were made, especially additions to the great hall in the 1470s, which still stands today.
It is very impressive inside the hall, which has wonderful wooden beams and I had visions of Tudor kings eating great banquets there.
At its peak the palace occupied some 1,000ft by 500ft at its widest point, far exceeding that of Hampton Court.
Eltham palace was eclipsed by Greenwich and Hampton Court palaces in the 16th century and declined in the early 17th century.
Amazingly for 200 years after the Civil Wars it was used as farm.
The walk up to the palace took us from a cafe area where we paid our entry fees – the car park is close by which is convenient – along a lovely open garden area on one side and a more laid out garden on the other.
As we walked the palace suddenly came into view on our left hand side.
It is gorgeous, very impressive and magical.
Right ahead of us we saw lovely brown and black beamed cottages.
Turning left we crossed Edward IV’s 15th century moat bridge with weeping willow in the foreground.
The bridge once had a drawbridge at the rear end which was only discovered during repairs in 1912.
We saw Queen Isabella’s stone south moat wall (1315-16) in front of part of the great hall and what became the Courtauld wing.
1930s Stephen and Virginia (Ginie)
Courtauld were looking for a semi-rural property within easy reach of central London.
Eltham met their requirements – mine too, but sadly my bank account doesn’t – and the engaged architects Seely and Paget to build a house for them, adjoining the great hall, boasting an ultra-modern design, using the latest technology.
Leading designers and craftsmen were employed to create a range of lavish interiors and outstanding gardens (imagine the wealth), providing the setting for their extensive collection of art and furniture with ample space for entertaining which they went in for on a fantastic scale from what I gather.
The Courtaulds left Eltham in 1944 and the site was occupied by the Army educational unit until 1992. English Heritage took over in 1995, repairing and restoring the 1930s house and gardens.
In 2015 the rooms of Ginie’s nephews, Peter and Paul Peirano, her walk-in wardrobe, and the basement rooms were opened to the public.
The wardrobe displayed some of her evening dresses and some furs.
The basement was fascinating in that modern technology of the day was evident; all mod-cons as we say.
The home was full of labour-saving devices such as one of the most advanced system of electricity in the world.
The Courtaulds varied lighting effects to enhance their new home, with down-lighters, spotlight and concealed lighting.
Most rooms had electricity powered fires, servants’ bell pushes and synchronous clocks which were regulated by the incoming mains supply.
They had an innovative loudspeaker system which could broadcast records to rooms on the ground floor.
There was an internal automatic telephone exchange and a GPO payphone for the guests to use.
In the basement there was a centralised vacuum cleaner – the dust came down tubes from each room into a main cylinder in the basement and the kitchen contained two Jackson’s electric cookers and an electric Kelvinator refrigerator. – all rarely in use at the time.
They used electricity to heat the showers serving the squash courts changing room and a fire alarm system which could automatically call the fire brigade.
Gas powered the hot water central heating which fed pipes embedded in the ceilings.
In the entrance hall and great hall and bathrooms the heating was under the floor.
Eltham’s standard of design and services is unique for a British domestic building, and is comparable to that of a luxury hotel or ocean liner such as Cunard’s Queen Mary.
I think generally we all found the Palace a little disappointing.
There wasn’t as much Art Deco on show as we expected.
However, what was there was very interesting and worth seeing.
The Palace was very busy with visitors and so taking photos without including a complete stranger in them proved difficult.
The wooden marquetry on the doors and panels especially caught my attention. It was superb.
The dining table and chairs – designed by Malacrida – had been sold off years ago and were discovered by a property store manager of Pinewood Studio while waiting to see the doctor.
He picked up a copy of a 1999 World of Interiors to pass the time and it featured an article on Eltham’s restoration.
He realised that the photo looked familiar and tore the page out and returned to Pinewood where he found the furniture in the store.
It had been modified over the years. He contacted English Heritage who subsequently purchased the furniture for Eltham.
Stephen Courtauld intended the house to provide a setting for his art collection.
In 1919 he endowed a scholarship in engraving at the British School of Rome, serving on its council from 1921 to 1947.
Royalty and celebrities continued to grace the Courtauld’s home and they held large dinner parties, annual summer fetes with dance bands and fireworks, and during the war fitted the basement out as a dormitory where they and their guests retreated during air raids.
Over 100 incendiary bombs fell on the estate during the Battle of Britain.
We enjoyed our visit to the Palace, but we didn’t get into the grounds due to lack of time.
It is a fascinating place, mainly because of the history and the technological innovations in use in the 1930s as far as we were concerned.
If you have enjoyed learning little about Eltham Palace and its history you can discover more from English Heritage.
Eltham Palace, Court Yard, Eltham, Greenwich, London SE9 5QE
Tel: +44 (0)20 8294 2548
English Heritage is the custodian of over 400 historic monuments, buildings and sites with over 10 million visitors per year.