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Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Old Palace Croydon: Part One


At the weekend I made my way to Croydon, once a prime country seat of the Archbishops of Canterbury and now housing a girls’ day school. A surprisingly large amount of the palace still survives. I first heard about the place a number of years ago, thanks to a London Open Day event. Having toured the buildings then, I picked up a pamphlet and returned with the Partridge on one of the special open days run by the Friends of the Old Palace. It was another such open day ran by the latter that saw my return to the former ecclesiastical complex at the weekend.

For reasons of insurance the Friends do not allow photographs to be taken indoors, even in the Great Hall which, if my memory serves me right does not boast any items likely to be purloined by the light-fingered. I believe the Friends have missed a trick by not selling postcards of the interior void of items subject to insurance. Consequently modern interior images are from the Friends of the Old Palace website.

The Great (outer) Courtyard is now a playground, complete with a hopscotch course marked out. Somewhat incongruously by the wall of the Great Hall stands a raised netball goal post. At right angles to the Great Hall is the external wall of the chapel. The Great Hall has three sets of window facing the Great courtyard as opposed to the one large window at the altar end of the chapel. The bow window looks to be from the 18th or 19th century and a closer inspection of the brickwork and the roofing reveals that the buildings have been altered and extensively renovated over the centuries. This is hardly surprising: having served as an official residence of some of the most powerful men in England, namely the archbishops of Canterbury, the palace was close to a ruin in the 19th century when it reached its nadir as a wash house when vast expanses of washed calico material were hung from the rafters in the Great Hall. It was thanks to the Duke of Newcastle that the complex, instead of being pulled down, was handed over to an order of Anglican nuns to use as a girls’ school.

A religious building had been on the site since at least the 9th century. King Alfred the Great was said to have paid a visit in 871 AD.  In 1086 the Domesday Book records a manor house being at Croydon. As befitted the palace of the Archbishop of Canterbury, royalty were often entertained here, particularly if you were called King Henry from the third of that name onwards. Catherine of Aragon arrived as a widow after the death of Prince Arthur and before her marriage to his brother, King Henry VIII. Thomas Cranmer, the Protestant martyr, was summoned from the palace to accord the dying Henry VIII the last rites. I wonder whether it still rankled with Cranmer that Knole had been taken from him by the greedy King, who argued that because Knole stood on high ground it was less rheumatic for him than the archbishop's other palace at Croydon, which Henry grumbled he "could never be without sickness."  This little anecdote was told to the 19th century literary editor Alexander Balloch Grosart by the then resident of Croydon Mr Corbet Anderson. Henry’s eldest daughter Queen Mary convalesced here and his youngest daughter, Elizabeth came a-calling in 1573 and stayed for a week.

I have previously mentioned Daniel Lyson’s “The Environs of London” published in 1792 with reference to a description of Eastbury Manor House in the 18th century.  In the same great work Daniel refers to a memorandum setting out the arrangements for Queen Elizabeth I’s reception, written by one Simon Bowyer. It seems the arrangements for accommodating the Queen and her retinue were proving something of a headache for the flustered Mr Bowyer. It is also apparent that this was not the first time that the court had arrived at Croydon expecting to be housed. In the previous year the Queen had stayed for a whole week. In the memorandum notes the “wardrobe of the bed.”  I wonder if the Queen brought her own bed-linen and coverings with her or even bed with her.

"Lodgings at Croydon, the busshope of Canterburye's house, bestowed as followeth, the 19 of Maye 1574:"
"The Lord Chamberlayne, his olde lodgings.
The Lord Tresurer wher he was.
The Lady Marques, at the nether end of the great chamber.
The Lady of Warwicke, wher she was.
The Erle of Leicester, wher he was.
"The Lord Admyral, at the nether end of the great chamber.
The Lady Howard, wher she was.
The Lord Honsdone, wher he was.
Mr. Secretary Walsingham, wher Mr. Smyth was.
The Lady Stafford, wher she was.
Mr. Henedge, wher he was.
Mr. Drewry, wher the Lady Sydney was.
Ladies and Gentilwomen of the privie chamber, ther olde.
Mrs. Abbington her olde, and another small rome addid for "the table.
"The maydes of honour, wher they were.
Sir George Howard, wher he was.
The Capten of the gard, wher my Lord of Oxforde was.
The Grooms of the privye chamber, ther olde.
The Esquyers for the body, ther olde.
The Gentelmen Hussers, ther olde.
The Physycyons, two chambers.
The Queens robes, wher they were.
The Grome Porter, wher he was.
The Clerke of the kitchen, wher he was.
The wardrobe of beds.

"For the Queen's wayghters, I cannot as yet synde any convenient romes to place them in, but I will do the best that I can to place them elsewhere; but yf it plese you Sir that I doo remove them, the gromes of the privye chamber, nor Mr. Drewrye, have no other waye to their chambers, but to pass throw that waye. Agayne, if my Lady of Oxford should come, I cannot then tell wher to place Mr. Hatton, and for my Lady Carewe, here is no place with a chimney for her, but she must lay abrode by Mrs. Apparry, and the rest of the privye chamber; for Mrs. Skelton, here is no rome with chimneys. I shall staye one chamber without for her. Here is as mytche as I have any wayes able to doo "in this house. From Croydon, this present Wensday mornynge, your honour's alwayes most bounden,”

Not all royal visitors came of their own free will. James I, the King of Scotland, was lodged here when he was a prisoner of state. When Queen Elizabeth came in 1573 she was the guest of Archbishop Parker, her mother’s, Anne Boleyn’s, former chaplain. In the 1640s the Puritans came to power and the Commonwealth was established. They treated the Archbishop Parker’s former palace with far greater respect than his bones. Thus, the former was left relatively untouched whereas Parker’s bones were taken from his tomb at Lambeth and flung onto a dung heap. Or so I was told on the three occasions I visited the current principal London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. Following the Restoration, Parker’s bones were re-interred.

The upheavals of the English Civil Law had seen one Archbishop, Laud, beheaded and the post falling into abeyance. With the Restoration a new archbishop, Juxon, was appointed by King Charles II. Juxon had been invited by the King’s father, King Charles I, to attend him on the scaffold, when the latter was executed in 1649. Rather curiously Juxon’s personal heraldic shield depicts the heads of 4 blackamoors. It has been surmised that his family might have been in the slave trader. If so, this was a fact of which he was clearly proud.    

The following century was far less turbulent for Archbishops of Canterbury. However, the palace at Croydon was growing less to their liking. The last archbishop to literally set his mark on the place was Thomas Herring, who carried out a series of remedial repairs to the Great Hall in the 1740s, adding tie beams to secure the rafters. His initials can still be seen on the tie-beams and on external drainpipes. 30 years later, the archbishops had ceased to use the palace altogether. What had once been pleasing surrounding countryside had become heavily industrialised. The archbishops chose to up sticks and move to the more congenial Addington to the North East of present day Croydon. The palace was sold in the 1780s and gradually the land around the ecclesiastical buildings was auctioned off too.


A 19th century print of the Great Hall when it languished as a wash house for the production of calico printing shows it in a sorry state. It declined even further when the adjoining kitchen, buttery and pantry were demolished causing the East Wall to collapse entirely in 1830. When the palace came up for sale in the 1880s efforts were made to secure it on behalf of the people of Croydon. Such efforts failed. Instead the Duke of Newcastle bought it and presented to the Anglican order of the Community of Sisters. The latter wanted to turn it into a girls’ school, which it remains to this day, although the nuns handed over responsibility for the running of the school to the Local Education Authority in the 1970s. Although the archbishops officially vacated the site over two centuries ago, there is still a very pertinent link with the past in that the current girls’ school has greatly benefited from a legacy left by one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite archbishops, John Whitgift.   

The Old Palace at Croydon, like Eastbury Manor House and Sutton House, has had a very chequered history and might well have ended up being demolished. Thanks to the Duke of Newcastle who bought the palace, the Community of Sisters who strived to turn the derelict site into a suitable accommodation for a school and the present day Friends of the Old Palace, who seek to raise funds for the upkeep and maintenance of the historic parts of the current girls’ school, one of the great treasures of the age has survived on into the 21st century and it is to be hoped for many more centuries to come.  

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