The last time I had made my way to Eltham Palace it had been on a beautiful spring morning. Henry VIII was in residence along with his chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, his court jester, Will Somers and his long suffering first wife, Catherine of Aragon. We were told we could seek a private audience with the Queen and shown the correct way to approach her. If ever a place was the perfect setting to be schooled in courtly protocol then it was Eltham Palace. Fifty years after work on the Great Hall had been started Cardinal Wolsey had tried to introduce radical reforms to the running of Henry VIII’s court through the so called Eltham Ordinances, named after the palace where he had first devised them. Wolsey fell victim to the caprices of his royal master and was removed from office before his reforms could be properly implemented. Only his death from natural causes whilst en-route to the Tower spared him from being executed as a traitor in London.
Addressing a question to Catherine of Aragon was a tad embarrassing for me as I have always been a keen fan of Anne Boleyn’s, a fact I thought it wise to keep to myself on that occasion. Nonetheless, I did take the opportunity to quiz Catherine. I cannot recall what I asked her but it was evident from her deft reply that she knew her onions, or rather the actress playing her certainly did. Such actors were required to do far more than simply dress up in the appropriate costume. They were also expected to answer any questions that came their way whilst staying in character. Although I have seen Henry VIII on a number of occasions, mainly at Hampton Court, I have refrained from approaching him. I will never forgive him for what he did to his second wife. I once spied his daughter, Elizabeth I bearing down on me with her courtiers and I steered well clear. I also remember a feast being prepared for Elizabeth’s Scottish successor, James I, at Hampton Court. One of the cooks in the great kitchen invited me to tap his stomach to prove that its rounded shape was due to the padding of his doublet and not middle-aged spread. He also allowed me to sample some of the food they were preparing as well. Last year Henry and her last wife, Katherine Parr, came to Hampton Court by river from the Tower of London to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's coronation. To my chagrin, despite waiting in the rain for several hours all I saw of their arrival was the blue tips of the boatmen’s oars as they raised them in salute.
When I returned to Eltham Palace recently it was on a bleak November day with the rain cascading down. No Tudor monarchs and their entourages were present. As for myself, I felt less like a 15th century courtier and more like the heroine of a 19th century novel. My hacking cough would have put any consumptive Victorian heroine to shame with its heart rending volume. However I was determined to make my way across to Eltham as my friend Ali had expressed a desire to visit the palace with me. Whereas I was dressed like a Victorian maiden with my long black frock coat and ballerina length needlecord dress, Ali looked for all the world like a 1930s aviatrix in her leather flying jacket. In that respect she looked far more at home at Eltham Palace than I did for the palace is a magnificent blend of two distinct architectural styles: a medieval hall with a grand art deco mansion attached.
Like Croydon Palace, Eltham Palace had once been at the heart of the medieval and Tudor political world. The original manor of Eltham had been owned by various members of the clergy ever since the time of Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half brother to William the Conqueror. Some historians now believe that it was Odo who commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry, that legendary masterpiece of propaganda celebrating William, the Duke of Normandy’s, victory over his rival King Harold for the throne of England. Two hundred years later, having created a park around the manor house, the then Bishop of Durham, Anthony Bek made a gift of the manor house and land to the Prince of Wales, soon to be King Edward II. Bek had once been a principle adviser to King Edward I. However his high handed manner had won him enemies within the clergy and even the wrath of the king himself when it seemed Bek had overreached himself and arbitrarily imprisoned a royal official. Such a flagrant disregard for royal authority led to Bek’s lands being confiscated in 1305, the very year he astutely made over the manor of Eltham to the prince. Fortunately for Bek King Edward I died shortly afterwards and his son and heir later restored Bek’s confiscated property but kept Eltham for himself. King Edward II magnanimously allowed Bek to continue living in at Eltham until the bishop died peacefully in his bed there in 1311.
It was another Edward, King Edward IV, who started building the Great Hall in 1475. Subsequent monarchs were similarly keen to enlarge and set their mark upon the place. Henry VIII had spent much of his boyhood at Eltham and it remained one of his favourite palaces even after he came to the throne. Amongst other changes he had made to the palace was the construction of a chapel on a par, in terms of scale at least, with Edward IV’s Great Hall. Henry’s reign probably represented the zenith of Eltham’s life as a palace. After his death it featured less prominently in the life of the court. During the English Civil War Eltham Palace became, in the words of the Harry Bedford and Terry Sullivan 1920s song: One of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit.
By the time the diarist John Evelyn came to visit the palace on 22nd April 1656, he was shocked at the state of the palace and Henry VIII’s chapel. In his diary he wrote: ”I went to see his Majesty's house at Eltham, both palace and chapel in miserable ruins, the noble woods and park destroyed.” Although the Archbishops’ Palace at Croydon survived the Civil War relatively untouched, it too fell into a perilous decline after the archbishops vacated the palace for good in the 18th century. Whereas the medieval Great Hall at Croydon was turned into a washhouse, the Great Hall at Eltham Palace suffered the equally ignominious fate of being turned into a barn, albeit a barn that inspired a watercolour by one of England’s greatest artists, J M W Turner. At one point it seemed as if the Great Hall at Eltham seemed doomed to be demolished by royal command as George IV’s architect wanted to incorporate elements of the building fabric into the royal palace at Windsor. Whether to cock a snook at the deeply unpopular king or from a genuine desire to save such an important witness to English history, powerful forces were roused to ensure the Great Hall’s continued survival with essential building work being carried out to halt further decline. Such remedial work was carried out during the 19th century and on into the 20th.
In the 1930s Stephen and Virginia Courtauld took out a lease on the land and were able to obtain planning permission to build a substantial mansion adjoining the Great Hall, designed by the architects John Seely and Paul Paget. Both the architects and the Courtaulds believed that the exterior of the art deco mansion constituted a sympathetic addition to the Great Hall, its style influence by the work of Sir Christopher Wren’s additions to the Tudor palace of Hampton Court. What they had failed to realise was that William and Mary had always intended to demolish the Tudor buildings at Hampton Court palace but money and death had meant that Wren was never in a position to fulfil his ultimate dream of erecting a completely new Stuart palace on the site of the Tudor. To my great regret the Stuart vandals did manage to completely demolish that other great symbol of Henry VIII’s reign: Nonsuch Palace. For those looking for an unusual Christmas present Christies will be auctioning off in December a 1568 watercolour of Nonsuch Palace, painted by the Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel. It has been valued at the princely sum of one and a half million pounds.
In terms of the interior of the mansion, the Courtaulds were not constrained by any notions of historical authenticity. Like their royal predecessors at Eltham, the Courtaulds were able to command the most fashionable and sumptuous designs for their home as well as incorporating the latest technical advances such as underfloor heating for the renovated Great Hall.
The Courtaulds spent most of the Second World War at Eltham despite the damage inflicted by enemy bombing. Apparently they had their own gas proof bomb shelter in the basement. When they did finally move out in 1944 they handed over the property to the Army Educational Corps. It remained in the hands of various army bodies until it came under the remit of English Heritage in the last decades of the 20th century. They have restored the interior of the mansion to how it looked in Stephen and Virginia’s time whilst also giving a nod to the latter occupation of the house by the army.