Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Old Palace Croydon: Part Two (Revised 7th March 2011)

I have now been to the Old Palace at Croydon on three separate occasions. It was thanks to the London Open House Day a number of seasons ago that I first heard of the place. It seemed incredible that so much of the palace had survived on into modern day Croydon, a town not usually thought redolent with such a rich history. On the second occasion I took along the Partridge. Afterwards we returned to Brimstone Butterfly Towers for an early supper. As she had not had time to buy me any chocolates I persuaded her to buy me a large promotional box of breakfast tea instead. Such tea I tend to limit to tradesmen who, in my experience, often turn their noses up at my offering of Earl Grey tea. But the chief attraction for me was the fact that the tea came with a mug in the form of Gromit’s head. Gromit is the animated dog immortalised by Nick Park in various films alongside his eccentric inventor owner Wallace. Who needs to sip a dish of tea from the kind of   18th Sèvres porcelain vessels found at Knole  when one can watch Gromit’s nose turn bright red as water is poured into the mug instead? As part of the price of admission, the Partridge and I had been served a cream tea in the stone undercroft beneath the medieval Guardroom. Regrettable the stone undercroft is no longer open to the general public as it now functions as a staff room.

In the 19th century the Great Hall had been reduced to the lowly status of a washhouse and the East wall had even tumbled down. Nowadays, the interior gives little indication of its once near ruinous state. The only clue being that the doors that would have led to the kitchen and the buttery were not replaced when the East wall was later reinstated. There is also a modern iron and wood spiral staircase in one corner, which leads to a small room about the external porch. The surface of the two storey porch was rendered over in more recent times in a bid to prevent further decay and possible collapse. The porch itself, like the stone doorway leading to the Guardroom, predates the Great Hall. The latter was remodelled by Archbishop Stafford around 1443-52.

The glass in the 15th century stone mullioned windows needed to be replaced in the 19th century. In the 18th century Archbishop Thomas Herring feared that the oak beamed ceiling might collapse. To forestall such a calamity, Thomas inserted a number of tie-beams to support the roof in 1748, adding his initials to the beams for good measure. The panelling around the lower part of the walls dates from the 20th century. What I thought was a massive bricked in door in one of the walls was originally a bay window.

At the end of the roof buttresses are 7 corbels of winged angels holding aloft various heraldic shields with the coat of arms of Henry VI and archbishops Stafford and Juxon amongst them.

Set up high on the West wall is a massive stone monument featuring two winged angels holding up a heraldic shield bearing the coat of arms of Henry VI, surmounted by a crown beneath a canopy. Another angel displays a loyal motto in Latin: God make the King safe. At the base of this monument is the coat of arms of John Stafford, Henry’s archbishop. If ever a king were in need of divine intervention to safeguard his throne, that man was Henry VI. Stafford’s exhortations and prayers failed to save his liege lord. Henry’s reign was marred by periods of insanity when others either ruled in his stead as regents or, in the case of Edward IV, seized the crown from Henry, triggering the Wars of the Roses. Although Henry’s supporters were able to wrest the throne back from off Edward IV, the latter eventually succeeded in deposing Henry on a permanent basis. Henry ended his life a prisoner in the Tower of London, his dynastic hopes destroyed with the death of his son, another Edward, in battle. With the benign autumnal sunshine streaming through the mullioned windows, the Great Hall held few echoes of Henry’s turbulent reign.

As there were so many visitors to the palace we were split into a number of smaller groups. I felt like a slip of a girl compared to the average age of those present. The tour had prompted the return of various former pupils, one of whom described herself as being a very old girl indeed. The latter explained that when she had been a pupil the nuns had not allowed the schoolgirls to freely roam the place, especially the parts serving as their own private quarters. Consequently, it was her very first chance to view some parts of the palace that had been strictly out-of-bounds to her in her youth. We were shepherded by two current pupils, who made sure we did not stray far from our group.

To approach the Guardroom we had to pass under the stone archway which predates the current Great Hall and up a rather handsome early 17th century wooden staircase. As there is a 12th century stone undercroft beneath the floor, in which the Partridge and I had once taken tea, the Guardroom  is now believed to be the site of the solar of the earlier manor house, a room which would have afforded the manorial family far more privacy than was offered in the Great Hall. The beams of the roof were mainly hidden by a later plaster ceiling. However the corbels of winged angels could still be seen, this time holding musical instruments in their hands. There was an oil of Archbishop Herring on one wall, he of the tie-beams and external iron drainpipe and one of Archbishop Juxon above the fireplace.

On the opposite side to the large 17th century fireplace is an early Tudor bay window. I noticed that this and other windows had cushioned window seats, for the Guardroom has been turned into a library for the school, thanks to the generosity of the Friends of the Old Palace. How I envy the modern schoolgirl reading a book on Tudor history in the very chamber that those men who had helped shape it had also spent many an hour in quiet contemplation. One point that former and current schoolgirls alike agreed on was that the Library was still cold in winter. At the back of the Guardroom, the once open gallery is now enclosed with glass and is decorated with a modern reproduction of the 17th century altar rail from the chapel. The original altar rail, which was placed here following the English Civil War. It was anathema to the then Parliamentarians to have an altar rail in the chapel. They saw it as being representative of popish practices. Fortunately it was not chopped up for firewood and thus was able to be reinstated in the chapel within the past few decades.

From the Guardroom we went into what was thought to have been a dining room built by Archbishop Morton towards the end of the 15th century. The moulded beams of the low ceiling date from Morton’s time. By contrast the wooden panelling dates from either the 18th or 19th centuries. Morton was notorious for his, one might almost say, diabolical taxation strategy. He argued that if a subject “is seen to live frugally, tell him because he is clearly a money saver of great ability, he can afford to give generously to the King (Henry VII). If, however, the subject lives a life of great extravagance, tell him he, too, can afford to give largely, the proof of his opulence being evident in his expenditure.” Morton, like Bourchier who preceded him as Archbishop of Canterbury, died peacefully in his bed at Knole, having miraculously survived the political upheavals of the War of the Roses.

From Morton’s dining room another passageway leads to the chapel. The passageway contains a small wooden staircase leading to an upper storey that we were not allowed to ascend. This corridor contains a 17th century pane of glass which still bears the glazier’s instructions upon it: “Next ye chapel.” I had been told that this part of the palace was said to be haunted by the ghost of the Green Lady. The two schoolgirls said there were rumours that a woman had deliberately thrown her baby down the staircase and it was her shade that inspired the legend. But they were not sure whether there was any truth in the story or whether it had simply been a ploy designed to scare impressionable juniors.

Archbishop Bourchier, he of the eponynmous Bourchier Tower at Knole, is said to have had the small chapel built in 1460 and his successor, Morton, remodelled and extended it. The offending altar rail installed by Archbishop Laud in the 17th century, to the utter consternation of the Puritans, has now been reinstated. At the back of the chapel is a finely carved galleried pew assumed to have been built for Laud. The latter’s ruthless determination to impose his views as to how church services should be conducted set him at loggerheads with the Parliamentarian side, who regarded his beliefs as signalling a wish to return England and Scotland to Catholicism. Laud ended up being beheaded at the Tower of London in 1645. The end of the stalls for hoi polloi have been carved with heraldic shields of Laud and Archbishop Juxon, the latter featuring the heads of Africans, possibly slaves. Juxon, unlike Laud, managed to live in relative obscurity and peace during the Commonwealth until the Restoration, after which King Charles II made him Archbishop of Canterbury. Juxon had a special connection with the king having heard his father’s dying words on the scaffold.  The carved wooden screen separating the chapel from the ante-chapel includes a small rebus of a barrel (also known as a tun) with the letters MOR inscribed upon it, a pun on Archbishop Morton’s name.

We left the Chapel by a side door to view the outer courtyard and were told that where the original Reigate stone had weathered badly such as around the mullioned windows of the Great Hall, it had been replaced with Coade stone, a synthetic product invented in the 18th century by one Eleanor Coade. Afterwards we returned to the Great Hall for tea and cakes. After our refreshments we continued our tour of the palace taking in what was styled the Best Bedroom and therefore likely to have been used by Queen Elizabeth when she came a-calling with her retinue. One such visit had proved a logistical nightmare for the despairing Simon Bowyer in the May of 1574. With the Georgian sash window and panelling it was hard to envisage the bedchamber as Queen Elizabeth might have known it other than from the moulded ceiling. There is a small closet, which I assume would have held the royal close-stool.

On this same side of the palace we made our way to the panelled Long Gallery where Elizabeth was said to have enjoyed dancing with her favourite male courtiers. The Long Gallery is divided up into separate classrooms and has a mish-mash of panelling. The windows and exterior brickwork were replaced in the 18th century. Some of the former schoolgirls were not impressed by the modern carpet which covered the wooden floorboards, as it was already heavily stained despite only having been laid a few yearsd ago. One former schoolgirl of my vintage said she had studied Latin in a small classroom projecting off the long gallery. It was only when we went to the outside of the range that I realised that part of the building was half timbered. Another classroom, with its original stone mullioned windows, was named after Sir Christopher Hatton. The latter was created Lord Chancellor by Queen Elizabeth when she visited the palace in 1587, another fact related by Daniel Lysons. It seems Hatton only got the job after Whitgift, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, politely turned it down.

We ended our official visit with a tour of the external South Court with its exposed timber frame at one end and the external wall of the Great Hall at the other. Queen Elizabeth’s closet leading off her bedroom was directly above the blue 18th century porch with inset fanlight.
I took the opportunity to walk to the neighbouring Church of John the Baptist in order to view the palace chapel  from the graveyard. The Tudor diamond patterned brickwork was much more apparent from this vantage point. The church itself was closed but in the past I had had the opportunity to see restored tombs of various archbishops of Canterbury, including that of John Whitgift.

Later I peeped through the gates of the Whitgift Hospital in the centre of the town. These almshouses were endowed by Archbishop Whitgift in the late 1590s. I was once fortunate to have been able to venture inside and view the chapel and the audience chamber used by Whitgift when he visited the property. I thought it was an appalling lack of consideration by some musicians to play amplified hip hop music by the gates, given that the inhabitants of the alms-houses were elderly. The music might have impressed some of the youngsters gathered around in the shopping precinct but it did not impress me.

The Friends of the Old Palace hold regular open days throughout the year and have already confirmed the dates for 2011.. For those interested in architecture and English history, it affords a rare opportunity to see one of the most intriguing and important ancient buildings in the country.