Eltham Palace may be best known as an art deco paradise, but its rich medieval and Tudor history equals that of Hampton Court, Westminster, Greenwich and Richmond. At its peak, it rivalled these sprawling homes in royal favour and almost certainly would still rival them in modern popular interest if more of it had survived.
Inhabited by 300 years of medieval, Lancastrian, Yorkist and Tudor monarchs, right up until Charles I’s time, Eltham was the setting for many pivotal moments in English history including Henry V’s return from Agincourt, Henry VIII’s childhood and Anne Boleyn’s alleged adultery with her brother.
With its sweeping views of London, vast amounts of space, cleaner air and luxurious buildings already in place, English monarchs stayed at Eltham because they wanted to, not because it was convenient; many of them spent Easters and Christmases here.
With this in mind, I decided to dig a little deeper into the medieval and Tudor history of Eltham Palace, beyond the audio guide and into the lives of its esteemed royal residents…
The first mention of the manor of Eltham is in the Domesday survey of 1086 when it was owned by the Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror. From there it was passed through heirs of illustrious families before Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham, acquired the site in 1295 and rebuilt the moated manor house that is believed to have stood here. His moat walls can still be seen today.
Within 10 years Eltham Manor (as it was then) was granted to Edward, Prince of Wales, who would later become Edward II. Edward, in turn, gifted it to his queen Isabella (who, incidentally is buried in Christ Church Greyfriars). The couple’s second son, John of Eltham, was born here in 1316 and baptised in the chapel.
Eltham was then passed down the royal line through Edward III, who received the captured King John II of France here. By this time it was already renowned as an awe-inspiring royal household: John’s secretary, the medieval French author and court historian Jean Froissart, described it as ‘a very magnificent palace’.
Richard II continued improving the palace during his reign in the later 1300s (with help from Geoffrey Chaucer, his clerk of works), building a walled garden, a new bathhouse in his apartments and a new stone bridge to replace the old timber one. Henry IV – who was married by proxy to Joan of Navarre in 1402 at Eltham and spent 10 of his 13 Christmases as king here – created new apartments for himself and his queen.
Eltham’s royal favour continued during Henry V’s reign: the King rested at the palace after his victory from Agincourt, telling his subjects that he would celebrate with them the following Saturday.
Henry VI spent much of his childhood here during his minority, in preparation for kingship as soon as it was possible. In 1445, Henry’s bride Margaret of Anjou was lodged at Eltham on arrival from France and the couple divided their time between Eltham and the other royal palaces of Sheen, Windsor and Greenwich.
A Yorkist ‘Nursery Palace’
And Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, stayed at Eltham the night before her coronation, travelling toward the Tower the next day in a glittering pageant involving ‘divers jewels of gold and precious stones’, silk, cloth of gold, effigies of virgins and angels with wings made from 900 peacock feathers.
Eltham would have been familiar to Elizabeth’s children as well: the palace was perfect for raising heirs (both apparent and presumptive) in relative privacy and peace.
Traces of the rooms in which Elizabeth would have visited her children (including the future queen consort of Henry VII, Elizabeth of York and Edward V, the elder of the princes in the Tower) still survive today.
Elizabeth gave birth to her sixth daughter Katherine here and her last child Bridget was both born and christened at the palace.
Also surviving is Edward IV’s great hall, with a hammer-beam roof and discreet gallery where an archer would have stood with drawn bows pointing at the guests in preparation for any attempt on the king and queen’s lives. Built in 1479, it was the venue for a lavish Christmas feast for 2,000 guests.
The Tudor Years
The last king to enjoy Eltham in all its glory was Henry VIII, who spent much of his boyhood here with his sisters, Margaret and Mary Tudor, under the care of their mother Elizabeth of York and their grandmother, Margaret Beaufort (Henry VII’s mother).
It was here that Renaissance scholar Erasmus travelled to from Lincoln’s Inn with Thomas More in 1499 to visit nine-year-old Henry, later remarking the future king was ‘already with a certain royal demeanour’ and that he ‘has a vivid and active mind, above measure to execute whatever tasks he undertook’. According to Erasmus, the future king Henry VIII was a ‘universal genius’.
Henry’s elder brother Arthur — Henry VII’s original heir — was largely separated from his siblings in preparation for kingship. But that wasn’t to be: by 1503, both Arthur and his mother Elizabeth were dead, leaving Henry as the heir apparent. By this time, Eltham was largely under the overbearing care of Henry’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort: according to Sarah Gristwood in Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses, ‘even the swans in the moat now wore enamelled badges bearing the Beaufort portcullis’.
The palace played a very important role in the first part of Henry’s reign, too. His right-hand man Thomas Wolsey took the oath of office of Lord Chancellor here in 1515, and Henry continued the extension and remodelling of the palace (including the building of a new chapel) between 1519 and 1522.
In 1525, Wolsey drew up the Eltham Ordinances, a set of rules that would govern (or attempt to govern) how Henry’s household and court should behave. These included bans on cooks working in the nude; naked or viley-dressed scullions; and ‘greyhounds, mastiffs, hounds and other dogs’ being let into the royal household.
Around the same time, Henry used Eltham as a retreat from plague-ridden London for almost five weeks, no doubt drawn back to the relative safety and comfort of his childhood home. However, after Henry acquired Hampton Court during Wolsey’s downfall, Eltham fell behind in importance.
The king continued to improve Hampton Court and Greenwich Palace: the latter was more accessible from the river so was more convenient than Eltham. By now he had acquired his beloved Hampton Court Palace after Wolsey’s downfall and continued to improve Greenwich Palace.
It might not have been fit for a king as great as Great Harry, but naturally the king continued the tradition of many royal families by placing his own children at Eltham. In 1534, Princess Elizabeth was moved here from Hatfield, just five miles from her parents who made official visits to the palace, and Mary (later Mary I) also spent time here.
However, Anne Boleyn’s accusations of incest – one of which was supposed to have taken place at Eltham in December 1535 – signalled the end of Anne’s reign as queen and also Eltham’s reign as one of England’s finest royal residences.
From the second half of Henry VIII’s reign onwards, Eltham fell into decline. Elizabeth I is mentioned in Catherine Parr’s accounts as having stayed here during her father’s reign. She also included it in her summer progress as queen in 1559 and used it as a hunting lodge on trips to nearby Epping Forest. But the royal significance of the palace would never return.
Elizabeth’s successor James I found the palace ‘farre in decay’ and in 1576 Lambard summed up the problem by writing: “This house by reason of its nearness to Greenwich hath not been so greatly esteemed.” Henry VIII’s extravagant new palaces and extensions (60 in total by the time of his death) including the great Nonsuch Palace and the magnificent Hampton Court must have left Eltham looking rather drab in comparison.
Eltham’s royal history was well and truly ended after Charles I, who was the last royal to stay here before his execution. Parliament took possession of it after Charles’s death and then sold it to Colonel Nathaniel Rich in the 17th century, who demolished many of the buildings. By 1656, wrote John Evelyn: “Both the palace and chapel in miserable ruins, the noble wood and park destroyed by Rich, the Rebel.”
Subsequent owners were no kinder to the 400-year-old palace; under the tenancy of Sir John Shaw in the 17th century, the great hall was used as a barn and in 1828 it had to be saved from demolition.
Eltham today: Medieval remains
Today Eltham is owned by English Heritage and pitched as ‘part showpiece of Art Deco design and part medieval royal palace’. In the 1930s, the site was leased by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, who created a millionaire’s art deco haven extending from Edward IV’s great hall.
While the main part of the new buildings are undoubtedly beautiful, there isn’t much left to show from the palace’s use through 300 years of medieval, Lancastrian, Yorkist and Tudor reigns. Excavations during the Courtaulds’ renovations were not done carefully and much of the remaining history of the site was lost forever.
While the Courtaulds created their new house to complement the remaining medieval great hall, even the onsite audio guide admits the work was not done ‘as it would have been done today’.
All that remains of this chapter in Eltham’s history inside the palace is a small selection of floor tiles, coins and tiny anonymous artefacts, whose stories have been lost in time, much like the buildings they were once a piece of.
Opening times: Vary. See website for details.
Nearest station: Mottingham
Admission: £13.60 for adults, or English Heritage members get in free: you can join English Heritage here. [a]
More information: Visit the English Heritage website
Medieval and Tudor history of Eltham Palace: Sources
- London the Autobiography: 2,000 years of the Capital’s History by Those Who Saw It Happen by Jon E. Lewis
- Elizabeth the Queen by Alison Weir
- Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses by Sarah Gristwood
- Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford by Julia Fox
- Elizabeth by David Starkey
- A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England by Suzannah Lipscomb
- The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
- Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets by Stephen Smith
- The London Encyclopaedia, edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert
- English Heritage history of Eltham Palace and Gardens
- On the Tudor Trail: Eltham Palace and Gardens
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