The site of The Charterhouse in Smithfield, London, has been a burial ground, a monastery, a private Tudor mansion, a school and an almshouse. It was used by both Elizabeth I and James I to conduct business before their respective coronations, and appears in works by Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray.
And, for 2017, it’s added another string to its bow — it’s opened its doors to visitors and has a shiny new museum to show for it.
The museum opened on 27th January and tells the story of the site from the present day back to 1348, when it was used as a burial ground for plague victims. It’s small (and free) but packed with artefacts that are linked to the building’s history or that have been excavated — including the skeleton of an unfortunate plague victim on the way out.
Tours of the rest of the building — including the Great Chamber where Elizabeth I held court and the Tudor mansion — take place three times a day. Unfortunately, I missed the tours this time — book in advance as they’re very popular — but watch this space for a review when I’ve made it on one…
It’s not every day that you find that you live half an hour from a house that was created and owned by a major character in Tudor history. But when I discovered just how close Sutton House is, I couldn’t resist a visit. While there, I learned more about Sutton House’s creator — Sir Ralph Sadleir, Secretary of State to Henry VIII, and protégé of Thomas Cromwell — and discovered some of the secrets hidden within its walls…
If Sadleir’s name rings a bell, that’s because he features in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hallnovel series about Thomas Cromwell, as well as many accounts of Cromwell’s rise to power. In Wolf Hall, Sadleir is renamed Rafe Sadler. He also features in the BBC series (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and the theatre production of the same name.
But back to the history: Sadleir created the house in 1535 while both he and his mentor Cromwell were on their way up the professional ladder. It was originally known as Bryck Place — its red bricks were a rarity in Tudor London — and, unlike today, it was surrounded by Hackney’s ‘green fields and clean air’.
Sadleir lived here with his wife Ellen (otherwise known as Helen or Margaret), who he met in 1530 while she was working as a laundress in the Cromwell household. The couple fell in love and moved to Bryck Place in 1535, a year before their first child, named Thomas after Cromwell, was born — Ellen’s bedroom is now marked with a child’s cot.
As Cromwell rose in status, so did Sadleir, and he gained the enviable position of Privy Councillor in 1540. After a brief spell in the Tower following Cromwell’s execution later in the same year, he managed to regain Henry VIII’s trust; the king would later add him to the council that would rule England during Edward VI’s minority.
During the first 10 years of their marriage, Sadleir’s wife Ellen was thought to be a widow; her husband Matthew Barre abandoned her and their two children. But Barre’s reappearance in 1545 led to Sadleir’s successful petition to Parliament for Ellen’s divorce from Barre on grounds of desertion — the first divorce of its kind.
Sadleir’s early beginnings in Thomas Cromwell’s household marked the start of his long and successful career in the Tudor court; after serving Edward VI until the young king’s untimely death in 1553, he supported the protestant Lady Jane Grey and was subsequently forced into semi-retirement during the reign of Mary I. However, he returned to favour when Elizabeth I became queen; he was on important royal business in Scotland when he learned of the reappearance of his wife’s husband.
So Sutton House has sociological significance as well as historical importance. Here’s what I got up to on my visit, and some hints at the secrets I uncovered…
I admired the beautiful wall panels (and the house’s original brickwork behind them)
I enjoyed the biggest slice of carrot cake in Hackney…
I found out what’s behind the secret door in the bedroom…
And spotted this fellow etched into the fireplace… but what was he drawn for?
I learned the perils of a Tudor kitchen (thankfully without the heat of one)
And learned why Sutton House is called a house of two halves…
Nearest station: Homerton / Hackney Central
Opening times: Wednesday to Sunday, 12pm-5pm (open daily in August, and on bank holidays)
I absolutely love, love, LOVE St Bartholomew the Great church in Smithfield. It’s the kind of place that I take friends and family when they visit London; it’s almost as old as the Tower (what’s a hundred years between friends?) and more beautiful than Buckingham Palace, but doesn’t have the crowds or selfie-sticks of either. And it’s got a fascinating backstory.
So, why do I love this little corner of London? Let me count the ways…
900 years of history
Like much of West Smithfield, St Bartholomew the Great is really old. It was built around 1123 and, while several parts of it were destroyed throughout the years, it survived Henry VIII’s reformation, the Great Fire of London, and The Blitz largely intact. In this sense, it is unlike other churches in the City of London (including Christ Church Greyfriars and St Dunstan in the East).
Step through the huge doors and the sounds of West Smithfield and Farringdon slowly drift away. Once inside, you enter another world: one without any visible sign of modern life, where time has stood still for hundreds of years, and where the dead live forever in rows of memorials and eerily beautiful tombs.
The age of this cavernous building gives the air an unmistakable thickness: it exudes the kind of atmosphere that only exists in places that seem to have soaked up 900-years’ worth of lives that have passed through.
A Tudor face
The Tudor gatehouse at the entrance to the church grounds has a fascinating history of its own.
St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse stands where the original nave of the church would have stood, before the nave was destroyed in the reformation in around 1539. It was built in 1595 as a two-storey residence and incorporates the arch (built in 1240) that would have been the original doorway to the church’s southern aisle before the reformation.
The connection with the church is referenced in both the name of the gatehouse and the figure of St Bartholomew that stands in the front between the first and second floors.
Luckily, the gatehouse’s location saved it from damage from the Great Fire in 1666 (the fire only spread as far as the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, where The Golden Boy of Pye Corner now stands) and it was covered over by a Georgian facade sometime in the 1700s before being used as a shop.
The next phase of the Tudor gatehouse’s life reads very differently to that of many buildings in the area. Instead of being destroyed by bombs in the early 20th-century, it was uncovered by them; in 1917, the Georgian facade was damaged by a German Zeppelin raid and the Tudor gatehouse was revealed. It was fully restored in the 1930s (as well as the exterior, there is still Tudor panelling in the attic) and later used as a rectory for the church and then a school for 8 pupils.
Filming location for great films
The list of films and history TV shows that St Bartholomew the Great has been featured in reads like a schedule for an all-time great movie marathon: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Sherlock Holmes, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age all featured scenes filmed in the church.
Often it’s used as a stand-in for other big churches: for example, in Sherlock Holmes it was used as the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.
A Damien Hirst artwork
Legend has it that St Bartholomew brought Christianity to Armenia, where he was flayed alive and crucified head-down. The most recent addition to the church is an unmistakable nod to this story in the form of Damien Hirst’s Exquisite Pain statue, gilded and holding a pair of scissors in a reference to his links to medicine and surgery, and also influenced by Edward Scissorhands.
//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js Exquisite Pain will be at St Bartholomew the Great for a few years; Hirst’s exhibition at the Tate Modern was big news back in 2012, so this is a great opportunity to see one of his more traditional pieces in a much more peaceful setting.
Nearest Tube: St Paul’s / Farringdon
Opening times: Monday to Friday, 8:30am-5pm (until 4pm during autumn/winter); Saturday, 10:30am-4pm; Sunday, 8:30am-8pm (check the website for details about opening during services)
Much like Christ Church Greyfriars sits in the shadow of St Paul’s, and is largely overlooked because of it, Syon Park in south west London sits quietly next to Kew Gardens, to which thousands of Londoners and tourists flock, unaware of the unknown treasure that sits just a few hundred yards away.
Unfortunately pictures inside Syon House are prohibited so I can’t show you inside, but see it for yourself and you’ll find the real home of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, resplendent in decor from the great entrance hall created to replicate ‘a palace of Graeco-Roman splendour’, to Queen Victoria’s childhood bedroom (with luxury befitting a future queen) and a parade of galleries, drawing rooms and personal rooms designed to evoke awe in even the most difficult to please.
Syon’s History: an abbey, king’s blood and a future queen
Henry V laid Syon Abbey’s first foundation stone in 1415, and it continued as an important religious and scholarly community well into the reign of the Tudor dynasty.
The religious community tied to the abbey was eventually dissolved under Henry VIII around 1539 and the site was passed into royal hands. Syon was used as a prison for the king’s fifth wife Catherine Howard after she was imprisoned for adultery and later it became one of the final resting places for Henry VIII’s corpse; it was here that the king’s bloated body ‘exploded’ and William Peto’s prophecy that “Dogs shall lick [the king’s] blood as they had done Ahab” supposedly came true.
When King Henry’s son Edward VI came to the throne, the site was given to Edward’s uncle Edward Seymour (his mother Jane Seymour’s brother). Under Edward’s control, the abbey was turned into a grand home, complete with gardens fit for the Lord Protector of England (king in all but name). By the time Edward was executed for treason in 1552, the house was almost complete and looked similar to the house we see today; Chris King, Syon’s Deputy House Manager, told Britain Magazine: “The ‘footprint’ of the original house, with the exception of the North Wing extension, is as it was when originally completed.”
After Seymour’s death, Syon was handed to his rival John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland. It was in Syon’s Long Gallery that Northumberland persuaded his daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey to take the crown of England after Edward VI’s death. But, as with a few other Tudor stories that took place at Syon, it didn’t end well: Jane was deposed by Mary I and imprisoned in the Tower of London before being executed for treason.
Syon remained popular with royalty after Mary I took the throne: both Mary and her sister Elizabeth I visited the house during their reigns, and Charles I visited his children here. Later, the 3rd Duchess of Northumberland, Charlotte Florentia, prepared a young Princess Victoria for her future role as Queen in a bedroom that is still as still set up as she left it.
It’s easy to see why Syon Park was so popular with royals who had the luxury of choice to stay here. The house and accompanying gardens are some of the most beautiful in London: enough to rival Eltham Palace or even Hampton Court. Couple that with the history and stories that attach themselves to Syon House now, and you’ve got a key part of London’s culture that deserves more recognition than it currently gets.
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 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.
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“Well I remember as a boy my first acquaintance with a room hung with faded greenery at Queen Elizabeth’s Lodge… and the impression of romance that it had upon me!… yes, that was more than upholstery, believe me.”
William Morris, ‘The Lesser Arts of Life’, 1882
On the surface, Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge on the outskirts of Epping Forest is plainer and smaller than its larger Tudor palace cousins dotted along the Thames. It’s certainly smaller, but look closer and you’ll find subtle details that mark it out as a unique Tudor monument.
Commissioned by Henry VIII, the Hunting Lodge was built in 1543. Typically of Henry, it was built to be grander than anything that had come before: it was known as the ‘Great Standing’, owing to the fact that it was the only three-floor standing in England. But there’s no evidence that Great Harry ever visited: possibly because his health was deteriorating rapidly by this time.
After the king died, the building passed through the royal family. Queen Elizabeth is said to have ridden her horse up the stairs to celebrate after the Spanish Armada victory. While there’s no evidence that Elizabeth ever visited either, we do know that the temporary access to the lodge was used as a gift to nobles and visiting foreign dignitaries.
Windows were likely added in the 17th century when the lodge was used for the Manor Court. This use continued until 1851, and the building was turned into a natural history museum before being taken over by the City of London (who own Epping Forest) in the 1960s.
It’s refreshing to go to a historic building that has just been left as it is – no fancy exhibits have been shoved in corners to fill the room and each area stands as steadfastly unapologetic as the woman (and her family) for whom the building is named. The atmosphere and essence of this simple place (that was, after all, only used as a temporary residence) have been kept intact.
Experience the atmosphere of a Tudor kitchen downstairs (complete with an Elizabethan fireplace) in the servants’ quarters, before making your way up the stairs (built purposefully shallow so that the Tudor nobility could climb up in a dignified fashion) to the rooms where the upper classes would have watched the hunt.
Notice how the doors to each room are higher than the ones downstairs to indicate the raised status of those using them. As you peer out of the first-floor windows to the forest below, look out for the symbols etched into the woodwork to ward off evil. The fireplace on the first floor is Tudor, as indicated by the roses on either side.
When you reach the second floor, look up to see the beams shaped like antlers – these are purely decorative to indicate the purpose of the building.
Opening hours: 10am-5pm daily (including bank holidays)