Medieval and Modern

There are most definitely two sides to Eltham Palace. 

In medieval times it was an important royal palace.  Anthony Bek, the powerful Bishop of Durham acquired the manor of Eltham from William de Vescy in 1295 as part of the price for his support of Vescy’s plans to transfer other property to his bastard son. Bek built a moated manor house on the site. In 1305 he presented the manor to the then Prince of Wales (the future King Edward II). However, he continued to occupy the house until his death there in March 1311. Edward granted the manor to his queen, Isabella (the ‘She-Wolf of France’) and improvements were made to the building.  During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and into the sixteenth century, Eltham was an important royal residence. Edward III held tournaments there and Edward IV commissioned the building of a new great hall, where he held a feast for 2,000 people at Christmas 1482. Henry VIII spent much of his youth at Eltham, but he was the last monarch to spend much time there. His daughter Elizabeth visited only occasionally. Eltham’s days as a favourite royal residence were over. During the 17th century the palace fell into disrepair, and by the eighteenth century it was a picturesque ruin, with Edward IV’s great hall being used as a barn. In the early nineteenth century, efforts were at last made to preserve what remained.

Everything changed in 1933, when Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, who were looking for a semi-rural property within easy reach of London, took a 99 year lease of Eltham from the Crown.  They commissioned architects Seely and Paget to design a modern home on the site, whilst retaining as much as possible of the medieval palace remains. The result was a somewhat controversial Art Deco masterpiece, with all mod-cons, where the Courtaulds entertained lavishly. (Guests were warned about their pet lemur, Mah Jongg, who was known to bite). 

The scale of their entertaining can be seen from the ladies’ and gentlemen’s cloakrooms by the entrance, and the coin-operated telephone in the hall – not usual features of a private house. he Courtaulds moved in on 25 March 1936, so did not have very long to enjoy the property before war broke out. They remained at Eltham for most of the war, moving out in 1944. (Visitors can see their air-raid shelter in the basement.)  From 1945 to 1992 Eltham was used by various Army education units. The property is now run by English Heritage, which has restored the house to its 1930’s heyday.

The gardens are in 1930s style, but the ruins of the medieval palace provide additional interest.

I visited Eltham in 2015.

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