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The medieval Great Hall with the twentieth century addition
At the time of the Domesday survey of 1086 the manor of Eltham was in the hands of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, and was held for him by Haimo, sheriff of the county, from whose heirs it passed to the de Clare family; then, in 1278, to the de Vesci family; and in 1295 to Antony Bek, Bishop of Durham, who seems to have extensively rebuilt the manor house before presenting both house and manor to Edward, Prince of Wales, son of Edward I and later Edward II. The buildings were again extended by Edward II for Queen Isabella, who spent much time here. Edward III was also a frequent visitor and it was here that he received the captive King John II of France. Froissart described Eltham at this time as 'a very magnificent palace which the King possessed seven miles from London'. The improvements to the palace were continued in the reign of Richard II under the supervision of Geoffrey Chaucer, the clerk of works. Among these improvements was a stone bridge, the predecessor of the 15th-century bridge across the moat which still survives. Further additions were made to the palace in the reign of Henry VI, who was married by proxy here to Joan of Navarre in 1402, and in that of Henry VI.
The great hall, the most splendid surviving part of the palace, with the third largest hammerbeam roof in England, was constructed in about 1479 and a new chapel (excavated in 1976) was built in the reign of Henry VIII, who was often at Eltham in his early years. It was here that he issued the Statutes of Eltham, the regulations for the running of the Royal Household, which were drawn up in 1525 by Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, who had been installed as Lord Chancellor in the chapel 10 years before. The timbered Chancellor's Lodging was probably built at this time.
Towards the end of his reign Henry rarely came to Eltham, and Elizabeth I even less often. In 1576 Lambard wrote, 'This house by reason of its nearness to Greenwich hath not been so greatly esteemed.' And when Parliament took possession of it after the execution of Charles I it was reported as being 'much out of repair.' It was sold to Col Nathaniel Rich who began to pull it down. After a visit in 1656 John Evelyn wrote, 'Both the palace and chapel in miserable ruins, the noble park and wood destroyed by Rich, the Rebel.' When the manor was leased to Sir John Shaw in 1663 he chose to leave the palace in ruins and, appointing Hugh May his architect, rebuilt the manor lodge in the park which survives as Eltham Lodge, the clubhouse of the Royal Blackheath Golf Club. The Great Hall was used as a barn.
Modern armorial glass in the Great Hall showing the arms of King Edward I, King Edward III, King Richard II and King Henry VIII
When a lease was granted to Stephan Courtauld in 1931, however, the restoration of the Great Hall began and was completed by 1937. Courtauld built a new house, designed by Seely and Paget in the Art Deco style, as an extension to the Great Hall and redesigned the gardens. The Courtaulds lived at Eltham Palace until shortly before the end of the Second World War, when the lease was acquired by the War Department.
Eltham Palace is now managed by English Heritage and open to the public most days of the year.
Part of the new house built by Stephen Courtauld, showing the Art Deco decoration
First written 31 Dec 2005
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