by Ben Johnson
Eltham Palace became a royal house from 1305 when Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham, presented it to the future Edward II. For the next two centuries, it was only surpassed in importance and royal favour by the Palace of Westminster.
The surrounding parks provided excellent hunting within easy reach of London, and its position on the route from the coast made it a popular place to receive distinguished foreign visitors. It became the custom for the court to spend Christmas at Eltham, when the palace became the scene of elaborate festivities.
Little can now be seen of Bishop Bek’s manor house beyond his original moat wall, but his royal successors added fine suites of royal lodgings on the east and west sides of the inner court. Some of their foundations can still be seen. The building accounts give tantalising details of the rooms which include a bath-house and dancing chamber for King Richard II.
Eltham Palace in its heyday.
The Great Hall and surviving medieval buildings date to the reign of King Edward IV (1461 – 83). Access to the royal apartments was from the dais end of the hall, the queen’s to the right and the king’s to the left, although these apartments have unfortunately now disappeared into the realms of history.
The Decline of Eltham Palace
Eltham Palace continued to be used by the Tudors but was gradually eclipsed by the nearby Palace of Placentia (also known as Greenwich Palace), which was accessible by river from Westminster.
Both King Henry VII and King Henry VIII made further alterations to the royal apartments, with the latter also adding a new chapel to the site. The last significant royal additions were made by Queen Elizabeth and her successor, King James I.
By the Civil War, the palace was in poor repair. From 1663, it was leased to the Shaw family and for much of the next 200 years it was used as a farm. In 1828 it was saved from demolition by an early preservation campaign in the local paper and Parliament.
For almost 200 years, the Great Hall at Eltham Palace was used as a farm building!
A thorough restoration of the roof and outer walls was carried out by the Office of Works between 1911 and 1914, and the hall was further refurbished in the 1920s when it was incorporated into the new house built by Seely and Paget for the Courtaulds.
Today Eltham Palace is one of London’s most spectacular historic sites, yet is often overlooked by the hoards of tourists due to its location outside the city centre. It boasts views across City and to the West End, and is surrounded by delightful grounds which are great for relaxing in during the warm summer months.
Eltham Palace in Greenwich is easily accessible by both bus and rail, please try our London Transport Guide for further information.