From a substantial manor house to one of England's largest medieval palaces, Eltham is perhaps the least known of all London's royal palaces. Being easily accessible to both London and Dover it was once so important that only Westminster could surpass it in favour. However, as the palace at Greenwich became more easily accessible by river, Eltham's popularity with the Royals slowly ebbed, but the 'romantic' appeal to 18th and 19th century artists continued, despite the magnificent Great Hall being then used as a barn.
This site had belonged to the Crown since 1305, when Anthony Bek, the Bishop of Durham, presented his manor house to the future Edward II. For over 200 years, many Royal parties were entertained in the much extended house, and enjoyed hunting in the ever-spreading parkland. Sadly, in the aftermath of the English Civil War, Eltham Palace was largely destroyed and was used as a farm for the next two centuries.
Eltham Palace today is an intriguing combination of the magnificent medieval palace remains, and a uniquely styled, 20th century country house. Purchased in 1933 by a member of the famous textile family, Courtaulds, it was envisaged as a place to accommodate works of art and furniture, as well as to provide adequate space for entertaining.
Stephen Courtauld's new country residence was inspired by Wren's Hampton Court Palace, and constructed to a 'butterfly' plan, linking beautifully the medieval palace with the typical 1930s building style. The dramatic entrance hall is lit from a central glazed dome, and the blackbean veneer-lined walls are a truly impressive introduction on what to expect throughout the house. Every room contains an abundance of lavish materials, including exotic woods and precious metals, as well many 'hi tec' practical features that became fashionable during this age. From sliding shutters to protect the paintings, built-in furniture, and sunken baths to a loud-speaker system and a centralised vacuum cleaner in the basement - this is a treasure trove of high society curios. Despite the Courtauld's conversion of the 15th century Great Hall to a sitting room, with new stained glass for the windows and new wall hangings, the wonderful hammerbeam roof and Minstrels Gallery have survived to evoke a sense of the 'luxurious' medieval setting.
During the second World War, the Courtaulds left Eltham Palace, and the lease was taken over by The Royal Army Educational Corps until 1992. Although the building was well maintained, some damage was caused to the internal fixtures and fittings as furniture was removed and the veneered walls whitewashed over for the practical purposes of the Army. In 1995 the building passed into the guardianship of English Heritage, who spent the next five years restoring it to its former glory.