The palace has three strands to its bow. The most famous draw is the Art Deco house, which claims to be the only one of its kind open to the public in England. This was built by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, a wealthy couple with an eye for innovative style and design. Having arrived expecting to enjoy the glamour of this decorative period, visitors may be surprised to find a Great Hall dating back to the 15th Century, attached to the main house. Thirdly, a stroll around the grounds could take you to the formal rose or herb gardens, enjoying the wilder beauty of a rock garden dropping steeply to the lake (part of the original moat) or wandering across the stone bridge built by Edward IV.
History of the Palace
Eltham manor is first recorded in 1086, in the Domesday Book. At this time it was owned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, who was a brother of William the Conqueror. It belonged to the Church until 1305, when it was given to the Crown in the form of Edward II. Various monarchs extended the manor house, including Henry IV, Edward IV, Henry VIII (who had spent his childhood there) and Elizabeth I. The last Royal resident was Charles I, whose ownership of the palace was lost during the Civil War in 1648. Much of the building was demolished at that time and it fell into a state of disrepair.
In the 18th Century, the remaining parts of the building were used as storage barns for farmers. The 19th Century saw a public campaign to preserve the building for posterity and repair work began.
In 1933, the Courtaulds leased the building from the Crown and commissioned an Art Deco Palace to be built onto the Great Hall. Eleven years later the family moved out and the building was taken over by the British Army.
The Royal Army Educational Corps retained use of the building until 1992, when they moved out to let English Heritage take full responsibility for the Palace (the society had been caring for the Great Hall since 1984). In 1999 the public gained entry to the restored Palace.
Medieval Great Hall
The hall was built in the 1470s for Edward IV. It was to be a dining room for the royal court and had a raised dais at one end and a spectacular wooden hammerbeam roof. At Christmas 1482 the hall was used to wine and dine 2000 guests of the Crown.
The hall suffered the ignominy of being used as a storage barn in later years but was restored to its former glory by the Office of Works, the Ancient Monuments Division and the Courtaulds.
Art Deco Palace
The Courtauld's art deco home attached to the Great Hall contains a number of fascinating, exquisitely decorated rooms.
Downstairs are the circular entrance hall, dining room, drawing room, boudoir (otherwise known as Mrs Courtauld's study) and library (Mr Courtauld's domain). Upstairs are a number of bedrooms, an ornate golden en-suite bathroom and the centrally heated sleeping quarters of their pet lemur, Mah-Jongg. Mah-Jongg enjoyed his own lavish lifestyle, with a private ladder leading down from his sleeping cage to a second room, the flower room, on the ground floor.
The Palace was ahead of its time for gadgets as well as décor and had underfloor heating and a sound system which could be used throughout the house. It also had a vacuum cleaner system which was centralised and accessed through special attachments in the skirting boards of each room.
English Heritage has recovered a number of artefacts belonging to the house from the Courtaulds' era, including the original dining table and chairs, which were found in the props department of a London television studio.
Stephen and Virginia Courtauld were millionaires who made their fortune in the textile industry. The name Courtauld is still associated with textile production; there are a number of Courtaulds factories spread around England and Northern Ireland, although there has recently been downsizing and outsourcing to other countries.
The couple enjoyed an opulent lifestyle, owning a large yacht moored in warmer climes and created the ultra-modern home at Eltham for their family.
In 1940 the Great Hall was struck by four bombs during the Blitz. The minstrel's gallery was damaged and although it has since been restored, some singed wood can still be seen. The Courtaulds decided to leave the Palace in 1944.
The Grounds and Gardens
The grounds of the Palace cover a number of eras. There remain some of the medieval walls and tunnels belonging to an early version of the Bishop's Palace, as well as a moat, some of which is now dry and contains lawns and flower beds.
The Courtaulds planted a sunken rose garden and had a rockery designed. By the kitchen is a herb garden. There is a spring bulb meadow and a woodland garden. A wooden footbridge leads over the dry moat to the woodland beyond. The garden has been restocked with blooms which would have been seen during the Courtaulds' residency.
Your Own Taste of History
The palace, like a number of other English Heritage properties, can be booked for weddings and conferences.