The Great Hall at Eltham Palace

Eltham Palace lays South East of London and is just four miles away from Greenwich. It’s position made it an ideal location for a royal palace, as it was close enough to the capital, but still offered a retreat away from the city. The site was not always a royal palace. It was originally a manor house owned by various bishops until it was gifted to the future Edward II in 1305.[1] Successive monarch spent large amounts of money to alter the palace to their own needs. One of the most considerable alterations was made by Edward IV in the 1470s.

Eltham was one of Edward IV’s favourite residences. With the palace’s proximity to nearby Greenwich Palace, Edward and his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, shared their time, together and separately, between the two sites.[2] With the couple spending a lot of their time at the Eltham, upgrades were needed. An extensive building project began, including adding new royal apartments. However, the most significant building added was the Great Hall. Whilst a great hall had existed previously, it didn’t meet Edward’s standard for the rebuild and a new building was required. Before Edward’s time, great halls were places of communal activity throughout the day. However, their function had changed with the addition of separate rooms, reducing the great hall to a space mainly used for large functions and to show off wealth.[3]

The Great Hall was designed by Edward’s chief mason and carpenter in a style influenced by the hall at Westminster, which is now one of the only buildings left of the former Palace of Westminster.[4] It is 101 foot long and 36 foot wide, with a large oak roof and high stained glass windows to let in light. It would have originally been lavishly furnished, especially with tapestries. Motifs of Edward’s emblem, the rose en soleil, or rose with a sun, were placed on both sides of the entranceway into the hall.[5] The emblem was itself a mixture of two Yorkist symbols, the white rose, and the sun in splendour, so there was no denying who’s space a guest was walking into.

Eltham Palace Great Hall, Tom Parnell, Wikimedia Commons

After the rebuilding, Elizabeth gave birth to her second youngest child, Catherine, in Eltham in 1479, and a year later, Edward moved his substantial library there.[6] This showed just how much the couple valued Eltham’s new buildings, but these would pale in comparison to the new Great Hall’s greatest ever event. At Christmas 1482, Edward held a massive feast for over 2,000 guests. Whilst Edward wouldn’t have known at the time, this ostentatious banquet was to be the last time he visited before his death in April 1483.[7]

Sadly for the palace at Eltham, Edward was the last monarch to consider Eltham as a favourite residence. Henry VII only used it as a nursery for this children, meaning that when his son, Henry VIII became king, he no longer used it much, as his favourite palaces were Greenwich and Hampton Court, which also allowed easy access to London.[8] By the time of the Stuart era, the palace was much neglected, so much so in fact that Charles I was the last ever monarch to visit.[9] Things became even worse after the palace was sold to Nathaniel Rich in 1651. He began to demolish buildings and even stripped the Great Hall’s roof of lead!

Jackson, R. J., Eltham Palace, Kent. A paper, etc (1896) British Library

It was in this sorry state the site stayed in for around 200 years before anyone took any notice. It had been converted into farm buildings, with the Great Hall being used as a barn.[10] In a strange way, it was this use as a barn that had kept it still standing, although rather ruined. It’s ruined state was looked on romantically, until protests were made to improve the stability of the building. This was done, but with little love for the surviving buildings for the history they portrayed. This is easily seen when it was also regularly used as a tennis court by those who lived nearby.[11]

It wasn’t until the 1930s, when the millionaire Courtauld family moved in and began restoration work, alongside building a brand new art deco house inspired by the existing architecture, that the building began to be cared for again properly.[12] The stained glass currently in the Great Hall is sadly not original, but was replaced with new glass in the 1930s thanks to the Courtaulds.[13]

Today there is no fear of a return to a state of abandonment for Eltham Palace, not just thanks to the Courtaulds and the threat of bombing during the Second World War. English Heritage, who now own the whole site, originally were given rights to the Great Hall in 1984, and at last it was acknowledged as one of the finest examples of a medieval hall still in existence, for which we also have to thank Edward IV’s design, but also the men who built it.


[1] English Heritage, ‘Eltham Palace and Gardens’, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/eltham-palace-and-gardens/history/

[2] Royal Palaces, ‘Eltham Palace’, https://www.royalpalaces.com/palaces/eltham-palace/

[3] Thompson, M., The Medieval Hall: the Basis of Secular Domestic Life, 600-1600 AD (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1995), p. 153

[4] Exploring London, ‘Treasures of London – The Great Hall at Eltham Palace’, https://exploring-london.com/2018/08/10/treasures-of-london-the-great-hall-at-eltham-palace/

[5] Bedford, K., Eltham Through Time (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2013)

[6] Royal Palaces, ‘Eltham Palace’, https://www.royalpalaces.com/palaces/eltham-palace/

[7] English Heritage, ‘Eltham Palace and Gardens’, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/eltham-palace-and-gardens/history/

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Royal Palaces, ‘Eltham Palace’, https://www.royalpalaces.com/palaces/eltham-palace/

[11] English Heritage, ‘Eltham Palace and Gardens’, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/eltham-palace-and-gardens/history/

[12] Ibid

[13] Exploring London, ‘Treasures of London – The Great Hall at Eltham Palace’, https://exploring-london.com/2018/08/10/treasures-of-london-the-great-hall-at-eltham-palace/

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