Eltham Palace, in Greenwich, South East London, was the childhood home of Henry VIII, his sisters and younger brother. Sadly, the original medieval house is all but gone, the current building dating from the 1930s. The impressive, timber-roofed Great Hall – built by Edward IV in the 1470s – still remains however, as does the bridge over the moat – built by Richard II – as well as crumbling fragments of ancient walls scattered charmingly throughout the grounds. Today the palace is managed by British Heritage, and is open to the public.
Eltham is first mentioned as having a manor house in the Domesday Book, back in 1086. The house then disappears from the historical record until it pops up in 1305, being gifted by the Bishop of Durham to Edward II, who in turn passed it on to his queen, Isabella of France. The palace remained in royal hands – occasionally being improved upon – for generations. Edward III and Henry IV spent most of their boyhoods there, and almost all of their adult Christmases. Edward IV used it to house his extravagant library of beautiful illuminated manuscripts.
One legend holds that it was at Eltham, one Christmas, where Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, inspired the foundation of the illustrious Order of the Garter. Joan was dancing when her garter fell down her leg and to the floor. Although nearby courtiers ridiculed her, Edward III picked it up and returned it to her, proclaiming: “honi soit qui mal y pense” (“evil to them, who evil thinks”), the phrase that is the motto of the Order to this day.
The future Henry VIII was born as the ‘spare’ to his elder brother Arthur, heir to the throne. He was intended for a life in the church, and as a result was allowed to remain in his mother’s household with his sisters Margaret and Mary and his younger brother Edmund (who was to die aged only fifteen months). Elizabeth of York was a woman who enjoyed music, dancing, gaming and for there to be ease and laughter. Henry, Margaret and Mary’s childhoods at Eltham would have been infused with all of these – and certainly, Henry retained his love of music his whole life. Elizabeth also bred greyhounds here, a fact perhaps passed down through history in the name of the local pub: The Greyhound.
It was at Eltham Palace, in 1499, where the famed scholar and philosopher Erasmus met and much impressed the future Henry VIII. Erasmus himself records the story:
“I had been carried off by Thomas More, who had come to pay me a visit on an estate of Mountjoy’s where I was staying, to take a walk by way of diversion as far as the nearest town. For there all the royal children were being educated, Arthur alone excepted, the eldest son. When we came to the hall, all the retinue was assembled; not only that of the palace, but Mountjoy’s as well. In the midst stood Henry, aged nine, already with certain royal demeanour; I mean a dignity of mind combined with a remarkable courtesy…. More with his companion Arnold saluted Henry (the present King of England) and presented to him something in writing. I, who was expecting nothing of the sort, had nothing to offer; but I promised that somehow, at some other time, I would show my duty towards him. At the time I was slightly indignant with More for having given me no warning, especially because the boy, during dinner, sent me a note inviting something from my pen. I went home, and though the Muses, from whom I had lived apart so long, were unwilling, I finished a poem in three days.”
When Henry VIII took the throne in 1509, he seems to have kept a sentimental attachment to Eltham Palace, spending lavishly to expand the building. He added a tiltyard in 1517. At this time it was one of only six palaces in the country that was large enough to feed and shelter a court of some 800 or more people. Eventually, however, the nearby Palace of Placentia (also known simply as Greenwich Palace) was growing in importance, and eventually became Henry’s principal residence.
In the mid-1530s Eltham was used to house both Princess Elizabeth and the newly bastardised “Lady Mary”, daughter of Katherine of Aragon. Anne Boleyn visited her infant daughter at Eltham often in 1533 and 1534, and ordered that ten of her sigil badges be inserted into the glass of the gallery where Elizabeth played.
When queen, Elizabeth I didn’t seem to have the same level of nostalgia for old Eltham Palace as her father had. She rarely visited and spent no money on improvements. The Stuarts didn’t care much for the old place either; Charles I was the last monarch to enter Eltham Palace. After his execution and the Civil War, the buildings fell into ruin, in some cases purposefully pulled down to salvage valuable building material. The beautiful palace where all the Plantagenet kings and queens had celebrated the Christmas period and raised their children, come to nothing.
Today the complex that the Tudors would have known is all but vanished, a footprint beneath an Art-Deco mansion. But maybe, it is enough to stand on the ancient stone bridge, overlooking fine sculptures of the lion and the unicorn where perhaps, Queen Anne Boleyn once stood, pointing out these heraldic symbols of England to the little daughter held in her arms.