Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/A visit to an old hall at Eltham

Illustrated by Edward Hull (1823-1906).


One who treads alone
A banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed.

St. Swithin, never so dreary since 1829, has given us this year drenching rains and nipping winds: and we have only exchanged the chilly room and cold firegrate, for sloppy streets, and a murky sky overhead. A bright sun and a welcome holiday were not to be neglected, and we therefore bethought ourselves of a trip, to take advantage of the rare opportunity of a lull in the long bad weather, that has made us doubt the veracity of the almanacs. Emerging from the Railway Station, at Blackheath, we crossed the Common, rejoicing in the fine clear air that always blows across its undulating range of turf, and wiled the way by thinking of the days when Queen Caroline, and Lord Chesterfield, and the great General Wolfe took their walks here, and Vanbrugh was piling up his heavy architecture on Maze Hill. Behind us we see where the Astronomer Halley sleeps; on the left we see Charlton with its fine Jacobean house, and Woolwich, where the gallant Lovelace was born, with its Arsenal and Dockyard, its constant bugle-calls and thundering artillery, booming among the marshes, or echoing from the mortar battery near the Rotunda. Before us, on Shooter’s Hill—a dangerous pass for travellers in the days of the outlaws who lurked in the adjoining woods—rose the quaint tower, known to the vulgar as “Seven Dogs Castle,” which commemorates the capture of Severndroog Castle, on the coast of Malabar, by Sir W. James. We shall soon look upon his grave at Eltham, whither we are going. We think of Falstaff’s robbery in “Henry the Fourth,” and the two hundred courteous archers who, on a certain May-day, entertained here another Henry with one of his “Sweet Kates” in booths with loyal cheer and pageants; and then take our way, avoiding the somewhat dull road that lies between the hill and the village by following the field-path, with a right pleasant companion, through corn land and meadows purple with clover, over stiles and along hedges where the only flowers were those of the woodbine, the chamomile, the bramble, and the pimpernel. But the open petals of the latter reassured us, as we looked up with some dismay on the threatening clouds.

The title of Eltham was borne by John of Eltham, son of Edward II., who died in 1334: his elaborate effigy in St. Edmund’s chapel, in Westminster Abbey, presents the earliest specimen of a ducal coronet. By a confusion of names, the old hall has been frequently described as King John’s. But omitting all memory of Lackland, we can repeople it with better men than he. The manor was held by the soldier-bishop, Odo, of Bayeux, by de Vescis, and de Mandevilles, and de Scropes; but the Crown long preserved a moiety, and now holds its entire extent. Many a gay and gallant gathering of barons and knights, courtiers and fair dames, have been held in the old palace. In 1270, Henry III. kept Christmas here, and Lionel the Regent, in 1347; Richard II., in 1384 and the two following years; Henry IV., in 1409 and 1412; we have Henry V. in 1414, and his weak successor in 1429. The last monarch who made Whitsun and Christmas cheer, was Bluff Hal, in 1515 and 1526; but on the latter occasion he came with so few attendants, owing to the raging of the plague, that the townsfolk, by way of distinction to past merry making, called it the Still Christmas. Anthony Bec, the only English Patriarch of Jerusalem, bestowed his new buildings on Queen Eleanor, and died here in 1311. Parliaments too, in 1329 and in 1375, have sat in the old Palace; in 1364, the captive John, king of France, came as an unwilling guest, and the exile King Leo, of Armenia, in 1386, when Richard II. fully maintained his reputation for superfluous hospitality.

Froissart, here a frequent guest, records how on a Sunday afternoon, in 1364, Edward and Philippa waited at the gates to receive the fallen monarch, and how, “between that time and supper, in his honour were many grand dances and carols, at which the young Lord de Courcy distinguished himself by singing and dancing.” It was a strange exhibition in the presence of a captive prince, who afterwards pathetically applied the complaint by the waters of Babylon to his own sorrowful case—“How can I sing in a strange land?” But the fascinating young nobleman contrived to win and wed the Princess Royal of England, so that he had no cause for regret on his own account. Eltham and Shene were the favourite palaces of Richard and the “good Queen” Anne, of Bohemia, the famous lady who introduced the side-saddle. Parliament met here to arrange the king’s second marriage with Isabella of Valois, who was brought hither after her bridal, and set out from the gates to her coronation, as her namesake “the she-wolf of France” had done more than a century before, with her unfortunate husband, Edward of Carnarvon. Here, too, Henry IV. forbade the French ambassadors to speak of Richard to Isabella, as one too young (so the grim hypocrite declared) to know of the sorrows of this world. Here, too, he himself was espoused to Joanna of Navarre, in the presence of the primate and chief officers of state; Antonio Riezi acting as the lady’s proxy, and actually having the ring placed upon his finger.

Henry IV. feasted in fear, for the Duke of York, so report ran, designed to scale the walls, and rob him of life and crown together; and here he actually sickened in death-like trances of his mortal disease, before the approach of the unwelcome guest, who knocks with equal foot at cotters’ doors and at the golden gates of palaces. Two thousand guests in 1483 were entertained at Christmas, by Edward IV., whose daughter Bridget, who afterwards assumed the coif and wimple among the nuns of Dartford, was born here.

A more memorable personage, Philippa of Clarence, was cradled here; she married Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March; and in her children centered the title to the crown of England.

In this palace, unhappy Henry VI., unconscious of his critical position, forsook his studies to hunt and follow field sports, under the watchful eye of his keeper, the Earl of March, while his wife and son, for whom he had restored the palace, were sheltering in Harlech Castle.

Henry VII. at intervals retired to Eltham, and Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth would spend a few days in the almost forsaken palace, and King James I. has been known to pass a morning visit here; but Greenwich and Theobald’s appeared to be more inviting to kings and queens, and the hall was left to the keeping of Sir John Gates, till his head fell on the scaffold; to Sir Christopher Hatton, “the dancing Chancellor;” and last of all, to Sir Robert, Earl of Essex, the noted general of the Parliament, who died here, 1646. The manor was afterwards bestowed on loyal Sir John Shaw, who befriended Charles II., when in exile at Brussels and Antwerp.

Eltham Palace 1860.png

There is little to attract attention in the quiet rural village of Eltham, whose name of Eald-ham, the old home, takes us back to the memory of a time long since past. Its street is now no more rendered lively by the cheerful bugle and the rattling wheels of the coaches to Folkstone and Maidstone; but its inn-gardens, with games of Mississippi and bowls, attract still the holiday makers of Woolwich and Charlton, on bright sunny afternoons, in summer and autumn. The training and breeding stables of Messrs. Blenkiron, often filled with as many as 500 horses, many of them of great value, and the passage of artillery on the march, may be reckoned among the chief objects of interest and enlivenment in the little village. Its church of St. John Baptist boasts a shingled spire, and a few architectural remains, in the north aisle, comparatively ancient, by contrast to the ugly brickwork and modern windows, which constitute the large portion of the structure. The interior will not repay inspection, but there are some graves and monuments that deserve a mention. Here lies memorable John Dogget, co-manager with Wilks of Drury Lane theatre, for whom Congreve wrote stage-parts, and whose name is still preserved by the badge and coat which he offered as an annual prize for watermen, in loyal commemoration of the accession of George I. Sir W. James, of Severndroog fame; and Bishop George Horne, well known for his Commentary on the Psalms, are both buried here.

There have been well-known names connected with Eltham: here lived John Lilburne, who exchanged a captain’s buff doublet and morion for a Quaker’s peaceful garb, and was pilloried by one party, and sent to the Tower by their opponents: hither Vandyke would come from the palace and galleries of London to spend his peaceful summer-holiday, changing the busy court for the seclusion and calm of the country; and a fine cedar and a house, still retaining some traces of the style of building that prevailed two centuries ago, mark the home and garden, where Sherard resided, and Dillenius shared his labours, and stored up that learning which procured for him the office of Professor of Botany in the University of Oxford. He has bequeathed to us an affectionate memorial of his friend and patron in the catalogue of plants known as Hortus Elthamensis. Messrs. Todman and Macklin still preserve in their nursery-gardens the old tradition of the beauty and excellence of the horticulture of Eltham.

The park, still the property of the Crown, is graced by noble trees; but its oaks royal were devoted years since to the purposes of ship-building, and have been wrought up into many a gallant man-of-war; the deer were destroyed to make venison pasties by the soldiers and countryfolks during the Commonwealth. The fair pleasaunce, the echoing courts, the king’s lodging, presence and guard chamber, and the rooms in which the royal attendants and officers of state lodged, have all disappeared. The gateway and high walls of ruddy brick only remain to mark the site of the tiltyard. The moat is half dry, and the sluggish stream, lined with flat banks, carpeted with mossy grass, is still spanned by the bridge of four arches, which is cotemporaneous with the Hall: but the gateway and the “fair front towards the moat,” built by Henry VII., have been replaced by two modern houses; and another, with three barge-board gables and corbelled attics to the east of the Hall, retains the designation of the buttery. There is a view of the Hall by Buck, dated 1735, which represents a great portion of the palace, with its quaint water-towers and moated walls still standing; but although Parliament in 1827 spent 700l. upon the repairs, the state of the Hall is sad enough now; full of litter of every sort, its windows unglazed or bricked up; with damp fastening in the naked walls, and rough rafters stretching across from side to side and meeting above the corbels. Forsaken as it is, and “to vile usage turned” as a barn, it yet retains traces of its ancient state, and, with a small outlay, might be rendered capable of being a fitting place for the exercise of regal hospitality. It was at once an audience chamber and refectory, for which its grand dimensions well fitted it, one hundred feet in length, fifty-five feet in height, and thirty-six feet broad. It is a perfect specimen of the great Banqueting Halls of the 15th century; the long line of clerestory, each bay composed of couplets of two light windows cinquefoiled and divided by transoms, admit broad streams of cheerful sunshine, which light up the thick trails of ivy that flow over the empty panes; its deep bay windows, with lights of open panels, now stripped of glazing, but enriched with groining and minute tracery, which flanked the dais, betoken the progress which elegance and security had made at the period of their erection; the lofty walls continue to support a high pitched roof of oak, in tolerable preservation, with hammer-beams, carved pendants, and braces supported on corbels of hewn stone; and, although the royal table, the hearth, and louvre have disappeared, there are still remains of the Minstrels’ Gallery, and the doorways in the oak screen below it, which led to the capacious kitchen, the butteries, and cellars, to tell each their several tale of former state.

The falcon, the fetter-lock, and rose-en-soleil, sculptured over the chief entrance, are the badges of the royal builder, Edward IV., who is represented by Skelton, as saying:—

I made Nottingham a palace royal,
Windsor, Ellham, and many other mo’;”

and we can in fancy repeople the deserted hall with its old tenants sitting at the banquet, or making merry with spectacle, dance, and masques; we can recall the stately procession of Elizabeth Woodville, marshalled here to accompany the queen elect to her coronation before the high altar of Westminster, or see her a mother, and crowned, watching with loving eyes the two young princesses whose birth here combined affectionate associations with her new home. Once more grave Bishop Longland shows the plan of the rising Cardinal College at Oxford, built by the munificent Wolsey, to the thoughtful Katharine of Arragon; again Henry the Inconstant whispers here soft words to Katharine Howard, the newly-married pair who have come hither for lover-like seclusion, talking apart in the sunny bay; or the buxom maids of honour, attendants of a third Queen Katharine, the happiest of the three, breakfast here at the long tables on chines of beef, and drink strong ale poured from the foaming leathern jacks. Once more Queen Mary enters in state with Cardinal Pole and the Lord Montague, while the shouts of ten thousand persons without make the old rafters ring with their cries of welcome; or, a few short years later, Elizabeth, coquetting with the half-witted Earl of Arran, tells him how as a child she was brought hither to beathe a purer air than could be found by the river-side at Greenwich. Then the ideal pageant passes. But an hour ago we were talking of the strange discovery of huge trunks of yew trees, daily dug up in the neighbouring marshes of Plumstead, overwhelmed by the river long years since, and were thinking of the bold archers who came from Cressy, Agincourt, and Poictiers, to form the royal body guard here, when, as we turned unwillingly to take a last look, a placard on a board attracted our notice. It announced that “the 23rd Company of the North Kent Rifles would drill in the Old Hall,” on certain days, weekly; and we could not but reflect that if

The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things,”

still the brave hearts of England are not degenerate, and that the victorious yew-bow of old days is only exchanged for the rifle of Victoria.