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Picturesque England
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Eltham Palace

O
NE of the most picturesque ruins to the south of London is Eltham, for more than two centuries a royal palace. It is only eight miles from town, on the Maidstone road, and is within a drive of Charlton and Woolwich. It is charmingly situated. We approached it by an avenue of noble forest trees, and the entrance on the north is across an ivy-mantled bridge of four groined arches of massive design. It probably replaced the drawbridge in the reign of Edward IV. East of the palace, and extending over five acres, are the original gardens, massive walls, and a lofty archway. The building was quadrangular in plan, and surrounded by a moat and external wall. There was a drawbridge on the south side, as well as on the north, but in its place DOW is a bank of earth.

The hall must have been magnificent. It is a perfect specimen of the banqueting halls of the fifteenth century, at once an audience chamber and a refectory. It is of the grand dimensions of a hundred feet in length and thirty-six feet in breadth. It is fifty-five feet high. The high-pitched roof is of oak, with hammer beams, carved pendants, and braces supported on corbels of hewn stone. The hearth and louvre have disappeared, but there remained, a few years ago, when we saw it, the minstrels, gallery, and the oak screen below it, that hid the doors leading to the kitchen, butteries, and cellars. Over the chief entrance are the falcon, the fetter lock and the rose-en-soleil, the badges of Edward IV., who built the hall.

We may strive in fancy to recall the scene when Edward of York kept his Christmas here in 1482, "with great feastings entertaining 2,000 guests every day."

The hall, strewn with fresh rushes, is in all its newly built splendour; on the dais are seated at table the gallant white-rose King Edward; his lovely wife Elizabeth Woodville is on his right hand; on his left, two charming princesses, Elizabeth and Mary of York, in the very bloom of their youth; too young indeed, as modern ideas would think, for such a feast; and next to them little York, with his pretty merry face, the archbishop stately and reverend, and next the queen's son Dorset. He has left the Prince of Wales at Ludlow Castle under the care of the queen's brother, Earl Rivers. The place of Clarence, the king's second brother, and that of his wife, are, alas! vacant, and the king looks worn and ill, his wife anxious amid all the gaiety Next her is sitting the one man she most dislikes and distrusts, Richard of Gloucester, with his beautiful intellectual face and his crooked body, and by him that miserable Anne of Warwick, whom he had widowed by killing her brave young husband at Tewkesbury. By Richard's side sits the Lord Chamberlain Hastings, and down the long tables what a galaxy of nobles! Buckingham, Richard's friend; the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Surrey, the Earl of Oxford, Lord Stanley, Lord Lovel and Catesby, Blunt and Herbert, with many another noble; the Lord Mayor of London too, and some prominent citizens; while, below the salt sit the many guests, gentlemen, soldiers of fortune, yeomen, the people of the household, the many who dine daily at the royal expense.

The minstrels play on rebec, harp and lute, occasionally one sings of the glories of the White Rose. The dogs who beg a bone, growl on the rushes, and there is sound of laughter and merry voices. It is a great Christmas feast with boar's head and venison, and game and poultry, and puddings, and a mince pie like a huge cradle - which it represents. And by-and-by little York steals to his father's knee and makes him laugh, and the queen smiles at the child's precocious wit. Then by-and. by the nurse, in great state, brings in the last-born baby Plantagenet (now a child of two years old, and born at Eltham) for her father's Christmas blessing. Poor little Bride! six years afterwards she was con. signed to the care of the Abbess of Dartford, and became "a praying nun, not weeping queen," as her mother said. It was a splendid and gorgeous feast, but beneath the outward show there lurked fear, distrust, and murder.

In one short year "the Boar," as Richard of Gloucester was called, would rule as Proctor, the king being dead, the queen in sanctuary - the princes in the Tower.

Henry VIII. also twice kept Christmas at Eltham, as so many kings had done before, and here created the "Stanley" of Marmion, Lord Monteagle for his services at Flodden Field. But Henry preferred Greenwich, and was generally there.

And now can we, any of us, think of Queen Elizabeth as a baby? Yet an infant princess of that name was frequently sent from Greenwich to Eltham by her father Henry VIII. for the benefit of the air, and must have toddled about and played in the garden and under the old trees of the picturesque palace.

Once after she was queen in 1559 she made a summer excursion hither, Sir Christopher Hatton being then keeper of the palace. James I. only once visited it.

In 1649, after the murder of Charles I., Eltham, then much out of repair, was sold for the materials valued at 2,753, and the manor and entire property were disposed of to different persons; but at the Restoration the whole reverted to the Crown.

Eltham Palace standing on an elevated site was, in some measure, protected from sudden attack, but sure means of escape for its royal inmates, in case of treason or the attack of rebels, were provided by a series of subterranean passages running in the direction of Blackheath or Greenwich.

Nothing certain, however, was known about these passages until 1834, when Messrs. Clayton and King commenced exploring them. They descended a ladder below a trap door in the yard on the south front of the hall, and found themselves in a subterranean room, from whence a narrow arched passage, about two feet in length, conducted them to a series of passages with decoys, stairs and shafts, some vertical and others on an inclined plane, which were once used for admitting air.

The remains of two iron gates, completely carbonised, were found in the passage under the moats. There is a tradition that at Middle Park, through which the passages are believed to run, there are underground apartments sufficient to stable sixty horses. The date of these passages is assigned to the reign of Edward II., at the commencement of the fourteenth century.

In a yard on the north side we saw, when we visited Eltham, a curiously and prettily decorated wall; the gardener had hung all over it, by wires, pots of red and white geranium mixed with other flowers, so that the bricks were entirely covered, and it looked as if we were surrounded by a wall of flowers - a pretty and ingenious plan, which we have since practised in our London' garden, and recommend to the reader.

Eltham is so near town that it ought to be better known than it is to Londoners.


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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004