1,000 years of hidden English history
Eltham, is not an ordinary London suburb
All we have now is a building called the Tudor Barn, outside the moat, and it must have been the servants' quarters in Margaret's time.
The Barn is charming and quaint and unassuming with an art gallery upstairs and a restaurant downstairs. We are lucky to have it in memory of Margaret.
Queen Elizabeth had, for the villagers, the same loveable quality as her father. Like Henry she had been born at Greenwich but some of her childhood had been spent at Eltham Palace.
Indeed she was visited there in 1534 by her father and mother, Anne Boleyn. In later life she preferred to live at Greenwich Palace, as her father did, but she often visited Eltham Palace to hunt in the park and feast in the Great Hall.
Elizabeth had a gift for pleasing her people and was, in some ways, much like an actress, a true professional, able to find the right word, the perfect response, the charming smile, on every possible occasion. In the eyes of her people Elizabeth could do no wrong.
For this reason King James I, an unpopular king, had a hard time of it. Compared with Elizabeth, whom he followed, James was a vulgar Scot, with bad manners, bad morals, dirty hands, and a terrible accent.
On one occasion, when told that the people wanted to see him, James retorted in a voice of anger: "God's wounds, I will pull down my breeches and they shall also see my ****."
Although a fascinating character, no one understood the complicated attitudes of James. In the words of the Venetian ambassador, he "did not caress the people nor make that good cheer the late Queen did, whereby she won their loves: for the English adore their sovereign ... and like their King to show pleasure at their devotion ... but this King manifests no taste for them"
In 1606 King James brought King Christian IV of Denmark to hunt deer at Eltham, and Henry, Prince of Wales, came with them.
A contemporary writer says: "The gracious Kings accompanied with our Royal Prince and many honourable persons mounted on steeds of great price and furniture faire hunted in the Park of Greenwich and killed 2 bucks. Afternoon their High Estates went to Eltham, a house of His Majesty's, some two miles distant from the Court, and killed 3 bucks with great pleasure on horseback."
He rested after hunting, feasted in the Great Hall, like so many other kings, but the locals were not sorry when James returned with his courtiers to Greenwich for no one loved him.
And yet James, this unlovable and astonishing king, was at all times a scholarly gentleman, the man who introduced our best translation of the Bible, the Authorised Version still used today.
He was also a lover of sport, the man who introduced England to the game of golf.
How many Londoners realise that the Royal Blackheath Golf Club is the oldest club in the world and was actually started by King James I, who played on the heath with his courtiers?
A letter was written by the French ambassador, in 1606, confirming this pleasing fact. "Prince Henry plays a Scots diversion very like Mall" he writes.
We know that the game was played in Scotland in the seventeenth century with a wooden ball and a thing like a polo stick - the object being to hit a tree, or a marked stone, about 400 yards distant in fewer strokes than your opponent.
Legend has it that in Eltham, in 1608 a Society of Golfers was formed, with royal sanction and approval.
It continued happily at Blackheath through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the players wearing uniforms, appearing with their golf clubs in scarlet jackets and white waistcoats. They must have looked very distinguished.
Today the Royal Blackheath Golf Club belongs to Eltham, having moved there in 1923, so the story of King James I has a special interest for golfers and villagers even today.
News of him came from Dulwich to Eltham at frequent intervals, because the Roper family were still at Well Hall when James was playing golf on the heath, and gossip from the palace was greatly enjoyed by the villagers.
No doubt they heard all about Robert Carr, the King's first favourite, who caught the King's eye, in March 1607, at a tournament - offering his patron's shield to the royal box.
He was twenty years younger than the King and very good-looking. Shortly afterwards he was taken to the Charing Cross Hospital with a broken leg and there, at his bedside, the King looked after his beloved boy like a devoted father.
Carr became Viscount Rochester in 1611 and Earl of Somerset in 1613. At the time of his marriage to a court beauty - arranged by the King in order to please him - he was rumoured to have spent £90,000 in one year.
But the marriage was followed by a terrible scandal. It soon became known that Sir Thomas Overbury, who had opposed Carr's marriage, had been poisoned by a series of jellies and tarts while imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Both Somerset and his beautiful wife, Frances, were involved in this murder, but Frances was thought to be guilty. She had done such things before.
In the end they were both condemned to death, but the soft-hearted King reduced the sentence to life imprisonment, and eventually the guilty pair were allowed to live in retirement at Chiswick House.
This tasty piece of gossip became very well known in Eltham, in Greenwich and in Kensington.
Who would become the King's next favourite? Soon it was known that James had fallen romantically in love with the handsome George Villiers, who later grew famous as the Duke of Buckingham.
His language about his dearest favourite was extravagant and pathetic. He told his council in 1617: "Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed.
"Christ had his John and I have my George." He now called Buckingham his "only sweet child", and sometimes his "sweet child and wife". In fatherly mood he signed himself: "thy dear dade"
In later life this bisexual king, who was loved by his Queen for many years, and built for her the Queen's House at Greenwich, found himself confronted by Buckingham and his own son, Prince Charles, in league against him.
Then came their foolish expedition to Spain early in 1623 to woo the infanta. James wrote a series of frantic letters to his "sweet boys" to come home, unless they were prepared never to see their "old dad" again.
James wore a portrait of 'Steenie' Buckingham - in a blue ribbon under his waistcoat next to his heart.
In a mood of despair the King wrote: "alas, I now repent me sore that I ever suffered you to go away, I care for match nor nothing, so I may once have you in my arms again; God grant it! God grant it! Amen, amen, amen ... God bless you both, my only sweet son and my only best sweet servant and God send you a happy and joyful meeting in the arms of your dear old dad."
In reply to all this, Steenie wrote impudent letters, asking for jewels, ending: "I kiss your dirty hands." Of course the jewels were sent off as required .
In the reign of King Charles I, the painter, Van Dyck, according to an 18th-century writer, was given a summer residence at Eltham Palace.
Van Dyck shared with Reubens the official title of court painter, and he came to England bearing portraits of the infanta, the Queen of France, and the Prince and Princess of Orange, as presents for Charles, who received him with delight and respect.
Besides the title of painter in ordinary, and an annual pension of £200, Van Dyck received a knighthood.
Charles I and Henrietta Maria, his Queen, are known to posterity through the portraits of Van Dyck.
Once seen, they are impossible to forget. It is known that most of his masterpieces were painted, or partly painted, in the summer sunlight at the old palace at Eltham.
Charles, by the way, was the last king to enter the palace.
One can imagine the painter's happiness in the old palace, all summer long, entertaining his numerous lady friends and models, spending money like water, painting the King and Queen a dozen times.
His method was interesting. To save time and avoid boredom, he began with a small sketch on grey paper with black and white chalk.
This he passed on to his assistants and pupils to be copied and enlarged.
When the costumes had been sketched by his eager students, also the background and dull details, Van Dyck was able in a few sittings, of an hour each, to complete his portraits.
These things were happening at Eltham in the happy years before the Civil War.
Great suffering was to come.
One of the colonels in Cromwell's New Model Army was Nathaniel Rich, who appeared in Eltham at the time of the troubles, in 1648, when the palace - a symbol of the Crown - was ransacked and vandalised.
One year later King Charles I was executed.
Cromwell's soldiers were now quartered in the village, and it was a terrible period for the villagers.
Soon the palace and the chapel were in ruins.
All the deer were killed.
The fences were pulled down
The gardens and pleasure grounds destroyed, and in the royal parks not a tree was Left standing.
John Evelyn later wrote in his diary: "I went to see His Majesty's house at Eltham, both palace and chapel in miserable ruins, the noble wood and park destroyed by Rich the rebel!"
©1997 - Thamesmead Gazette