FOR years its solitary northwest tower has remained virtually unknown, forlornly hidden from public gaze in wooded parkland off the main road to Sevenoaks. Now at long last the future of Otford Palace, forerunner even to Hampton Court, which it matched in size – if not bigger– lies in the hands of the Archbishop’s Palace Conservation Trust.
Formed in 2017, it has taken over ownership and restoration work not just of the tower but the Gatehouse and Palace Field from Sevenoaks District Council, the previous, rather reluctant, owners. Their aim: to bring a fresh awareness of ‘the palace, the Tudors, Otford and the broader context of the Darent Valley.’ A pretty tall order but, with the palace alone playing a major role, undoubtedly possible.
It was there, after all, that a young Henry VIII, along with wife number one, Catherine of Aragon, and a retinue of 5,000, stayed overnight on his way to meet arch rival Francois I, King of France, at the Field of the Cloth of Gold on June 7, 1520.
Sadly, plans to mark the 500th anniversary of the Henry versus Francois macho match were cancelled both sides of the Channel, yet another victim of Covid 19. For the record, the site was at Balinghem, a small village between Ardres and Guînes in Pas de Calais (see Essentially France section) where coincidentally the coastal town of Neufchatel-Hardelot is twinned with Otford.
His host was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, who spent £33,000 on converting the existing wooden manor house into a splendid brick built Tudor palace. This in effect placed Otford, a mere day’s journey from London, as the main Royal and Ecclesiastical powerbase in England. It certainly impressed Henry who spoke of how the bishop ‘made him good and great cheer’. Warham’s friend Erasmus, the eminent Dutch Renaissance humanist, also spoke of the sumptuous banquets for hundreds of guests; the Pope, Cardinal Campeggio, for one, was entertained there two years prior to Henry’s visit.
The main motive behind Warham’s stately pile, with scattered estates stretching from Gravesend to Groombridge in Sussex, seemed a desire to upstage Cardinal Wolsey who, within a year of Otford Palace being built in 1514, was in the process of building Hampton Court.
Quarrelling between Warham – a surprisingly ascetic man said to have eaten frugally and rarely tasted wine – over their respective stately piles took their toll. In 1537 with both antagonists dead, Otford Palace along with nearby Knole, was basically confiscated by Henry during the Reformation. It had previously been lived in by Bishop Thomas Cranmer who conspired with Henry in his plans to divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. He also spent at least £400, possibly double, on its upkeep as well as on Knole and Penshurst Place. Sadly, despite using the palace mainly for impressing visiting grandees, the ageing king’s dislike of it for health reasons saw the once magnificent palace left in a state of decay following his death in 1547.
Daughter Anne, by then Queen Elizabeth I, likewise refused to help with rising costs, recalling miserable childhood memories of its low boggy location. ‘I would rather see it perish than throw good money after bad. ’ is the best interpretation. As a survey made in 1596 confirmed ‘if the saide house be repayred, nevertheles the same woylde not be fytt for Her Majestie to lye in, for that yt standeth in a very wett soyle, upon springes and vantes of water contynualy ronnynge under yt,’
Even a generous £1,868 offer to cover the cost from Sir Henry Sidney, owner of neighbouring Penshurst Place, was rejected by the queen. By 1620, much of the building had been pulled down. And if it had not been for the persistence since the 1960s of Otford & District Historical Society and archaeologists, both through research and excavations, a huge slice of history dating back to 821AD could well have been lost forever – with many blissfully unaware the palace even existed!
While www.otfordpalace.org concentrates on the history of the palace www.otford.co.uk/historicalsociety & www.visitotford.org additionally shed light on how the village began with land being granted to the church by Cenulf the king of Kent. This later morphed into a large wooden manor house used by a succession of bishops until its dramatic transformation in the 16th century. In 1348, during the Black Death, King Edward III and his court celebrated Christmas in surprisingly carefree style at Otford considering the circumstances. Thomas à Becket, too, was endowed with the then rectory of Otford, though it seems doubtful he actually lived at the palace.
A Guided Walk around Otford Palace (an Otford & District Historical Society publication by Cliff Ward, a palace aficionado, fleshes out still further its fascinating history: available at £6 postage free through Otford Parish Council, School House, 21 High Street, Otford, Kent TN14 5PG.; The Archbishop’s Palace Otford by Rod Shelton likewise delves deeply into the history and description of the palace based on the model in the heritage centre. (See below)
The model showing the palace in its original glory, is one of the diverse exhibits in Otford Heritage Centre. Located in the High Street it traces 4,000 years of local geology, natural history, ecology and archaeology. Among items discovered while digging through Roman and Tudor rubble was a coin from the time of Henry II and a 13th century horse brass bearing the archbishop’s emblem , possibly shed by the horse he was riding. Main picture (copyright John Ruler)