With a building like Croydon Palace there are more questions than answers: as one surveys its complex history, the architectural styles it incorporates and the numerous alterations to which it has been subject, every brick, window and beam seems to present a challenge. As any guide will admit, what we know for certain about the place can be told quite easily: what we wish we knew - well, that would take rather longer ...
One way to get answers to serious questions is of course to ask an expert, and that's exactly what we did this summer when we invited Tim Tatton-Brown, one of the most eminent architectural historians in the country, to carry out a survey for us. Mr. Tatton-Brown is probably the leading authority today on ecclesiastical buildings, and we were both delighted and honoured that he should come and spend a couple of days at OP in July. And he was able, not only to answer some of our most pressing questions, but impress upon us just what a significant and, indeed, unique building we have on our hands!
Speaking after the completion of his survey to a group of Friends and representatives from the school, the Foundation and the local history society, Mr Tatton-Brown observed that Croydon is the only one of the residences owned by the medieval and Tudor archbishops to have survived with its Great Hall intact. Halls at many other residences were sacked and often demolished during the Civil War when, after the execution of Laud, the post of archbishop was abolished and thereafter they have either disappeared altogether or, like at Canterbury, lie in ruins. The Great Hall at Croydon, which dates in its present form from around 1450 and still has its original oak roof, was 'an amazing survival' said Mr Tatton-Brown.
Also exceptional, he said, is the survival of the private rooms used by the archbishops. These include the Guard Room - originally the Great Chamber - built about 1400. Even at Lambeth, the archbishop's main home for more than 800 years, these rooms survived only until the 1820s. And Croydon is also unique in that it was used by the archbishops after the Restoration in 1600: archbishops got back all their properties at that time, Mr Tatton-Brown explained, 'but in virtually every case - and Croydon is the exception - they never used them. Canterbury was not used by the archbishops as a residence between 1645 and 1900'.
The earliest structure on the site, Mr Tatton-Brown pointed out, would have been a church, almost certainly on the site of the present Parish Church adjacent to the Palace. As he noted in his history of the palace of Lambeth, there is a record of a minster at Croydon as early as 809AD when King Coenwulf of Mercia held his witan there in the time of Archbishop Wulfred. In the 13th century an aisled hall would have gone up, with a buttery, pantry and kitchen to the east (where Old Palace Road is now). The kitchen would have been free-standing, though in the 13th century they were not joined to the main building because of their tendency to burn down!
The present Undercroft also dates from the 13th century and has some early 12th century chevrons in its walls. These may have come from an earlier building on the site. There was a chapel on the site in the 13th century, built above ground level to emphasise its importance. The present chapel is a century later, and the rooms linking it to the main house date from the time of Henry V11's archbishop, Cardinal Morton.
In his talk Mr Tatton-Brown described
clambering about in the roofs, including 'the earliest and finest' over the Guard Room.
This uses 'a huge amount of oak,' he said, but then oak, in those days, was cheap and easier to
get. Mr Tatton-Brown also exploded one or two myths: the confinement of the future James 1 of
Scotland at OP almost certainly had nothing to do with the 'Guard Room' being so called
(this is a much later name for what was originally the Great Chamber).
Mr Tatton-Brown left us some ideas for follow-up work, including researching at Lambeth Palace Library for surviving dilapidation surveys. These contain inventories compiled when, following the death of an archbishop, his successor went to law to determine what he was owed by the deceased's executors. He also recommended that we obtain the services of a dendrochronologist, who, with the aid of computer-enhanced technology, could determine the year and even the season when the tree from which a beam was hewn was felled (and the rough location of the forest). This is an expensive process, but one worth considering at some future date.
Overall this proved an absorbing exercise. Those of us who presume to guide the public around Old Palace will go back to our notes and make some revisions, able now to underline even more the importance of the building we have the privilege of describing.
Also by Tim Tatton-Brown
Great Cathedrals of Britain: An Archaeological History
BBC Books 1988.