Above: The attractive front of the house and gardens.
London has very few Jacobean buildings and Charlton House is one of the finest to be found. If you are wondering about the term ‘Jacobean’, it refers to a short period after Queen Elizabeth I died (in 1603). The following kings were James I (died 1625) and Charles I (executed 1649). The French for James is Jacques which gave rise to the term ‘Jacobean’. After almost no change in architectural style during the Tudor period, the Jacobean style was quite distinct from what went before it.
Charlton was a manor, first mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086). The site of the Manor House was where Charlton House new stands. The old Manor House was acquired at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536) and the present Charlton House was later built by the Crown to house Sir Adam Newton who was then Dean of Durham. The designer is often presumed to be John Thorpe, one of the first professional English architects, who had served as Clerk of the Works at Greenwich Palace. Thorpe had left the Office of Works in 1601 for private practice.
Adam Newton was a tutor to Prince Henry, the son of James I and older brother of the future Charles I. The grand Jacobean mansion was built 1607–12. The prince died almost as soon as the house was completed. Newton then became Receiver-General, having sold his office as dean. In 1620 he became a baronet.
Charlton House is surrounded by extensive land which is now a large public park. That land originally surrounded the ancient Manor House. The garden-house, or orangery, near the road, has suffered the ignominy of being converted into a public toilet. Nearby is a mulberry tree said to be the oldest of its species (Morus nigra) in England. It is believed that it was planted in 1608 on the orders of James I. Remnants of the house gardens survive. Another ancient feature is a short section of a Ha-Ha – a ditch with a wall on one side – used to keep farm animals from straying too close to the house.
A new wing was added to Charlton House by Richard Norman Shaw in 1877. During the First World War, it was used as the divisional headquarters of the Red Cross for Greenwich and Woolwich. At the end of the war (from 14 October 1918 to 30 April 1919) it served as an auxiliary hospital with about 70 beds. The house and grounds were purchased in 1925 by the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich.
Parts of the house were damaged during the Second World War. This included the Chapel Wing, which was bombed during the Blitz and was subsequently rebuilt with non-matching bricks because they were the only ones available after the War. For many years the house was used as a museum and a library.
During 2003 and 2004 the walled gardens and some of the perennial borders were redesigned and re-planted by the landscape designer Andrew Fisher Tomlin. The main walled kitchen garden was also replanted, retaining three ancient fruit trees. The house is maintained by the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust and both the house and garden are open throughout the year. The house is now a community centre. Parts of the house are available for hire for private functions.
The house stands facing the eastern end of Charlton Road, in Charlton village. Access to the house and gardens are free and, on a sunny day, it is a splendid venue to explore. In passing, it should be mentioned that Charlton Road runs along the edge is high ground. If you pick the right spot and look through the trees, there are fine views towards London and of the Thames.