Palace of Mystery and Message

by wjw on December 1, 2017

Eltham_PalaceEltham Palace, near Greenwich, was given to Edward II in 1305, and was used as a royal residence for over three centuries.  Henry VIII and his sisters were raised there.  But the palace was wrecked during the English Civil War, and after the rebuilding of Greenwich Palace under Charles II, Eltham was used less and less.

In the 1920s the crown leased the palace to Sir Stephen and Virginia Courtauld.  Wealthy philanthropists and patrons of the arts, they hired the architects John Seely and Paul Paget to rebuild the palace, in which they lived until 1944.

It seems the architects, perhaps without telling their patrons, filled the building, its ornaments and designs, with an elaborate series of clues, codes, and symbols.

In this game, every single feature of architecture and design inside the house, on the exterior walls, and also on the rooftop, is a clue which has a meaning which has to be deciphered. When the clues have been decoded, we realise that they are giving out messages about Stephen and Virginia Courtauld; delightful, amusing messages; a paean of praise, with many touches of humour. There are also some messages which refer to the previous owners of the site where the old palace stood centuries before: kings, queens, bishops, knights and so on.

It is unknown whether the Courtaulds ever realized they were living in a giant puzzle box.

This is the sort of structure that appears in fiction, where canny detectives decipher clews to age-old crimes or to the location of a buried treasure, but they’re scarce enough in reality.  There are plenty of old buildings with odd, puzzling features— a shrewd fictional symbologist might claim to be able to read the mysteries of Rosslyn Chapel, for example— but these mysteries aren’t necessarily mysteries by intention, they may be mysterious simply because the original meaning, once obvious, has been obscured by time.

But here’s one that was built deliberately, and possibly without the knowledge of the couple who were writing the checks.  It’s just the sort of place where you’d find a corpse stabbed with a 17th Century Florentine dagger.

And if anyone’s dug up a treasure, they haven’t announced it.

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