Above: A 17th-century painting (probably made shortly before the Tudor palace was demolished). The view looks NW from a hill in Greenwich Park. The River Thames is beside the buildings of the old palace and, in the far distance (just right of centre) is shown the City of London.
The early history of the land on which Greenwich Palace stood goes back to the Manor of East Greenwich, first recorded in AD 918. In that year the Manor was given by Elstrudis, the daughter of King Alfred, to the great Abbey of St Peter, in Ghent. The Manor was confiscated from the Abbey of Ghent in 1414 when all alien priories were suppressed by Henry V due to the war with France. The land was granted to the Carthusian Priory of Shene. It was probably in the same year that Henry V gave the land to Thomas Beaufort, the youngest son of John of Gaunt by his third wife Katherine Swinford, who later became the Duke of Exeter. Beaufort died in 1426 and the land returned to the Crown.
The origins of Greenwich Palace start in 1427 when Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, obtained the freehold of some land in the Manor to be near the young king, Henry VI, and his court at Eltham and because he liked the situation. Humphrey built a house, of modest size, close to the Thames, calling it ‘Bella Court’. He was granted a licence by Henry VI to enclose 200 acres (81 hectares) of land and stock it with deer. This boundary of the land is almost identical with the modern boundary of Greenwich Park. The western boundary was (and still is) Croom’s Hill.
It was always Humphrey’s ambition to be near the court at Eltham Palace. Since Eltham lay near the Dover Road, Humphrey obtained the site at Greenwich which was near the same road that provided easy access to Eltham Palace. He hoped that the King would visit him on his way to Eltham Palace but that never happened. Humphrey died in 1447 and the land, with Bella Court, reverted to the Crown. The manor has remained in royal hands ever since – apart from State ownership during the time of the Commonwealth.
From around 1455 the house was lived in by Margaret of Anjou, consort of Henry VI, who called it ‘Plaisance’ or ‘Placentia’ – meaning a pleasant place.
In 1461 Placentia passed to Edward VI who, during his reign of 22 years, greatly enlarged and improved the buildings such that they became called a ‘Palace’. From that time onwards, the buildings became a favourite for Tudor royalty. Henry VIII was born at the palace on 28 June 1491. His parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, liked living there. In 1509 Henry VIII became king and seven weeks later was married on 11 June at the palace to Catherine of Aragon, his first wife. She was his brother Arthur’s widow. Arthur had died in 1502. Henry’s daughter, who became Mary I, was born on 18 February 1516 at the palace. Elizabeth I was born there on 7 September 1533, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, giving her father little pleasure since he was hoping for a son.
The death warrant for Anne Boleyn, who was executed on 19 May 1536, was signed by Henry VIII at the palace. Around this time Henry VIII enlarged the palace with a Banqueting Hall, an armoury, and also a tiltyard – to host jousting tournaments. The tiltyard was on the west side of the palace. It is shown on Wyngaede’s panorama of 1543. In addition, there was a tennis court and a chapel.
Henry VIII was married to Anne of Cleves at the Palace on 6 January 1540. She was his fourth wife but they were only married for six months. On the 8 August 1540, Henry VIII married Catherine Howard, his fifth wife. Edward VI died at the Palace in 1553. The end of the Tudor reign came in 1605 when Elizabeth I died at Richmond Palace.
In 1604 an undercroft at Greenwich Palace, described as ‘a great wide and longe vaulte from the pond in the garden to the Thames’, was constructed ‘for the cleansing of manie vaultes and sinckes to keep the house sweete and cleane’. Being so close to the river, the accumulated neglect of proper drainage endangered some structures. The extreme damp, together with possible subsidence in the old foundations led James I to insert a ‘sellar’ under the Great Banqueting Hall of the Tudor palace. The hall was built of wood. The work involved taking out the floor and digging new foundations
In 1613 James I gave Greenwich Palace to his queen, Anne of Denmark. She had the Queen’s House constructed to the south of the Palace buildings. The use of the palace declined and in 1664 Charles II had the old buildings demolished to make way for a new palace but it was never to be lived in by royalty again – becoming instead the Royal Naval Hospital, a home for retired naval men.
Above: Large stone plaque marking the site of the Tudor palace whose red-brick foundations remain under the lawns beside the Thames.
When compared with the present buildings, the old palace was a very small place. Excavations during the 1970s revealed some of the foundations of the palace under the formal lawns beside the river. Further excavations since that time, in 2017, uncovered two rooms from the Tudor Palace – in the undercroft beneath the present Painted Hall. The chambers are set back from the river and one has a floor of lead-glazed tiles; they are thought to be from the palace’s service range, possibly where the kitchens, bakehouse, brewhouse, and laundry were.
Being titled ‘Greenwich Palace’ this article will not contain details of the buildings that followed. However, it may be useful to mention that the buildings that replaced the Palace were intended to be another much grander palace. After construction, the royalty decided not to use them and they became a home for retired seamen, called the Royal Naval Hospital. The buildings were later used as the Royal Naval College and, later still, the buildings became part of the large campus of Greenwich University.