In the medieval era the streets of London and its surrounding outskirts were rife with filth, dirt and disease. As a result of this the safest and most hygienic way to travel, if you could afford it was along along the River Thames. It was for this reason amongst others that the kings of England built their principal palaces and residences along the banks of the river.
The primary palaces of Henry VIII were all to be found along the river. These included The Palace of Whitehall, Hampton Court Palace, Windsor Castle, Richmond Palace and Greenwich Palace also known as the Palace of Palcentia. All of these residences witnessed their fair share of the triumphs and tragedies during Henry VII and Henry VIII’s reigns.
It is to Greenwich Palace that we go now to explore and uncover some of the most significant moments of the palace’s history.
The manor of Greenwich first belonged to the crown in the 9th century before it was granted to the Abbot of Ghent. Until the 13th century a large manor house named ‘The Old Court’ occupied the site. However it reverted back to the crown in 1414 and was subsequently granted to Humphrey Duke of Gloucester in 1426. He was the fourth son of King Henry IV. In 1430 Humphrey’s completed a crenellated house supplied with water from a conduit at Stockwell. The property was once more renamed, this time as ‘Bellacourt’. The palace received its third and last renaming at the hands of Margaret of Anjou when it was rechristened ‘Palace of Placentia’.
According to the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s website the palace was altered and extended for two English queen consorts, Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI and subsequently Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV. It was during Henry VII reign that the old house was demolished and a new palace was built under the stewardship of master mason Robert Vertue. The new property was a courtyard house without a moat. Contemporary records show that 600,000 red bricks were used in the project.
The King and Queen had mirroring apartments with their own watching chambers and privy chambers, which according to In The Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Morris & Natalie Gruerniger were connected by a privy gallery which also in Anne Boleyn’s day gave access to her bedroom. The renovations begun in the early 1500s made the palace complex the largest and most modern palace in Europe.
Over the course of the Tudor period there were marriages and many births that occurred within the red bricks walls. In the summer of 1491 Elizabeth of York retired to her chambers and on the 28th of June that year she gave birth to her second son Prince Henry (later Henry VIII). Two of Henry VIII’s marriages took place in private in the Queen’s closet at Greenwich; the first to Katherine of Aragon on 11 June 1509 and his fourth to Anne of Cleves on 6th January 1540.
Both of Henry’s VIII’s daughters were born and christened at Greenwich. Catherine of Aragon’s daughter and only surviving child, Princess Mary was born on 18 February 1516, but perhaps the most eagerly awaited birth took place on the afternoon of 7th September 1533.
Henry VIII had fought the Pope and many very vocal dissenters for 6 years to have his first marriage annulled, so when his heavily pregnant second wife Anne Boleyn ‘took to her chamber’ on 26 August 1533 England held it’s breath in the anticipation that the country would soon have a male heir. The child was healthy and the mother well, but the baby was a girl who was named Princess Elizabeth in honour of both her Grandmothers.
During Henry VIII’s reign several sporting arenas were added. These included a permanent tiltyard for jousting, an enclosed cockpit, a mews for hawks and new kennels. A banqueting house and a theatre were also built and the celebrated court painter Hans Holbein decorated these.
In was at the Greenwich tiltyard that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn saw each other for the last time. The May Day joust was an annual tradition at Greenwich but before the celebrations had finished on the 1st of May 1536 Henry VIII received a note, perhaps in relation to the investigation concerning his wife’s alleged infidelities and left.
It was at Greenwich the next day that she was summoned to appear before a number of the King’s counsellors in order to answer questions about her conduct. By mid afternoon she had been placed under arrest, escorted to her barge at the privy steps and taken down the river in broad daylight to the Tower of London where she was tried and executed three weeks later.
The palace remained in royal use until the 17th century when the civil war and the eventual defeat of King Charles I left it in desperate need of repair. Once Charles’ son King Charles II was restored to the throne he did make attempts to restore the palace engaging the services of John Webb to build a new King’s house. The only part of project to be completed still stands today and is known as King Charles Court.
If you visit the site today you will see the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich University and Trinity College of Music
In The Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Morris & Natalie Grueninger