South London Memories: Palace of Placentia Greenwich

A palace at Greenwich was the scene of the birth of monarchs who turned the tide of history. The castle, built in 1443, was also the scene of a failed Roman Catholic plot to kidnap one queen – and the birthplace of three monarchs. TOBY PORTER looks at its history.

All that’s left of the Palace of Placentia now is some Tudor tiles at the bottom of an archaeologist’s pit.

Construction work for drains in 2005 found 500-year-old building remnants and an archaeological dig in January 2006 found a chapel and vestry and their tiled floor.

But it was once one of England’s grandest and most opulent royal residences and home to a string of monarchs – a 40-minute boat ride, on a good day, from the bustle of complex court life at the Tower of London – and its dingy dungeons.

It was the birthplace of Henry VIII in 1491 and his two daughters, Mary in 1516 and Elizabeth in 1533.

He also tied the knot there with Anne of Cleves – notorious nuptials conducted by Thomas Cromwell which would last just six months in 1540 because he may or may not have dubbed her “The Flanders Mare”.

Portrait of Henry VIII

Cromwell’s part in setting up the match led to his downfall.

Bella Court, later called the Palace of Placentia had been built in 1443 by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester – son of Henry IV, brother of the inspiring Henry V, who won the battle of Agincourt but died aged just 35, and uncle of his successor Henry VI.

The reckless Gloucester – after whom Duke Humphrey Road in nearby Blackheath is named – was regent when the latter became king aged only nine months.

Humphrey fell out of favour with Henry VI and was arrested for high treason. He died in prison, likely due to a stroke though it was popularly believed he was murdered.

Henry VII rebuilt the palace, with a design based around three large courtyards, between 1498 and 1504.

It remained the main royal palace for the next two centuries. It was the birthplace of King Henry VIII in 1491 and figured heavily in his life.

Following the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Placentia became the birthplace of Mary I in February 1516.

Anne Boleyn gave birth there to his daughter, later Queen Elizabeth I, in 1533, and he married Anne of Cleves there in 1540.

A tree in Greenwich Park is known as Queen Elizabeth’s Oak”, in which she is reputed to have played as a child.

Both Mary and Elizabeth lived at Placentia for some years during the sixteenth century.

Three months after James I succeeded Elizabeth as monarch, there was an attempt by prominent Catholics and disgruntled Protestants to kidnap him and convert him to Rome.

The conspirators met at Greenwich but the plot was betrayed by rival Catholics.

The focus of the site changed after James I began the Queen’s House, for his wife Anne of Denmark.

Flamsteed House

Built from 1616 and 1635, this is one of the most important buildings in British architecture – the first consciously classical building to have been constructed in the country.

Placentia fell into disrepair during the English Civil War, serving time as a biscuit factory and a prisoner-of-war camp.
In 1660, Charles II began but did not complete, the construction of a new palace.

Most of Placentia was demolished, and the site remained empty until construction of the Royal Hospital for Seamen, from 1696-1751 to a masterplan by Sir Christopher Wren.

By then the Greenwich Royal Observatory had been started on the hill overlooking the site.

England was at the time finding its way as a naval power – and the most important scientific question of the day was how to measure distance at sea.

Christopher Wren by Godfrey Kneller

That could only be done through intense star-watching.

A Royal Commission was created by Charles II, on which sat Sir Christopher Wren – the architect but also a former professor of astronomy at Oxford.

It recommended the foundation of an observatory – Britain’s first state-funded scientific institution – and John Flamsteed was named astronomical observator.

Wren had suggested using the ruined castle as the site – it had solid foundations in place from the old castle, and was on high ground.

He designed Flamsteed House first at amazing speed.  At 3.14pm on August 10, 1675, Flamsteed laid the foundation stone.

He moved in less than a year later on July 10 1676 with his two servants to begin his observations.

A total of £520.45 was spent on construction, with costs kept down by recycling the old stone.

Flamsteed made more than 50,000 observations of the moon and stars there and from a nearby building over 40 years.

At the bottom of the hill, the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich was built on the instructions of William of Orange’s wife, Queen Mary II, who had been inspired by the sight of wounded sailors returning from the Battle of La Hogue in 1692.

The Queens House, Greenwich Great Hall

She ordered one wing to be remodelled as a naval hospital to provide a counterpart for the Chelsea Hospital for soldiers.

Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor gave their services free of charge as architects.

Sir John Vanbrugh succeeded Wren as architect, completing the complex to Wren’s original plans.

The complex became the Greenwich Royal Naval College in 1873, when the place of learning was moved from Portsmouth.

The buildings are today occupied by the University of Greenwich and the Music Faculty of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

The Queen’s House was used as a VIP centre during the 2012 Olympic Games.


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