Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Origins and History
The build of Bellacourt (a modest medieval manor house) was started by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The Duke, brother to King Henry V, was granted the Manor of Greenwich by his nephew, Henry VI. 1447
The Duke died in prison (accused of treason) and Margaret of Anjou, Consort to Henry VI, took over. She renamed it the Palace of Placentia (pleasant place). Margaret enlarged the palace, put in windows, built a pier and laid down terra-cotta tiles bearing her royal monogram. 1461
Placentia was confiscated from Margaret by Edward IV (an unpopular king), who ruled for 22 years. During his reign, he greatly enlarged and improved the buildings. The programme of alteration was undertaken by Robert Kettlewell, purveyor of works at Eltham Palace. 1482
Edward IV invited the Observant Friars to establish a house at Greenwich – the first to be built in England – on a site adjoining the palace.
Prince Henry (to become Henry VIII) was born at Greenwich Palace.
Placentia was elevated from a manor to a palace by Henry VII. Old buildings were demolished and new ones built under the direction of master Robert Virtue. Greenwich Palace was a red-brick building, nothing like the one we see today. 1509
On 11th June 1509, seventeen-year-old King Henry VIII married twenty-three-year-old Catherine of Aragon, his brother Arthur’s widow, in the Queen’s Closet at Greenwich Palace.
Henry VIII threw the first masquerade party ever seen in England. He also commissioned new stables for his coursers and the horses he used for jousting and hunting.
Close to the stables, the king commissioned his great armoury mill. Up to this point, the top-quality armour worn by man and horse, both in the tiltyard and on the field of battle, had to be imported.
In 1515, Henry also constructed a mill, which marked the start of what was to be the Greenwich Armouries. An area was laid out of approximately 650ft long and 250 feet wide, and on its western edge were built permanent grandstands in the form of two towers and a linking gallery. Henry VIII’s Greenwich became a fully self-contained royal headquarters. Also during this period, Mary I and Elizabeth I were both born at Greenwich Palace.
In 1 January 536, a 44-year-old Henry fell from his horse while jousting at Greenwich Palace, leaving the monarch seriously injured and unconscious for two hours.It was to be the last time the avid horse rider would ever partake in his favourite pastime. The precise location of King Henry VIII's last ever joust was found by archaeologists in 2020.
Anne Boleyn, in May 1536, thinking she was taking a normal trip upstream to the city, was approached by Yeoman guards who arrested her on the instruction of Henry VIII. They escorted her to the boat for the journey to the Tower of London and her final place for execution.
During her reign, Queen Elizabeth occupied the king’s lodgings on the riverfront. By 1603, the queen’s side on the south had become inadequate and old-fashioned.
Elizabeth spent a lot of time at Greenwich Palace, with the windows overlooking the Thames so she could see the ships on the river, especially after the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Contemporary sources suggest that King James I had the Queen's House built by way of apologising to his wife, Anne of Denmark, for swearing at her after she shot his dog by mistake. Whatever the reason, Inigo Jones was commissioned to build the Queen's House, designed for Anne to use during her visits, as an adjunct to Greenwich Palace. Anne never saw the completion of England's first classical building to be constructed as she died in 1618. In 1629, the house was given to Henrietta Maria by her husband, Charles I, and it was finished around 1636. 1642-1651
Oliver Cromwell took over the palace during the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651. He used the building as a biscuit factory and a prisoner of war camp, after unsuccessfully trying to sell it. Rumour has it that Cromwell's head was buried in a biscuit tin. 1662
In 1662, Charles II commissioned John Webb to design a new palace and to repair and enlarge the Queen's House. This resulted in the demolition of Greenwich Palace and the construction of the King Charles' Block. It was the first phase of a large palace that was never completed due to royal over-expenditure. 1694
In 1694, Queen Mary II gave over the abandoned palace to create the Royal Naval Hospital, a charitable home for aged and disabled Royal Navy seamen. Christopher Wren prepared the overall plans for the new complex, which incorporated Webb's unfinished King Charles block. Wren and his assistant, Nicholas Hawksmoor, gave their services free for the Naval Hospital. Work began in 1696 and was completed in 1769. 1707-1726
Jame Thornhill began his work on the Painted Hall in 1707. After nineteen years, it was completed in 1726. Originally designed as a grand dining room for naval pensioners, it soon became a space reserved for functions and paying visitors. In 1806, Lord Nelson lay in-state at the Painted Hall. The exact spot is marked by a plaque on the floor. 1873
In 1869, the Royal Naval Hospital closed and the last naval pensioner left. Remains of thousands of soldiers and officers were removed from the hospital site and reinterned at East Greenwich Pleasaunce. The hospital was handed over to the Royal Naval College as a training establishment. 1998
The Royal Naval College closed in 1998 when the government decided to amalgamate the training of armed forces and relocate the training elsewhere. The Greenwich Foundation, an independent charity, was set up to preserve the site for generations to come. The Old Royal Naval College is now open to visitors and is a World Heritage Site. 2017
During lockdown, in 2020, archaeologists discovered the remains of Henry VIII's tiltyard. A tiltyard was an enclosed space for jousting. The yard was discovered by using ground-penetrating radar and it is believed this is where Henry suffered his famous jousting accident (1536) where he was unconscious for two hours. The tiltyard was originally thought to be on a particular part of the site based on some Tudor bricks found there in the 19th century, while a rail tunnel was dug under Greenwich. A team of researchers from the University of Greenwich have now pinpointed the precise location of the yard and the remains of the structures that surrounded and concluded that it is about 300 feet east of where they expected to find it, and six feet below the modern-day grass.
We started this journey with Bellacourt Manor and Greenwich Palace, both of which were demolished over time. In their place now stands the Queen's House, and the Old Royal Naval College. It's hard to truly know where the palace once stood, especially as the Thames always adds an illusory perspective when standing in Greenwich Park and looking down. Apart from recent discoveries, nothing of the palace remains but that doesn't wipe out its influence over the grounds or the park.
In the next blog (Tuesday, 9th November) we will be talking about Martial Bourdin, the Greenwich Bomber.
In the meantime, thank you for reading.
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The website is still a work in progress as everything is checked against the primary sources (as far as possible) rather than relying on Google, so thank you for sticking with me.
Aslet, C, The Story of Greenwich (1999)
Bold, J, Greenwich: An Architectural History of the Royal Hospital for Seamen and the Queen's House (2000)
Cherry, B and Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: London 2 South (1983), pp 254-66
Rev A G L'Estrange, The Palace and Hospital or Chronicles of Greenwich (1886)
RCHME, Greenwich Park, An Archaeological Survey (1994)