Humphrey Duke of Gloucester from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book
A print by an unknown artist now in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich depicting the Palace c 1487.
Greenwich Palace, or Placentia as it is often known, was built around 1433 by Henry V’s brother, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, who named it Bella Court after he had been granted the Manor of Greenwich by his nephew Henry Vl. There had been been an even older palace on that site, perhaps dating from the reign of Edward l. Henry lV dated his will from his ‘Manor of Greenwich January 22nd 1408′ and the palace appears to have been his favourite residence. However, the grant in 1433 of 200 acres of land was for the purpose of enclosing it as a park. It would seem that Humphrey was pleased with the spot because 4 years later he and his ill-fated wife, Eleanor Cobham, obtained a similar grant and in that, licence was given for the owners to ’embattle and build with stone’ as well as ‘to enclose and make a tower and ditch within the same and a certain tower within the part to build and edify’ (1)
Part of the drawing of Greenwich Palace by Anthony van der Wyngaerde 1558 with Duke Humphrey’s tower on top of the hill.
Accordingly soon after this Humphrey commenced building the tower within what is now the site of the Royal Observatory which was then called Greenwich Castle, and he likewise rebuilt the old palace on the spot where the west wing of the Royal Naval College now stands which he renamed from its agreeable situation, Pleazaunce or Placentia although this name was not commonly used until the reign of Henry Vlll.
Another view of van der Wyngaerde’s drawing of Greenwich Palace c 1558
Upon Humphrey’s death the palace was granted to his nemesis, Margaret of Anjou. Margaret added embellishments including terracotta tiles bearing her monogram, filled the windows with glass and built a landing stage and treasure house (2)
A view of Greenwich Palace from a print published by the Society of Antiquaries 1767
Later Edward IV enlarged the park, stocked it with deer and bestowed it as a residence upon Elizabeth Wydeville. Greenwich has been mentioned as one of Elizabeth’s favourite homes and it certainly crops up regularly in Edward’s itinerary (3). A joust was held there on the occasion of Richard of Shrewsbury’s marriage to Anne Mowbray and it was there at Greenwich on the 19th November 1481 that Anne tragically died at the age of just 8 years old and a few short months later, Edward and Elizabeth’s own daughter, the 15 year old Princess Mary also died on either the 20th or 23rd May 1482. The manuscript covering Mary’s death says she died ‘in the town’ but it is probable this meant the palace and presumably she would have ‘lain in the chapel of the palace with appropriate services and perhaps the attendance of her parents'(3). A week after her death, on the 27th May, Mary’s body was taken to the parish church of Greenwich on the first stage of the final journey to St Georges Chapel, Windsor. Mary may have been visited by her father, Edward lV, a few days before her death. He was at Canterbury on the 17th and back in London on the 23rd which may have been the day that his daughter breathed her last so clearly if he did indeed visit he did not linger. Numerous Wydeville ladies were conspicuous among the mourners including Jane, Lady Grey of Ruthin, sister to the queen and Jacquetta, another sister’s daugher, Joan Lady Strange, wife of George Stanley. Another niece, Lady ‘Dame’ Katherine Grey, possibly the daughter of Jane Wydeville was also present. Dinner for the funeral group was at the palace after which Mary’s body was taken from the church and begun its last sad journey to Windsor. Mary’s funeral is more than adequately covered in The Royal Funerals of the House of York at Windsor by Anne F Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs. It may well be that sisters-in-law Anne and Mary knew each other well and that perhaps Greenwich Palace was being used as a royal nursery in much the same way as Sheriff Hutton was later to become, although the age gap would surely have prevented them from being actual playmates.
The Royal Window, Canterbury Cathedral. Elizabeth Wydeville and her daughters. Mary is shown as the last figure on the right hand side. Greenwich was one of Elizabeth’s favourite homes and where her daugher Mary died in 1482.
Greenwich Palace conveniently came into Henry Tudor’s hands when Elizabeth Wydeville was, ummmmm, retired to Bermondsey Abbey on an altogether frivolous charge. It is true to say that Tudor heavily rebuilt the palace between 1498 and 1504, renaming it Placentia, (the pleasant place), and the result of which is that any reference to Placentia usually finds it referred to as a Tudor palace but it is the earlier years of the palace with its Lancastrian and Yorkist links that I find the most intriguing.
Modern plaque commemorating the ‘building’ of Greenwich Palace by Henry Tudor. Visitors could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking , with no mention made of the earlier palace, that Tudor was reponsible for the building of Greenwich Palace from the onset.
Later in its long history the palace was to see many important events including the birth of Henry Vlll in 1491. Henry jnr spared no expense in beautifying Placentia and his marriage to Katherine of Aragon was solemnised there on the 3 June 1509. Many sumptious banquets, revels and jousts were held there – in Henry’s ‘Manor of Pleazaunce’ – and both his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth were born there. Details of these and other less salubrious events such as the arrest of Anne Boleyn are readily available to anyone who is interested in the Tudors and their shenanigans and I will not cover them here. The Tudors were emulated by the Stuarts in choosing Placentia as a favourite residence until Charles ll, finding the old palace greatly decayed, ordered it to be taken down and yet another new palace to be built. Thus Greenwich or Placentia – whichever name you prefer arose, phoenix like from the ashes and a new chapter in its long history commenced.
As a footnote to Greenwich Palace and its rich history, much excitement has been created by the discovery by archaeologists working on the painted hall at the Old Royal Naval College of the discovery of two room, thought to have been used as kitchen or laundry rooms from the old palace. One of these rooms featured a lead-glazed tiled floor and wall cavities which may have been used to store food and drink or even ‘bee boles’ which would have housed beehive baskets or ‘skeps’ during the winter when the bee colonies hibernated.
The cavities from Greenwich Palace believed to be for storing food, drink or even ‘bee boles’.
- Old and New London, vol 6 p.165 Edward Walford.
- The London Encyclopaedia pp 345, 346. Edited by Weinren and Hibbert
- The Private Life of Edward lV John Ashdown-Hill pp 48,49,62,63, 87, 88, 114, 115, 117, 118, 119, 155, 157, 158, 188, 189, 190,191, 192, 204, 205, 206