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The History of
Greenwich Palace
By John Timbs

Greenwich Palace

Greenwich is traditionally said to have been called, by the Romans, Grenovicum, though there is no historical evidence of this. In Saxon, it was Grenewic or the Green Village. Lambarde gives this curious account of its early history:

"In ancient evidences, East Greenwich for difference sake from Deptford, which in old instruments is called West Greenwich. In the time of the turmoiled King Aethelred, the whole fleet of the Danish army lay at road two or three years together before Greenwich and the soldiers for the most part were encamped upon the hill above the town now called Blackheath. During this time (1011), they pierced the whole country, sacked and spoiled the city of Canterbury, and brought from thence into their ships, Alphege the Archbishop. And here a Dane (called Thrum), whom the Archbishop had confirmed in Christianity the day before, struck him on the head behind and slew him, because he would not condescend to redeem his life with three thousand pounds, which the people of the city and diocese were contented to have given for his ransom. Neither would the rest of the soldiers suffer his body to be committed to the earth, after the manner of Christian decency, till such time (says William of Malmesbury) as they perceived that a dead stick, being anointed with his blood, waxed suddenly green again and began the next day to blossom. Which by all likelihood was gathered in the wood of Dia Feronia; for she was a goddess, whom the Poets do fantasy to have caused a whole wood (that was on fire) to wax green again." The present church of St. Alphege, in Greenwich, stands on the spot where he suffered martyrdom.

A royal residence is noticed at Greenwich as early as the reign of King Edward I, when that Monarch made an offering of seven shillings at each of the holy crosses in the chapel of the Virgin Mary, and the Prince an offering of half that sum. Though by whom the Palace was erected is not known.

King Henry IV dates his will from his Manor of Greenwich, January 22nd, 1408; which appears to have been his favourite residence.

King Henry V (in whose time Greenwich was still a small fishing town) granted the Manor, for life, to his kinsman, Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter. Soon after his decease in 1426, it passed to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who, in 1433, obtained a grant of 200 acres of land in Greenwich for the purpose of enclosing it as a Park. In 1437, he obtained a similar grant and in it license was given to the Duke and Eleanor, his wife, "their Manor of Greenwich to embattle and build with stone, and to enclose and make a tower and ditch within the same, and a certain tower within his park to build and edify." Accordingly, soon after this, he commenced building the tower within the park, now the site of the Royal Observatory, which was then called Greenwich Castle. Likewise, he newly erected the palace on the spot where the west wing of the Royal Hospital now stands. Which palace he named Bella Court.

Duke Humphrey was Regent of England during the minority of King Henry VI and, for his many virtues, was styled the "Father of his Country." He lent Greenwich to the King for his honeymoon, despite his strong opposition to the marriage. This excited the envy of Queen Margaret and induced her to enter into a confederacy with the Cardinal of Winchester and the Earl of Suffolk. Strengthened by her assistance and incited by their common hatred of the patriotic Duke, they basely assassinated him at Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk on February 28th, 1447. He was a generous patron of men, of science and the most learned person of his age. He founded, at Oxford, one of the first public libraries in England. Leland, in his Laboryeuse Journey, says, "Humphrey, the good Duke of Gloucester, from the favour he bears to good letters, purchased a wonderful number of books in all sciences. Whereof he freely gave to a library in Oxford, a hundred and twenty-nine fair volumes." This became the basis of the Bodleian Library of today. He was buried in the Abbey Church of St. Albans where a handsome monument was erected to his memory.

At Duke Humphrey's death, in 1447, the Manor reverted to the Crown. Henry VI named the palace, from its agreeable situation, L' Pleazaunce or Placentia. This name, however, was not commonly made use of until the reign of Henry VIII. King Edward IV expended considerable sums in enlarging and beautifying the house and, about the latter end of his reign, he built a convent adjoining the palace for the Observant or Grey Friars. This convent, after its dissolution in the reign of Henry VIII, was re-founded by Queen Mary, but finally suppressed by Elizabeth in 1559. Edward IV granted his palatial residence at Greenwich, with the manor, town and the park there, to Elizabeth, his Queen. A Royal joust was performed here upon the marriage of Prince Richard, Duke of York, with Anne Mowbray. In 1482, Mary, the King's daughter, died here. She had been betrothed to the King of Denmark, but died before the solemnisation of the marriage.

Greenwich Palace Part 2: The Tudor & Stuart Palace

Edited from John Timbs' Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (1870)




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