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The History of
Greenwich Palace
By John Timbs

The Tudor Palace at Greenwich

At the commencement of his reign, the Manor of Greenwich, with its appurtenances, came into the possession of King Henry VII. Henry, on some frivolous pretence, committed the then owner, Elizabeth, Queen of Edward IV, in close confinement to the nunnery of Bermondsey, where, some years after, she ended her life in poverty and solitude. Henry enlarged the Palace, added a brick front towards the waterside and finished the Tower in the Park begun by Duke Humphrey of Gloucester (see illustration above).

In 1487, on the second day preceding the coronation of Henry VII, the Queen came from Greenwich by water, royally attended. Among the barges of the City Companies, which accompanied the procession, was "in especial, a barge called the Bachelors' Barge, garnished and apparelled passing all others; wherein was ordained a great red dragon, spouting flames of fire into the Thames, and many gentlemanly pageants, well and curiously devised to do her highness sport and pleasure with."

King Henry VIII was born at Greenwich on June 28th, 1491, and baptised in the parish church by the Bishop of Exeter, the Lord Privy Seal. This monarch exceeded all his predecessors in the grandeur of his buildings and rendered the Palace magnificent. Perhaps, from partiality for the place of his birth, Henry resided chiefly at Greenwich, neglecting the Palace of Eltham which had been the favourite residence of his ancestors. Many sumptuous banquets, revels and solemn jousts, for which his reign was celebrated, were held at his Manor of Pleazaunce. On June 3rd, 1509, Henry's marriage with Catherine of Aragon, was solemnised here at the Greyfriars' Church. In 1511, on May-Day, "the King lying at Greenwich, rode to the wood to fetch May; and after, on the same day and two days next ensuing, the King, Sir Edward Howard, Charles Brandon and Sir Edward Neville, as challengers, held jousts against all comers. On the other part, the Marquis of Dorset, the Earls of Essex and Devonshire with others, as defendants, ran against them, so that many a sore stripe was given, and many a staff broken."

At Christmas 1516, the King gave a festival "with great solemnity, dancing, disguisings and mummeries, in a most princely manner." At this entertainment was introduced the first Masquerade ever seen in England. The following account of it, and the other festivities of this Christmas, may not prove uninteresting, as it is very characteristic of the splendours of that period: "The King, this year, kept the feast of Christmas at Greenwich where was such abundance of viands served, to all corners of any honest behaviours, as hath been few times seen. And against New Year's night was made, in the hall, a castle, gates, towers and dungeon, garnished with artillery and weapons, after the most warlike fashion. And on the front of the castle was written, Le Fortresse dangerus, and within the castle were six ladies clothed in russet satin laid all over with leafs of gold, and every hood knit with laces of blue silk and gold. On their heads, coifs and caps all of gold. After this castle had been carried about the hall and the Queen had beheld it, in came the King with five others apparelled in coats, the one half of russet satin spangled with spangles of fine gold, the other half rich cloth of gold. On their heads, caps of russet satin, embroidered with works of fine gold bullion. These six assaulted the castle. The ladies, seeing them so lusty and courageous, were content to solace with them and, upon further communication, to yield the castle. And so they came down and danced a long space. And after, the ladies led the knights into the castle and then the castle suddenly vanished out of their sights. On the day of the Epiphany at night, the King with eleven others, were disguised after the manner of Italy, called a mask: a thing not seen before in England. They were apparelled in garments long and broad, wrought all with gold, with visors and caps of gold. And after the banquet was done, these maskers came in, with six gentlemen disguised in silk bearing staff torches, and desired the ladies to dance. Some were content and some, that knew the fashion of it, refused, because it was not a thing commonly seen. And after they danced and commoned together, as the fashion of the mask is, they took their leave and departed, and so did the Queen and all the ladies." - Hall's Chronicle.

Other jousts were held, as also in 1517 and 1526. In 1512, the King had kept his Christmas at Greenwich "with great and plentiful cheer," in a most princely manner; also in l521, 1525, 1527, 1533, 1537 and 1543. On February 8th, 1516, Princess Mary, afterwards Queen, was born here, and, on May 13th, the marriage of Mary, Queen Dowager of France (Henry's sister), with Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, was publicly solemnised in the parish church. In 1527, the embassy from the French King to Henry VIII was received here. This embassy, that it might correspond with the English Court in magnificence, consisted of eight persons of high quality, attended by six hundred horse. They were received with the greatest honours, "and entertained after a more sumptuous manner than had ever been seen before." On September 7th, 1533, the Princess Elizabeth, afterwards Queen, was born here. In 1536, on May Day, after a tournament, Anne Boleyn, the mother of the Princess Elizabeth, was arrested here by the King's order. Henry signed her death warrant at Greenwich and she was beheaded on the 19th of the same month at the Tower of London. On January 6th, 1540, Henry's marriage with Anne of Cleves was solemnised here "and about her marrying ring was written, 'God send me well to keep.'" This was a most unpropitious alliance, for Henry took a dislike to Anne of Cleves immediately after their marriage. Cromwell, Earl of Essex, the wise and faithful minister of this ungrateful king, was beheaded in the Tower, in 1540, because he had been the principal promoter of this marriage.

A procession from Greenwich to Westminster, immediately after the nuptials of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, is thus chronicled by Holinshed: "The fourth of Feburary (1540), the King and she removed to Westminster by water, on whom the Lord Mayor and his brethren, with twelve of the chief companies of the City, all in barges gorgeously garnished with barters, pennants and targets, richly covered and furnished with instruments sweetly sounding, gave their attendance. And by their way, all the ships shot off. And likewise, from the Tower, a great peal of ordnance went off lustily." The King, after Parliament was ended, kept a solemn Christmas at Greenwich to cheer his nobles and, on the twelfth day at night, came in the hall, a mount, called the Riche Mount. The Mount was set full of rich flowers of silk. The branches were green satin and the flowers, flat gold of damask, which signified Plantagenet. On the top stood a goodly beacon giving light. Round about the beacon, sat the King and five others, all in coats and caps of right crimson velvet, embroidered with flat gold of damask, the coats, set full of spangles of gold. And four woodhouses drew the mount, till it came before the Queen, and then the King and his company descended and danced. Then, suddenly the mount opened and out came six ladies, all in crimson satin and plunket embroidered with gold and pearl, and French hoods on their heads, and they danced alone. Then the lords of the mount took the ladies and danced together, and the ladies re-entered, and the mount closed, and so was conveyed out of the hall. Then the King shifted him, and came to the Queen, and sat at the banquet which was very sumptuous." - Hall.

The fortunes of Duke Humphrey's Tower were very changeful. It was sometimes the habitation of the younger branches of the royal family, sometimes the residence of a favourite mistress, sometimes a prison, and sometimes a place of defence. As mentioned, Mary of York, fifth daughter of Edward IV, died at the Tower in Greenwich Park, in 1482. In 1543, the King entertained twenty-one of the Scottish nobility here, whom he had taken prisoners at Salem Moss, and gave them liberty without ransom. King Edward VI resided at this Manor, where he kept his Christmas in 1552. He died here on July 6th, 1553.

Queen Elizabeth made several additions to the Palace, where she kept a regular Court. It became her principal residence and is said to have been where Sir Walter Ralegh famously threw his cloak over a puddle so the Queen would not get her feet wet. On July 2nd, 1559, Elizabeth was entertained by the citizens of London with a muster of 1400 men and a mock fight in Greenwich Park. On the 10th of the same month, she gave a joust, a mask and a sumptuous banquet in the Park, to several Ambassadors, Lords and Ladies. At a Council held at Greenwich the same year, it was determined to be contrary to law for any Nuncio from the Pope to enter this realm.

On June 29th, 1585, she received here, the Deputies of the United Provinces who offered her the sovereignty of the Low Countries which, from motives of state policy, she declined to accept. In 1586, she received the Danish Ambassador at Greenwich and on July 25th, 1597, the Ambassador from the King of Poland. In 1587, it was at Greenwich that Elizabeth signed the death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots.

A curious picture of the Queen and her Court at Greenwich appears in Paul Hentzner's Journey into England, in 1598, and the account of his reception by Elizabeth is minute and characteristic.

The Queen's House and Royal Naval College, Greenwich

King James I erected a new brick front to the Palace, towards the gardens, and his Queen, Anne of Denmark laid the foundation of the 'House of Delight' - now called the 'Queen's House' - near the Park. In this house, the Governor of Greenwich Royal Naval Hospital afterwards resided and it is now the centre building of the National Maritime Museum. In 1606, the Princess Mary, daughter of James I, was christened at Greenwich with great solemnity.

King Charles I resided much at the Palace previous to the breaking out of the Parliamentary War and Henrietta Maria, his Queen, finished the House near the Park begun by Anne of Denmark. Inigo Jones was employed as the architect, and it was completed in 1635, as appears by a date still to be seen on the front of the building. It was furnished so magnificently that it far surpassed all other houses of the kind in England. King Charles left the Palace with the fatal resolution of taking his journey northward and the turbulent state of the times prevented him from again visiting it. Greenwich Castle was considered a place of some strength and consequence by the Parliament in the time of the Commonwealth. They were unsuccessful in trying to sell the place and, instead, turned it into a biscuit factory! On the restoration of King Charles II, in 1660, this manor, with the park and other royal demesnes, again reverted to the crown. The King, finding the old palace greatly decayed by time and the want of necessary repairs during the Commonwealth, ordered it to be taken down and commenced the erection of a most magnificent palace of freestone, one wing of which was completed (now forming, with additions, the west wing of the University of Greenwich Maritime Campus) and where he occasionally resided, but made no further progress in the work. The Architect he employed was Webb, son-in-law of Inigo Jones, from whose papers the designs were made.

In 1685, it was made part of the jointure of Queen Mary, consort of King James II, but remained in the same state till the reign of William and Mary. The joint monarchs preferred the Royal residences at Kensington and Hampton Court. They had what remained of the old palace incorporated into a splendid new Naval Hospital, with which the history of the site thence merges. This later became the Royal Naval College and is currently the centre piece of the Maritime Campus of the University of Greewich.

Greenwich Palace Part 1: The Medieval Palace

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

Discover the Queen's House in Greenwich
in December 1999.

Though viewable externally from the waterfront and the Royal Park, the Queen's House is currently closed to the public due to building alterations. It will, however, reopen in December, ready for the Millennium Celebrations, when it will house an exhibition of 'The Story of Time'.

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