The Old Royal Naval College is the centrepiece of Maritime Greenwich a UNESCO World Heritage site, on the River Thames just downstream of the centre of London. It has been described as the finest and most dramatically sited group of buildings in the whole of the UK.
The current buildings were originally constructed to serve as the Royal Hospital for Seamen, which was designed by Christopher Wren, and built between 1696 and 1712. The hospital closed in 1869. In 1873 the complex became the Royal Naval College when the facility was moved from Portsmouth. It retained that role until 1998. The buildings are today occupied by the University of Greenwich and Trinity College of Music.
However, the Greenwich site was historically important well before Wren’s masterpiece was constructed because it was built on the site of the Royal Palace of Placentia.
The original palace was built in 1447 by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester who was regent during the rule of Henry VI. He named it Bella Court, Humphrey fell out of favour with the new queen, Margaret of Anjou, and was arrested for high treason and died in prison.
Queen Margaret took over Bella Court, renaming it the Palace of Placentia.
For the next two centuries Placentia remained one of the principal royal palaces and was a particular favourate of the Tudors. It was the birth-place of King Henry VIII in 1491, and figured heavily in his life.
Following his marriage at Greenwich to Catherine of Aragon, it was the birth-place, in February 1516, of their daughter Mary Tudor (later Queen Mary I). After his marriage to Anne Boleyn, his second daughter, later Queen Elizabeth I, was born at at the palace in 1533. The Palace also provided the setting for Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1540.
Greenwich Palace, as Placentia became known, was a favoured residence of Elizabeth when she became queen and it was the site for ‘launch parties’ for the many voyages of exploration undertaken by the likes of Drake, Raleigh and Hawkins.
During the reigns of James I and Charles I, the Queen's House was erected to the south of the Palace but during the English Civil War it fell into disrepair, serving time as a biscuit factory and a prisoner-of-war camp.
In 1660, Charles II decided to rebuild the Palace, engaging John Webb as the architect for a new King's House. The only section of the Palace to be completed was the east range of the present King Charles Court, but this was never occupied as a royal residence. Most of the rest of the palace was demolished and the site remained empty until construction of the Royal Hospital for Seamen began.
In recent times, there have been a number of attempts to find meaningfiul parts of the Tudor Palace but it was construction work for drains in late 2005 that identified previously unknown Tudor remains and acted as the catalyst for a full archaeological excavation that was completed in January 2006.
This dig discovered the remains of the original brickwork of Henry VII’s Royal Chapel with its tiled floor in situ. Other finds include an original Tudor vault supports the high altar platform which is covered in glazed tiles laid in a geometric pattern. Further east, excavation has revealed the Vestry, linked to the Chapel by an anteroom and a fine carved stone doorway. The Vestry had survived the demolition of the rest of the Palace and was later converted into a house for the Treasurer of Greenwich Hospital.
Hailed as a major discovery by historians, they have been able to significantly increase their knowledge of Greenwich at the time of the Tudors.
A Tudor tour of the Greenwich site forms part of Tudor Adventurers & Explorers Tour developed and organised by Ambient Tours and one of four marketed under the banner ‘On the Trail of the Tudors’.