diamond geezer

 Monday, April 20, 2009

Henry VIIIHenry VIII 500 (1509 - 2009)
Greenwich Palace - "Placentia"


500 years ago this week, following the death of his father at Richmond Palace, 17-year old Henry Tudor was proclaimed King of England. A charismatic and forceful young man, he was to reign over the nation for nearly 40 years. Over that period he embraced the Renaissance, reconfigured religion, married six very memorable wives and became possibly the most famous monarch the country ever had. In remembrance of his accession, I've been out and about to visit five locations with a particularly H8-ful connection. Starting today with the spot where he was born.

Greenwich may be chock-full of heritage sites and tourist attractions, but you'll find no trace of Greenwich Palace today. It was the first building of any significance in the local area, founded by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in the early 15th century. He named it Bella Court, and it stood on the riverbanks opposite the Isle of Dogs at the foot of the Thames' biggest meander. When Humphrey fell from royal favour (and mysteriously died), the building duly passed to Margaret of Anjou, the feisty wife of King Henry VI. She enlarged Bella Court, added a riverside pier and named the palace 'Placentia', or 'pleasant place'. It was to be the favoured home of Tudor monarchs for the next 150 years.

Palace of PlacentiaPrince Henry was born at Placentia on 28th June 1491 (insert your own 'placenta' joke here). He spent a lot of time in this rambling red-brick palace, especially in the years after being proclaimed king. There was good hunting land all around, plus easy access to the river and to the royal dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich. It was in Greenwich that Henry married his first and fourth wives, and here also that the princesses Mary and Elizabeth were born. Henry enlarged the palace further, adding a huge banqueting hall inside and a larger tiltyard outside. He did love his jousting, did Henry, but the Greenwich tiltyard was the last place he ever practised the noble art. A nasty fall here in 1536 left him unconscious for two hours, and his subsequent retirement from the sport may have led to his ballooning obesity in later years.

Queen Elizabeth I spent many of her summers at Greenwich Palace, entertaining noble visitors and carrying out the great business of state. Her successor James I gave the palace to his wife Anne, for whom Inigo Jones built the classical Queen's House a short distance to the north. During the English Civil War the Palace of Placentia fell into disrepair, and before long the site was ripe for redevelopment. Which is why all you can see on the site today are the Wren-designed buildings of the Greenwich Hospital (1692-1869) - later the Royal Naval College (1873-1998), now the Old Royal Naval College. And well worth a visit.

Old Royal Naval College Painted HallToday Maritime Greenwich is one of London's four Unesco World Heritage Sites. Two of the top buildings to see at Greenwich are within the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College, on land formerly occupied by the Palace of Placentia. One of these is the Painted Hall, undoubtedly the most beautiful hospital canteen anywhere in the world. It's a long thin building with a lofty painted ceiling, the detail of which depicts "the triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyrany". There's even finer decoration in a chamber at the far end, both above and around the high table, and the complete ensemble took almost two decades to paint. Here in January 1806 Nelson's body laid in state after being shipped back from Trafalgar, prior to a grand funeral in St Paul's Cathedral. Nowadays the College's owners love to hire out the Painted Hall for events and banquets, so check carefully before you arrive lest you (and your camera) are denied admittance.

Old Royal Naval College ChapelCross the colonnade to see the 250-year-old neoclassical Chapel. It too is a beautiful space, rather brighter than the Hall, with a completely different style of Baroque decoration. The interior looks much as it did in 1789 when the chapel reopened after a disastrous fire, including a suitably maritime-themed altarpiece and the original mahogany pipe organ. The plasterwork ceiling is covered by a magnificent expanse of twiddly carved swirls, while the floor is of black and white marble throughout. Many concerts take place in the chapel, especially now that one of the Naval College buildings is occupied by the Trinity College of Music. King Henry would probably have appreciated something bawdier, but five centuries have changed his royal palace beyond recognition.

Visiting
» Greenwich is hosting a number of Henry VIII-related events this year, but not until June (which is the anniversary of his coronation). There'll be special guided tours recounting the history of Greenwich Palace, plus a special Tudor-themed weekend at the Old Royal Naval College on 13th and 14th June (including battling knights and a hunting parade). Further details here, and nearer the time.
» You can visit the Painted Hall and Chapel free of charge. Other touristy bits at the Old Royal Naval College are currently closed to create a new Visitors Centre, opening early 2010.
» The Queen's House contains a small exhibition depicting the history of the old palace.
» And don't forget nearby Eltham Palace. Henry VIII spent much of his boyhood at the court here, before it became an Art Deco icon, and a Tudor Joust is planned in the grounds over the weekend of 20th and 21st June.
» Two North American towns are still called Placentia - one in Orange County, California, the other in Newfoundland, Canada.


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