The team working on the major development of the Painted Hall in Greenwich have uncovered the remains of Greenwich Palace, notable as the birthplace of Henry VIII and of his daughters Mary and Elizabeth I.
Greenwich Palace had a scale and magnificence comparable to Hampton Court Palace, in an idyllic riverside setting. It comprised everything from state apartments, courtyards, a chapel, elegant gardens, a substantial tiltyard for jousting with a five-storey tower for viewing, and was at the very heart of Tudor cultural life and intrigue.
Careful preparation of the ground for the new visitor centre below the Painted Hall led to the discovery of two rooms of the Tudor palace, including a floor featuring lead-glazed tiles. Being set back from the river, these are likely to be from the service range, possibly where the kitchens, bakehouse, brewhouse and laundry were. One of the rooms was clearly subterranean and contains a series of unusual niches, which archaeologists believe may be ‘bee boles’ for the keeping of skeps (hive baskets) during the winter months when the bee colonies are hibernating. Bee boles have occasionally been found in historic garden walls, but it is very rare to find them internally, making this find even more significant. The niches were probably used for keeping food and drink cool in the summer months when the skeps were outside.
Nothing of Greenwich Palace survives above ground; with the coming of the Stuart dynasty, and the construction of the Queens House, the old-fashioned Tudor Palace was neglected in favour of the new renaissance style, and with the designs for a new Stuart palace, the Tudor buildings were swept away. In fact the new palace, which was being designed by Christopher Wren to be a little like the phenomenon that was Versailles, was never built, and instead, Greenwich Hospital was created instead, which today is the Old Royal Naval College.
Discussions are now underway over the possibility of displaying the Tudor archaeology in situ within what will be the new Painted Hall interpretation gallery.
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England said:
“This is a really remarkable find. The Tudor period is one which grips the public imagination like no other, probably because of the larger-than-life characters like Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, as well as the magnificence of the buildings. To find a trace of Greenwich Palace, arguably the most important of all the Tudor palaces, is hugely exciting. The unusual and enigmatic nature of the structure has given us something to scratch our heads over and research, but it does seem to shine a light on a very poorly known function of the gardens and the royal bees. The most exciting aspect is that the Old Royal Naval College is able and willing to incorporate this into the new visitor centre, so everyone can see a small part of the palace, for the first time in hundreds of years.”
Greenwich Palace was built by Henry V’s brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in 1426, and rebuilt by Henry VII between c1500-06. The Palace was substantially demolished at the end of the seventeenth century to make way for the Royal Naval College built by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1692-1728. From surviving paintings and documents it is known that the palace covered much of the land on which the Old Royal Naval College stands.
The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, described as ‘the Sistine Chapel of the UK’, is currently undergoing a major transformation over the next eighteen months, including the creation of a new visitor centre, Sackler Gallery and café developed by Hugh Broughton Architects. Visitors currently have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get up close to the ceiling of the Painted Hall through a series of ceiling tours, which are accessible to all.