What's so royal about the Royal Borough of Greenwich? Discover the borough's many connections to the monarchy on this regal day out.
Greenwich has had royal connections since the 9th century, but it was the Tudors who made it a preeminent royal residence. The borough’s riverside location, decent hunting grounds and distance from the hoi polloi made it the perfect spot for royalty. In 1415, Henry V formally created the Manor of Greenwich, and two legendary monarchs – Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I – were subsequently born here.
Royal patronage has continued since that time. King George VI officially opened the National Maritime Museum in 1937, and Prince Phillip remains a patron to this day. Queen Elizabeth II also cut the ribbon for Cutty Sark in 1957 and again in 2012, after it was restored following a fire.
All of these royal connections led to the borough’s crowning glory in 2012, when it became an official Royal Borough as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
To take a tour of the Queen’s House
The elegant Queen’s House was conceived as a gift from King James I to his wife, Anne of Denmark. However, by the time it was completed in 1636 – to a design by Inigo Jones – she had already been dead for 17 years. The first person to live in the house was Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I.
So what's so remarkable about the Queen’s House? The beautiful building was the first to make a full break from the traditional Tudor style that came before. As the first classical building in England, it's celebrated for its elegant proportions, as well as the high quality of its interiors.
It was used by members of the royal family until 1805, when George III granted the Queen’s House to a charity for the orphans of seamen. It was taken over by the National Maritime Museum in 1934. Tours illuminate the fascinating history of this beautiful building, which today displays great works by world-famous artists, including J.M.W. Turner and Canaletto, as well as the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I (see below).
To explore the royal roots of the Old Royal Naval College
That Christopher Wren’s Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) was commissioned by Charles II isn’t the spectacular building’s only royal connection. The riverside spot is also where Greenwich Palace – better known as the Palace of Placentia – once stood. Built for Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in 1443, Placentia was the birthplace of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I, and was much in use throughout the Tudor era.
Wander around the serene grounds and imagine Henry VIII doing the same some 500 years before. The palace was eventually demolished by Charles II in 1660, who planned to replace it with a new Baroque palace. This was abandoned for financial reasons, but he instead commissioned the Old Royal Naval College, to which subsequent monarchs donated paintings, money and patronage.
To picnic under trees that once sheltered monarchs
Greenwich Park is known for its magnificent chestnut and oak trees, which provide shady spots for summer siestas. Some of these trees are more than 400 years old, and so will have likely provided shelter to various Tudor monarchs who once used the park as a leisure and hunting ground – including larger-than-life Henry VIII.
What have these trees seen and heard over their long lifetimes? What secrets do they hold? Legend has it that a young Elizabeth I picnicked near one particular tree, whose trunk now lies on its side. A sign beside it reads: ‘This ancient tree known as Queen Elizabeth’s Oak is thought to have been planted in the 12th Century… It has traditions linking it with Queen Elizabeth I, King Henry VIII and his Queen Anne Boleyn.’
To admire the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I
The iconic Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I has had a graceful new home since autumn 2016 – fittingly, the Queen’s House, not far from where the so-called Virgin Queen was born (see above). Elizabeth I was one of England's most famous queens, reigning for over 40 years from 1558 to 1603. The historic painting commemorates the most famous conflict of her reign – the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in summer 1588.
Following a successful fundraising campaign with the Art Fund, the painting was saved for the nation in 2016, and is now on permanent public display in the Queen's Presence Chamber of the Inigo Jones-designed building – a royal palace from 1616 to 1805.
To see deer with royal pedigree
Did you know that Greenwich Park is home to a herd of around 30 Red and Fallow deer? Now confined to an enclosure called ‘The Wilderness’, these delicate creatures have been in the park – which itself has Royal patronage – since Henry VIII’s days. They were originally introduced for the king to hunt, and legend has it that the current creatures – now left to graze without fear of pointing guns – can be directly traced back to Henry VIII’s original herd.
To find out how astronomy strengthened the crown
The Royal Observatory Greenwich is not only famous as the home of the Prime Meridian and GMT. It also has direct links to royalty, founded as it was by Charles II in 1676. Maritime exploration was a major concern for all European monarchs, and a core focus of astronomy at this time was finding the means to determine longitude. This would lead to safer ocean navigation and the strengthening of crown and country through exploration and trade – and history unfolded thus.
To take a detour to Eltham Palace
Eltham is just a couple of miles from central Greenwich. Here you’ll find Eltham Palace, used as a royal residence between the 14th and 16th centuries. Henry VIII spent much of his childhood years here (as well as at his birthplace of the Palace of Placentia). The beautiful palace and gardens are still owned by the Crown Estate, but are open to the public. Don’t miss the magnificent Great Hall, built by Edward IV in the 1470s.
To spot the royal street signs
Want further proof of the affections the royals have had for Greenwich? You only need to wander around the town centre to get an idea of how important Greenwich has been for the monarchy down the centuries. As well as Royal Place and Royal Hill, see if you can find King William Walk, King George Street, Queen Anne Court and Queen Mary Court.