Local History

A Brief History of Greenwich

  Carl Evans

I love Greenwich; riverside views, gorgeous architecture, great restaurants pubs and bars and a lush Royal park. The beauty and excitement of the area however, for me, is surpassed by its rich history. My company HMO Letting Agent lets HMOs in Greenwich for landlords and because I have an active interest in its history, I thought I’d share (the little) I know.

Old English-speaking chroniclers mention Greenwich three times, but using alternate spelling. In 916, they called it “Gronewic” and in 964, “Grenewic”. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1013, which tells the history of the Anglo-Saxon people, calls it Grenawic. In the Domesday Book the Norman invaders called it “Grenviz” meaning “green settlement”. This green settlement has been the scene of several Viking incursions. Viking invaders even fortified a position in Greenwich. Actions by these Vikings inspired the construction of a famous church which stands today.

Greenwich Park

Greenwich Park today

St. Alfege Church

In the early 11th century Thorkell the Tall, a Viking warlord, led mercenaries who occupied most of Southern England including Grenawic. Their settlement was situated where Greenwich Park is, and even today you can see evidence of an ancient burial ground in a section of the park that was used by the Vikings.

The year was 1011 and Thorkell the Tall led his mercenaries called the ‘Jomsvikings’ to Canterbury looking for wealth. Canterbury was known to have money because of the thriving population, the Cathedral and because two years earlier Thorkell and his men went to raid Canterbury and the residents paid them 3000 pounds of silver not to do so.

This time in 1011 the Vikings were not paid off and the Christians of Canterbury put up a fight. After almost one month the Vikings pillaged the whole town, burned down the Cathedral and kidnapped prominent people for ransom. One of those people was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Alfege.

Bringing Alfege back to their encampment in Greewich, the Jomsvikings demanded the town of Canterbury pay 3,000 pieces of gold for his safe release. Knowing that payment of such an exorbitant sum would financially cripple his town and drive many residents into poverty, Alfege did not allow himself to be ransomed. The Vikings held him for 9 months before he met his untimely death.

The spot where St. Alfege church is currently standing, in the heart of Greenwich, was once a spot where the Vikings would drink wine and eat feasts 1000 years ago. On that spot on 19 April 1012 the men of the Jomsvikings were drunk and started to play a game which involved their prisoner. The game comprised of hurling skulls from cows and bulls, and other ox bones at Archbishop Alfege. The Archbishop sustained such atrocious wounds that as an act of mercy he was struck in the head with an axe and promptly died. He was the first, but not the last Archbishop of Canterbury to die such a brutal death.

St Alfege Church, Greenwich

St Alfege church on Greenwich Church Street

Within a short period of time, Christians built a shrine to Alfege on the site of his execution, and in 1078 Pope Urban II canonized the archbishop, transforming him to Saint Alfege. The shrine dedicated to St. Alfege’s martyrdom became known as St. Alfege Church. Anglo-Saxon devotees rebuilt and expanded the church in the 1200s, and the church continued to grow in prominence. Unfortunately, a storm destroyed the original church in 1710, but workers quickly rebuilt it.

Thomas Tallis who is considered to be one of Britain’s greatest composers, and sometimes is referred to as ‘Father of English Music’, is buried at St. Alfege Church. For over 20 years he owned the monopoly of all the printing of music in England, yet his main employment was from the Chapel Royal (a ‘body of priests and singers to serve the spiritual needs of the Sovereign’). He performed and composed for Henry VIII (who was actually baptized at St. Alfege Church), Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I. The church pays homage to Tallis to this day with artwork, a stained glass window and most importantly the music the choir and organist traditionally play.

Greenwich and the Tudors
In the 15th Century major Royal housing projects began in Greenwich. After receiving title to the land in the 1420s, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, began the first royal construction projects. He built a watchtower, which became part of the Greenwich Observatory, created the first royal park in London; Greenwich Park and constructed a royal palace there, calling it Bella Court.

When in 1447 the Duke died the title of the land passed to the ‘The Mad King’ King Henry VI. His wife, Margaret of Anjou, took over the title of the land whilst taking over much of the Kings responsibilities due to his bouts of insanity. Greenwich was thought to be a location for the monarchy to rest and recuperate which Margaret undeniably desired as much of her ‘reign’ was consumed with the Wars of the Roses (which she was largely responsible for starting). Margaret of Anjou renamed Bella Court as the Palace of Placentia, or Pleasant Palace.

In the late 1400s, the Tudors took control of the English crown after winning the Wars of the Roses. Being situated close to the Thames, and thus easy to access by river, the palace grew into great favourability. Henry VII expanded his new palace, establishing it as the central nervous system of his new kingdom. The palace became known as Greenwich Palace and was as spectacular as Hampton Court Palace. Its grounds included a chapel, courtyards, gardens, many bedrooms and rooms for entertaining and of course a yard for jousting.

Henry VIII was born at Greenwich Palace in 1491, and, like his father, used it as his main palace. From there, Henry VIII executed government duties and also married two of his wives, Catherine of Aragon in 1509 and Anne of Cleves in 1540. His daughters Mary and Elizabeth were born there as well. Henry moved his palace headquarters to Whitehall Palace in the 1530s, but continued to visit Greenwich Palace for rest, relaxation and hunting trips. Henry enjoyed hunting the red and fallow deer in the park, two species which still live in the park to this day. Some of these deer directly descend from the ones Henry would hunt. Greenwich Palace was also the location where Henry was thrust from his horse during a jousting tournament, the resulting injuries being a broken leg and traumatic brain injury, from which he never fully recovered.

It is also important to note that the Treaty of Greenwich was signed here, intending to unite the crowns of England and Scotland by marriage. Sadly, Henry’s only son Prince Edward who was betrothed to Mary, Queen of Scots, died here just before his 16th birthday in 1553.

Queen Elizabeth’s Oak Greenwich

Queen Elizabeth’s Oak, planted in the 12th Century

During the Christmas celebrations of 1594 and 1597, William Shakespeare, together with his theatre troupe, Lord Chamberlain’s men, visited Greenwich Palace to perform for Queen Elizabeth I. In 1594, they dazzled her by performing Merry Wives of Windsor, which alluded to the Queen several times, and in 1597, they performed Love’s Labour’s Lost. While speculation exists about the nature of the relationship between Shakespeare and the Virgin Queen, historical record suggests that the two were nothing more than mere acquaintances.

Shakespeare is not the only English writer connected with Greenwich. In the late 1740s, the playwright Samuel Johnson moved to Greenwich, where he composed his play Irene. The Trafalgar Tavern, built in 1837 and serving patrons to this day, is the place of the wedding party scene in Charles Dickens Our Mutual Friend. In the 1860s, Dickens undoubtedly visited the Trafalgar Tavern as he lived just a short distance to the west, in New Cross.

The Stuart Influence and Modern Day
The Greenwich area remained popular with the Stuarts and they decided they wanted to leave their own architectural mark on Greenwich. So, in 1616, King James I ordered construction of a new royal housing complex, finally finished in the 1630s. Charles I, King at that time, dedicated the mansion to his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. Thus, the building became known as Queens House, the first major building in England built in Neo-classical style.

Queens House Greenwich

The first Classical style building in the UK

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Greenwich is home to many splendid Classical architectural masterpieces

King Charles II, planned to further expand Greenwich Palace, but this plan never came to fruition due to the English Civil War. By the 1690s, Greenwich Palace had sadly dilapidated to the point of no return, and as a result was demolished.

Royal Observatory, Greenwich

Royal Observatory, home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)

In 1694, new royalty, Queen Mary II and King William III (or William of Orange) again commissioned Christopher Wren and his assistant, Nicholas Hawksmoor, to design a residence for naval pensioners on the location of where Greenwich Palace once stood. Wren, with the aid of his assistant, designed another brilliant work of baroque architecture. It became known as Greenwich Hospital and in 1707, the painter Sir James Thornhill vivified the ceiling and walls of the one the hospital’s main halls with illustrious paintings describing the tumultuous events as well as the scientific and cultural achievements which transpired in England from the mid-1600s on.

Completed in 1726, this area of the hospital became known as The Painted Hall. Intended as a dining hall for the naval veterans living in the building, it became the site of parties and ceremonies, including the open casket viewing of Admiral Horatio Nelson in 1806. During this time, English citizens could freely pay their respects to the fallen hero of The Battle of Trafalgar.

Painted Hall Greenwich

A small section of the Painted Hall

Wren’s other design, The Royal Observatory, was the first science-purposed building erected in England, transforming the old watchtower built by the Duke of Gloucester in the 15th Century into an observatory of the heavens. Some of the first projects included measuring the position of the moon relative to the stars during different seasons using the most cutting-edge telescopes available in the 17th century. It is at this observatory that Greenwich earned its world-famous notoriety. In 1884, employing telescopes and other instruments at the Royal Observatory, scientists defined the Prime Meridian at 0 degrees Longitude; and from this, Greenwich Mean Time was born, setting the time zones widely used across the planet to this day.

Greenwich is also home to the Cutty Sark, a famous wool and tea-transporting merchant ship which sailed between the UK, Australia and Asia in the 19th century. Cutty Sark was built for speed and impressively she could sail from London to Shanghai and back in a little more than 3 months. The ship continued to operate until 1922, when she was the last wind-powered cargo ship still in operation.

Because Greenwich contains areas with such great historical significance UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage site in 1999.

Greenwich was popular with Anglo Saxons, Vikings, Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts and is still as popular with Londoners and tourists today. If you are familiar with the history of Greenwich and think I’ve missed anything feel free to contact me here. Alternatively if you’re a Greenwich HMO landlord and need assistance with your property feel free to call the office on 0208 895 6195 and ask for me, I’d be more than happy to help!

Carl Evans

Carl Evans

I live just down the road from Greenwich and am the Managing Director of HMO Letting Agent. My hobbies include combat sports, exploring the beautiful landscapes of Kent and Surrey with my dogs, teaching my son to play the piano and reading and writing about history.

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