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You are in: London > History > Greenwich > London's subterranean treasures

Placentia Palace - National Maritime Museum

Copyright - National Maritime Museum

London's subterranean treasures

The discovery in Greenwich of remnants of the Palace of Placentia, built by Henry VII, is a reminder of the hidden history of the Capital. Kurt Barling explores the subterranean mystery, before it is buried again, to make way for a car park.

It's amazing how easy archaeologists can get worked up about a hole in the ground.   

Old River front

Old River front

A team from the Museum of London have been busy scraping away layers of earth to reveal what remains of the lost Royal Chapel, its vestry and the river frontage of the old palace a good 50 metres back from the current riverfront.

Sir Christopher Wren's baroque masterpiece of the Old Royal Naval College has had new life breathed back into it over the past few years.  From a rather threadbare naval college, since 1999 it has been reinvigorated as a combined site for Greenwich University and Trinity College of Music.

It's such an impressive architectural site (in fact, a World Heritage Site) that it's hard to imagine there was something equally impressive on the site before it, throughout the 16th and much of the 17th centuries.

As part of the ongoing refurbishment of the protected site by the Greenwich Foundation Trust more parking spaces need to be created to the East of the Queen Mary building (wife of William III).   It was during the excavation works for this that less than four feet below the surface, the remnants of Placentia were discovered.  

Copyright National Maritime Museum

Placentia Palace circa 1620

From surviving paintings and documents it is known that the palace covered much of the land on which the Old Royal Naval College stands.   But for three hundred years no-one had seen a single brick of it.   

The Museum of London archaeologists found the only known surviving floor of a Royal Tudor Chapel protruding from the base of the footings of Wren's structure.   This is the find that has stimulated most discussion and excitement. 

When you first look at it, it doesn't seem like much. But then you need to remind yourself of the significance of the Royal Chapel in the life of the palace. Henry VII married here and certainly Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves at Placentia, although perhaps not in the chapel. Elizabeth and her sister Mary were also both born at the palace at Greenwich.

Henry's Catholicism came under strain whilst he lived here. Given the facts that this was Henry VIII's favourite palace for the first half of his reign many of the deliberations about whether he should conjure a break with the Pope were probably conducted here.  Many of the often heated discussions over making himself the Head of the Church in England and forging a sense of national sovereignty detached from Rome, may well have been had here with the likes of Cardinal Wolsey, prior to the latter's  fall in 1529.

Tiled floor of the Royal Chapel

Tiled floor of the Royal Chapel

The archaeological team have found examples of Tudor stonework which can be retrieved both from the Chapel, the adjoining vestry and the old river frontage.  The full significance of this find may take many months to assess.

By sheer coincidence a meeting I had at the Ministry of Defence (MOD) this week reminded me of another hidden treasure of Henry VIII. The current MOD building sits on part of the site of Whitehall Palace. The old Whitehall Palace had been home of Cardinal Wolsey, then Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York. He'd used his power to amass a small fortune and build a substantial pile. When he was removed from power, the palace was ceded to Henry. The only part of that structure that remained after a catastrophic fire in 1698 was Henry VIII's wine cellar.

Walking through endless 1950s corridors with pipes running along the ceiling you suddenly pass through a time warp into the 1500s. The location wouldn't feel out of place in a James Bond movie.  Believe it or not the Wine Cellar, an extraordinary example of a Tudor brick-vaulted roof, has been perfectly preserved and is tucked away in the subterranean world of the MOD. 

Less than a street away from the MOD another part of London's hidden past has just opened to the public in the refurbished Benjamin Franklin House museum on Craven Street WC2.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the founding fathers of the United States and spent the years between 1757 and 1775 in London. He was the only man to sign all four documents which effectively established the United States of America, but before that he was the chief representative of the interests of the colonists in the established territories of English America.  

He became one of the highest profile mediators in the exploding unrest between Britain and its American colonies.  Much of the mediation would have been conducted at the house in Craven Street.  He was also and inventor and all round enthusiast for the sciences. There were clearly other strange goings on at the house.

With a recent grant of £3 million 36 Craven Street has been given a complete and authentic makeover. In the course of the building works they found the remains of several human skeletons. Apparently Franklin rented out the bottom of his house to some of the most skilled medical scientists of his day. They carved up cadavers in the basement to get a better understanding of human anatomy.

On the upper floors an actress takes you through the place where Franklin would have received some of the great luminaries of the day. The museum experience will probably appeal to American tourists tracing Franklin's London home and times. The house has been designated as the first monument of historic national importance outside of the USA by the United States Congress.

Greenwich Palace excavations

Greenwich Palace excavations

Curiously enough Franklin had arrived in the mother country a loyal Englishmen but by the time he left in a hurry (under threat of arrest) he had come to side with the American revolutionaries. Within a year they'd declared independence and within six, when Franklin signed the Treaty of Paris, had created what has become the most powerful nation on earth. All that, from a little house on a little street in WC2.

The dig at Greenwich isn't expected to last much longer.  There are no plans to develop it as a site to be viewed by the public.  The plan is to preserve the remains as best they can before covering over the site and sorting out the car park. I suppose we're following in the footsteps of Wren, it was he who tore down the original palace, which had by then fallen out of favour and into disrepair, to build his masterpiece. 

The artefacts that are recovered will go on display either at Greenwich or at the Museum of London once the team at Molas (Museum of London Archaeological Service) have assessed all the material.  It's not often that archaeologists' get the chance to explore such fresh clues to build a more accurate account of the rich tapestry of London's Tudor past.  

last updated: 10/04/2008 at 12:55
created: 30/01/2006

Have Your Say

Do you have any subterranean treasures or hidden history near where you live?

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Francine Mackinder Douaihy
I live in Scranton, Pennsylvania,U.S.A., home of anthracite coal country. As wespeak(virtually that is),I, in my home, am sitting atop a cavernous mine, excavatedover a hundred years ago andliterally spanning 50 miles.My dad, a miner and originally from Lincolnshire, used to tell the story that hedrove a car the whole distance underground.This entire area lives atop a shell of earth and we are always waiting for the next cave-in. When I receivedConfirmation(early 1960's) in my Italian- American church, St. Lucy's, which is totallymarble and patterned afterSt. Peter's Basilica,we wereonly allowed so many family members inside the church, the facade of which had started cracking fromthe mines settling . Wehave been the victims ofhundreds of mine caves, oneso large in the 1950's,called the Noxen MineDisaster, scores of traincars were thrown into theswirling waters of theSusquehanna River, to tryto quell the mergingof the water and mine. Scores of miners were trapped and died there.Another historical fact aboutNortheastern Pa. is that we are 2 hrs. from Philadelpiaand also New York City arewere in the middle of theAmerican Revolution and Indian Territories. Manytimes, I'll be walking my dogs in the beautiful mts.around here and I'll findIndian arrowheads or fossilsembedded in pieces of coal.My friend was hunting in thewoods nearby and found a Revolutionary War era rifle.When my electrican wasdigging in my front yard recently to install a lamppost, he discovered somevery old glass medicine and beerbottles which I found outare from the 1700's.We are also home to theLackawanna Mine Tour, whereone gets to go undergroundfor hundreds of feet in a coal car to explore themines. At nearby Lake Winola,a canoe was found on the bottom of the lakebelonging to an Indianprincess from many hundredsof years ago. Best of all,I've recently heard that there is an "underground"group of "explorers" who secretlyget into the old mine entrances and travel around down there.. I found out that one group was recently right under my home!!!!My daughter recently returnedfrom living in Blackheath,where she studied for hermaster's degree at Goldsmith's. I absolutelyadore Blackheath and Greenwich and feel that Ihave been there before but not in this lifetime..Onemiraculous day last summermy daughter and I picnickedin Greenich Park and I shootthe most astounding photos.I am a professional photo-grapher and everything justseemed so perfect for aninformal shoot of the picnic. I wound up gettingaround 20 astounding pictures!One has a verymedieval feel to it and after reading your articleson Placentia Palace and Greenwich, it all seems to make sense.Thanks for all of the info. It soooooointeresting and mesmerizing to read. Yours in history,Francine Mackinder Douaihy

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