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24 September 2014

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Inside Out

Maxwell Hutchinson in Greenwich

Tudor Chapel

The Naval College in Greenwich is one of London’s most famous riverside landmarks. It was built by Christopher Wren in the late 1600s and was originally designed to be a hospital.

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It was constructed on the site of a much older Tudor Palace built for Henry VII. For many years archaeologists knew the palace remnants included an ancient chapel where the infamous Henry VIII married but until now it had lain undiscovered…

Its official title is the Palace of Placentia, it’s one of London’s lost palaces, and at its heart was the Chapel. It was found again a few weeks ago thanks to some routine maintenance when contractors were building a drainage trench. They dug away the earth and started seeing Tudor brickwork and tiles.

Julian Bowsher
Julian Bowsher, senior archaeologist

Julian Bowsher is the senior archaeologist at the Museum of London, and whenever any work is done here, he has to be on site – just in case they find something special like this.

“We have found the remains of the chapel we’ve only got this eastern end of it because the rest of it has been taken away by Christopher Wren’s building.” He said.

Construction work was halted and after two weeks of digging they managed to excavate not only the chapel but the vestry and other surrounding buildings. For Duncan Wilson the chief executive of the Greenwich Foundation it was an exciting sight.

Duncan Wilson
Duncan Wilson, Chief Exec. Greenwich Foundation

“There’s nothing quite to match the experience of seeing something emerge from the ground that’s 500 years old,” he said. “Henry VIII assembled a group of craftsmen and artists which was unparalleled in Europe for a brief period in the 16th century. The court painter Holbein was based here and it was an amazingly lively place of European significance for that period.”

Nearly five hundred years ago, the palace would have been the capital of Tudor England.  For ships that sailed up the Thames it would have been one of the most magnificent sights. It’s unique because it was the Buckingham Palace of its day and at its very heart was the chapel royal.

Henry VII built his palace here between 1500 and 1504. At the time, Eltham Palace was the seat of British rule.  But this all changed when his son Henry VIII decided to base his court at Greenwich. He was born here, and it was his favourite palace for much of his reign.

"Each Royal Palace has its own private chapel," says Julian Bowsher. "From the Tudor period there’s St James’s and Hampton Court but they have been greatly altered in their time."
What the scientists have found here is the original layout of Henry VIII’s chapel from his riverside palace in Greenwich.

But why is the Chapel Royal so exciting?

Simon Thurley
Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage

Simon Thurley is the Chief Executive of English Heritage, but he’s also one of 'the' experts on Royal Palaces. He explained how important the chapels royal were in the life of the royal family and the nation.

He said, “We now know that the chapel was the centre of court life. Sundays where obviously when mass was celebrated in the chapel was the biggest day at court everyone wanted to see the king.”

One of the key events that happened overlooking the chapel in Greenwich was Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Its annulment led to a split from the Catholic church, prompting the English reformation.   

Simon continued, “The whole of the central issues around Henry VIII’s reign centred on the celebration of mass and how that happened. And that centred on the table on which mass was actually celebrated, was it an altar was it a table? Was it against the wall?  Was it away from the wall?

“These may seem like very obscure questions but understanding them will help us understand what Henry VIII’s attitude to Christianity was at the crucial time of the reformation.”

The ruins of the chapel in Greenwich are genuinely Tudor. Small pieces of decorative leaf have been found which give a real idea of the interior of the palace and the ceiling which has long gone.

So now the chapel has been found the process of restoration begins. Julian’s team have taken measurements and recorded all the artefacts they have found so far. But it’s clear this palace and its chapel have many more secrets to tell.

Archaeology in your area

If you want to find out more about archaeological digs in your area then click onto the link below.

London Archaeology >
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The London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC), based at the Museum of London, allows you click on a map of London and discover which sites have been excavated in your area. There are also links to universities, learning programs and local organisations investigating London’s past.

last updated: 17/02/06
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