Introduction: Greenwich before the building of the Queen's House

Pages 16-24

Survey of London Monograph 14, the Queen's House, Greenwich. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1937.

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Greenwich before the building of the Queen's House

It is difficult for the Londoner, even if he is richly endowed with imagination, to visit Greenwich to-day and to forget the octopus-like tentacles of the metropolis, which have embraced it in a somewhat crushing, if affectionate, embrace. It is difficult to carry the mind back even seventy years to the time when the Royal Hospital was really a Hospital and not a Royal Naval College; and infinitely more difficult to carry the mind back a thousand years to the time when England, so far from being over-industrialized, was wholly agrarian, and the Manor the basic unit of land tenure, and the nucleus of social intercourse. Yet it is in these dim far-off ages that the story of the greatness of Greenwich begins.

Due south of that distinctive loop of the Thames, five miles below the Tower, which even a small-scale map of London discloses, and which was haunted in their day both by Romans and Danes, there lay in the tenth century two Manors, named Old Court and Combe. At the time of the Domesday survey these two manors had been welded into one and bore the name of East Greenwich; but when we first hear of them, they were separate and formed the substance of a gift from Princess Elstrudis, daughter of King Alfred, to the Abbey of St. Peter at Ghent. For this reason the site, afterwards so famous for its contributions to English history, affords for five hundred years nothing more instructive than the names of lessees to whom the Abbey sub-let its estates.

In 1414, however, Henry V suppressed in his realm 142 alien priories, and the Manor of "Greenwich" (as it came to be known when West Greenwich assumed the name of Deptford) reverted to the Crown. It was of this Manor that the early settlers in Virginia held their title from James I. But Henry V could not be expected to peer so far into the future, and in 1415, the year of Agincourt, he piously presented the Royal Manor of Greenwich to the house of Jesus of Bethlehem, founded by him at West Sheen for the support of forty Carthusian monks; a house which, till the Dissolution, stood on the site where Kew Observatory now stands.

This transfer, which threatened to plunge Greenwich into the same obscurity from which it had lately emerged, was not fated to endure for very long. In 1422 Henry V died of camp-fever at the early age of thirty-five, leaving his crown to an infant son, and his possessions in France and England to the unhappy chances which wait upon a Royal minority.

The epoch that follows is necessarily a confused one: for, although Henry's brother, the Duke of Bedford, shouldered the responsibilities entailed by Henry's conquests in France, there was in England no real unity of purpose, no administrative solidarity to back the Duke of Bedford or to end domestic broils. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, another of Henry's brothers, became Regent at Henry's death; but in actual fact secured for himself no better position than that of Chairman or President of the Privy Council. On this august body the advocates of Peace were well represented; and Humphrey, sincerely anxious to give his brother Bedford all the support which he deserved, found his fellow-councillors out of sympathy with his ideals. Like Henry V, Humphrey had gracious manners and restless energy; he had also in a marked degree the gift of eloquence; he was learned beyond the standard of his day and was plausible in debate: but he was impulsive and hot-tempered, unprincipled, factious and blindly selfish. He was not the man whom England required; for although he loved England passionately, he loved himself still more.

Henry V did not embark upon the conquest of France without counting the cost. Mindful always that England is an island, he built up a strong Navy. The Council of Regency, which Humphrey Duke of Gloucester roundly admonished but could not control, had no means of ending the struggle with France, which Henry V had begun: but this did not deter them from selling the Navy which Henry V had created. The day was close at hand when Adam Desmoulins, Bishop of Chichester, in his Libelle of English Policie, would implore his countrymen to keep the sea, which is the Gate of England; for then is England in the hand of God. But those days were not yet. The Council of Regency were impervious to maritime arguments: its members laboured under the deplorable hallucination that the sea is a barrier, a fence against invaders.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, laboured under no such delusion. If England was to be stripped of her "wooden walls," then it behoved him, as Protector of the Realm, to safeguard the second line of defence. England in those days was still self-supporting. There was, in consequence, no fear of blockade. The gravest threat to England was a quick dagger-like stab at her heart—at London. And, in those days of slow locomotion, there were two quick routes to the capital—the Thames, and the straight road which the Romans paved from Dover to the fords at Westminster. Now a straight line from Dover to the fords of Westminster almost cuts that loop of the Thames where Limehouse reach and Blackwall reach mingle their waters at Greenwich. After climbing Shooter's Hill, the road from Dover descends to what used to be "wild" Blackheath, where those who would capture London get their first view of the city and have many times mustered on a natural camping-ground; flat, open, high, extensive and defensible. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, set himself to stake out a zone embracing both routes to the capital; impinging at one end on the Thames and at the other on Blackheath; a zone which would make him master of the waterway where the Danes had anchored by the Ravensbourne, and master too of the Roman road where the legionaries first cut through breast-high bracken and thorn-brakes and stunted oak-clumps.

For the purpose he had in mind, he approached the Carthusians at Sheen and negotiated an exchange. He conveyed to them valuable landed property elsewhere, and from them he received some two hundred acres of poor or waste land from what had once been the donation of Elstrudis to the Abbey of St. Peter at Ghent. He did not receive the entire Manor of Greenwich, for which, as a Manor, he had no use. He took a portion only of the said land, stretching on it parallel lines, running north and south and half a mile apart, from Blackheath to the Thames. More than five hundred years have passed since this bargain was sealed; but the marks of it, impressed on the surface of the earth, have proved indelible. Maze Hill, Charlton Way, Crooms Hill and the Thames define the limits of Humphrey's zone, which (even if it now be described as Greenwich Park) remains in a territorial sense very much as he fashioned it.

This statement is literally true at the southern, or Blackheath, end, where high brick walls replace the fences, or palisades, of Humphrey's day. Within the walls, trees of immemorial age afford shelter for herds of deer which ramble undisturbed and, for the most part unobserved, only a few yards from the bus-route, which climbs three hundred feet and upwards from Deptford Broadway and crosses Blackheath to the "Standard."

At the northern end of the zone the same stability could hardly be expected; at any rate, not until Sir Christopher Wren, in the seventeenth century, embanked the Thames with blocks of granite: for the breadth of the river depends on the volume of water borne down to the sea and the fluctuations occasioned by the wind and swell of tide. The old bank of the river is magnificently marked on the southern side by the escarpment of the Charlton and Woolwich heights. This declivity changes to grassy terraces where Humphrey drew his eastern boundary; and on the lowest of these, but farther from the river-brink than the frontage of Wren's Hospital, Humphrey in 1433 built for himself a Palace. Unlike his brothers, Henry V and Bedford, he was by choice more inclined to the arts of peace than to the arts of war. Educated at Oxford, he had travelled in Italy; could read Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio with enjoyment; turned for solace to Plato and instruction to Aristotle; welcomed at his Court the poet Lydgate and Capgrave, the philosophical theologian; and formed at Greenwich the first really important Library, outside a monastery or university; a Library which he bequeathed to his Alma Mater—though the Bodleian to-day (thanks to a dispersion under Edward VI) can point to three only of the books from Greenwich in what is there lovingly referred to as Duke Humphrey's Library.

Determined to endow his Palace with the refinements of culture which had won his admiration when travelling in Italy, Duke Humphrey spared neither pains nor money; importing from abroad what he could not procure at home. When the Palace was finished to his liking, he christened it Bella Court; and here he delighted to surround himself with scholars, who in their youth owed much to his generous patronage and in old age (when the dream of a conquered France had dissolved, as dreams will do) hailed him as the patriot who alone could have saved the situation overseas, dubbing him "Humphrey the Good" and "Good Duke Humphrey." Such are Time's little ironies; for "good," if it means anything, means virtuous: and Humphrey was incorrigibly dissolute.

Bella Court, if not "the talk of the whole earth," was certainly the talk of all England; and like other monuments of insatiable pride, it ministered to his downfall. As time went on, there spread abroad a growing belief that Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was not content with his status as heir presumptive to the Crown, but aimed at taking the Crown itself. If there were truth in this, the actual wearer of the diadem, the meek King Henry VI, might have suffered it; but in 1445 he had married a termagant, Margaret of Anjou, and this lady was not minded to forgo a tittle of the royal prerogative. Humphrey's Duchess was accused of sorcery in that she had made a wax figure of the King and stabbed it with pins. Clad in a sheet, she did public penance. The Duke was more powerful and therefore less fortunate. In 1447, two years after the royal marriage, a Parliament was summoned at Bury St. Edmunds. Gloucester attended; and was immediately arrested. His death, whether it be attributable to natural or "unnatural" causes, trod on the very heels of his arrest.

Within a few weeks of Humphrey's death, Margaret of Anjou seized the Palace at Greenwich and occupied it herself. According to the accounts of Kettlewell, the Clerk of His Majesty's Works, who at that time occupied the position formerly held by William of Wykcham and Geoffrey Chaucer, the improvements which Margaret ordained took five years to complete and made the house of beauty a house more beautiful still. In particular, the Queen expended a King's ransom on beautifying the interior. She abolished the plaited reed-mats, which till then had covered the richest English floors, and laid down terra-cotta tiles bearing her royal monogram; she filled the windows with glass, a luxury till then unknown in this country; she enriched the soffits, arcades, and pillars with daisies—for "Margaret"—cut and sculptured in stone; at the eastern end of the Palace she built a "Vestry" for the safe custody of the royal treasure and the crown jewels; at the western end of the Palace she built a "Bridge" (or in modern parlance a "pier") which gave access from the river at all states of the tide; and she changed the title of this house of fame from the Bella Court of Humphrey's choice to Pleasance or Placentia.

The makers of Greenwich were fated not to enjoy for long the luxurious ease and comfort which they planned for themselves. The weakness of the central government under the effeminate Henry VI, unable to dominate others and coerced by his headstrong wife, plunged England into a generation of misery which we call the Wars of the Roses. In these protracted contests the Palace of Greenwich figured as the most coveted spoil of the victors. It passed in turn to Edward IV who, to atone for his sins, set up beside the Palace a house of Observants to say masses for his soul; to a second Duke of Gloucester, who reigned for a while as Richard III; and finally to Henry VII, the victor of Bosworth Field, who new-faced the whole Palace with red brick; gave the Observants a nobler dwelling-place; and made the "Friars' Road" due south from the river, in order to link Margaret's "Bridge" with the right of way, or avenue, which crossed Humphrey's estate from east to west.

With the coming of Henry VII, Greenwich may be said to have made its first contact with maritime affairs. For more truly than any monarch who preceded him on the English throne, more truly than Henry V and more truly even than Alfred, Henry VII was the founder of the British Navy. In laying broadly the foundations of British naval power, he established the security of his own dynasty upon the throne, which was certainly one of his chief desires; but he established also upon unshakable foundations the Tudor absolutism, which taught men to forget the anarchy which preceded it and to take new pride in the name of Englishman.

Henry VIII, who was born in the Palace, learnt there the love of ships which was the one abiding passion of his life; and, as his royal navy multiplied, and the royal yard at Portsmouth, inaugurated by his father, proved insufficient for his needs, he founded a new yard on either side of his royal abode—Woolwich to the right of him and Deptford to the left. Nothing pleased him better than to be afloat, inspecting the progress of his ships and docks. Dressed in cloth of gold and conveyed in a barge as richly gilded as himself, he would pass down the river and up again, blowing upon his whistle, or boatswain's call, "as loudly as upon a trumpet." At the christening of the great ship, designed to replace his father's Regent (unhappily destroyed by fire) the sumptuous extravagance beggared the records of all previous ceremonial. At the close of a banquet on board, the King took a goblet of chased silver, richly gilt; and, spilling a drop or two of wine upon the deck, gave forth the name of the greatest ship till then ever constructed— Henri Grâce à Dieu.

But the mighty lord who broke the bonds of Rome had other interests. A better rider than his own grooms, a better shot than his own gamekeepers, he determined, as soon as he came to the throne, that the fame of his jousting should fill the courts of Europe. There were then two schools of Armourers, the Almayn and the Milanese. Henry began with the latter. But the climate of England seems to have disagreed with the Italians, and in a year or two Henry placed his entire trust in the matchless craftsmen from Germany. For them he built the Armouries, on the terrace where the two cupolas of Wren now invite admiration, and on a line at right angles to the main axis of the Palace. Here were created and here were stored the many famous suits which gave "Greenwich" as a name to the last and most superb examples of the armourer's art; suits of mail as deftly jointed as a lobster's shell, diapered and damascened with sweet devices, and inlaid with gold. The armoury buildings, with their towers and grandstands, bounded the tiltyard on its western side and separated the place of tourney from the Queen's garden, which in the happy days of Catherine of Aragon better deserved the name of Pleasance than many more famous paradise plots: for here were lilies in profusion and violets, sweet williams, scented stocks, streaked gilly-flowers and above all the English rose—accepted emblem of national unity and Tudor pride of race. The tiltyard buildings stood up boldly on the higher garden terraces: they make a brave show in at least two of the pictures which figure in this book.

There are in the Bodleian two tinted drawings of the Palace which were made in the reign of Mary I by Anthony van Wyngaerde, a Fleming in the employment of Philip of Spain. These give, if not a satisfying, at least a welcome peep at the Tudor Palace, and the earliest bird's-eye view at present known. Looked at from the river, the Palace was all length without breadth. Indeed, James Basire, who, from unknown sources, engraved in 1767 a view of Placentia from the same angle, omitted very nearly half the façade to avoid excessive reduction of his scale.

Along the river frontage stood three inter-connected quadrangles, built of brick with stone door-cases and mullioned windows, stonetopped chimneys, turrets, parapets, and battlements; not unlike the quadrangles still extant at Hampton Court, but rather more restricted and compact. From east to west these subdivisions of the Palace were known as the "Fountain," the "Cellar" and the "Tennis" courts. The Chapel was on the north or river side of the Fountain Court; and the Banqueting Hall, newly built by Henry VIII, with a steeplelike louvre visible for miles up and down the river, was on the north side of the Tennis Court. The cellars were below the ground level on the east side of the central court, and these fragments of Placentia still happily survive, though the ancient figures of "Beer" and "Gin," which presided over many a riotous scene in the days of Bluff King Hal, are still serving a long term of imprisonment in the Tower of London, whither they were moved (with the contents of the royal armouries) by order of the Commonwealth. Admission to the central, or "Cellar," court was checked by the impregnable defences of a massive tower, overlooking the river and commanding the approach from Margaret's "Bridge"; the importance of which was emphasised by the fact that all important traffic, to or from the Palace, was conducted, for preference, by river.

Wyngaerde's other picture takes us to the south of the Palace and stations us on an eminence in Greenwich Park where Humphrey of Gloucester built himself a watch-tower to keep unwinking vigil on the Dover Road; where Henry VIII also had a fortress which replaced Duke Humphrey's tower; and where the Royal Observatory now stands and marks the Prime Meridian. From this height Wyngaerde had a much better viewpoint; and his picture enables us to envisage the lay-out of the grounds as well as the salient features of the Palace. We can see on the extreme left the orchards and nurseries, and in the centre the Queen's Garden with its wide central path straddled by a summer-house. To the right of the garden the armoury buildings rear their lofty towers; and to the right again comes the spacious tiltyard with its barriers running north and south to keep the vast mail-clad war-horses from crushing their riders in collision. Finally, between the spectator and the Palace grounds we can see the Road, Avenue, or Right of Way, which bisected Duke Humphrey's estate and gave the traveller his only route from Deptford to Woolwich— unless he cared to go by way of Blackheath and risk its cut-purses and foot-pads. We can see that the road, surely one of the most romantic in Europe, is walled on either side to keep the wayfarer from straying on royal preserves: and we can see that the walls are breached at a single point to admit of transit from Garden to Park, from Park to Garden. We can see that this focal point is guarded by a Gate House, where traffic can be held up to let royalty pass.

It was at this point, we are told, that Howard of Effingham, when Gloriana was Queen, returning to the Palace in attendance on Her Majesty, found Her Majesty in good spirits. As she was lending to her Admiral an indulgent ear, her Admiral ventured to ask his sweet cousin what others would have asked, had their courage sufficed: whether she would not affix her sign manual to the warrant, already drafted, for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. The face of Elizabeth changed in a moment: she scowled at her Lord Admiral, she frowned at the cheering crowds who had gathered at the Gate House to see Queen Bess cross the road. Quilling her ruff, flaunting her farthingale, and trampling her carnations underfoot, she sped down the central garden-path as if the Devil were behind her.

It was at this same point that a far more famous incident occurred, an incident which has been described by Sir Walter Scott in that visit he pays to the Palace of Greenwich in Chapter XV of Kenilworth. "The young cavalier we have so often mentioned had probably never yet approached so near the person of his Sovereign, and he pressed forward as far as the line of warders permitted, in order to avail himself of the present opportunity.... Unbonneting at the same time, he fixed his eager gaze on the Queen's approach, with a mixture of respectful curiosity and modest yet ardent admiration, which suited so well with his fine features, that the warders, struck with his rich attire and noble countenance, suffered him to approach the ground over which the Queen was to pass, somewhat closer than was permitted to ordinary spectators. Thus the adventurous youth stood full in Elizabeth's eye—an eye never indifferent to the admiration which she deservedly excited among her subjects, or to the fair proportions of external form which chanced to distinguish any of her courtiers. Accordingly, she fixed her keen glance on the youth, as she approached the place where he stood, with a look in which surprise at his boldness seemed to be unmingled with resentment, while a trifling accident happened which attracted her attention towards him yet more strongly. The night had been rainy, and just where the young gentleman stood, a small quantity of mud interrupted the Queen's passage. As she hesitated to pass on, the gallant, throwing his cloak from his shoulders, laid it on the miry spot, so as to ensure her stepping over it dryshod. Elizabeth looked at the young man, who accompanied this act of devoted courtesy with a profound reverence, and a blush that overspread his whole countenance. The Queen was confused, and blushed in her turn, nodded her head, hastily passed on, and embarked in her barge without saying a word."

At the time when the Wizard of the North wrote this passage, Wyngaerde's drawings of the Palace at Greenwich had not yet been discovered. Had Scott been familiar with the topographical facts about Placentia which have now been fully authenticated, he would not have staged his episode on the wrong side of the Palace or crowded his characters into the confined space between the Gate Tower, opening from the Cellar Court, and the "Bridge" of Margaret of Anjou. How glad he would have been to focus his episode against the correct scenery, or archaeological background ! How his interest would have been stirred if he could have learnt that the Monarch, whom he portrayed with such lifelike fidelity in The Fortunes of Nigel, resolved to demolish the Gate House where Raleigh won his Queen's regard, and build in its place an Italianate bridge-house to span the road and its plashy places! For such a house, on its first floor, would afford him a Royal Box, or loggia, where the inmates of the Palace could witness at their ease a muster of trained bands or a hunting scene, a concourse of mummers or a deputation from the Livery Companies, a parcel of petitioners seeking redress, or a sham fight and midnight masquerade...

But that is the story of "The Queen's House" which Mr. Chettle unfolds in the pages that follow.