Greenwich

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Greenwich (/ɡrɪnɪdʒ/ grin-ij) is a district of south London, England, located in the London Borough of Greenwich.

Greenwich is notable for its maritime history and for giving its name to the Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time. The town became the site of a royal palace, the Palace of Placentia from the 15th century, and was the birthplace of many in the House of Tudor, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The palace fell into disrepair during the English Civil War and was rebuilt as the Royal Naval Hospital for Sailors by Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor. These buildings became the Royal Naval College in 1873, and they remained an establishment for military education until 1998 when they passed into the hands of the Greenwich Foundation. The historic rooms within these buildings remain open to the public; other buildings are used by University of Greenwich and the Trinity College of Music.

To mark the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II, it was announced on 5 January 2010 that in 2012, the London Borough of Greenwich was to become the fourth to have Royal Borough status, the others being the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. The status was granted in recognition of the borough’s historic links with the Royal Family, the location of the Prime Meridian and its being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The town became a popular resort in the 17th century and many grand houses were built there, such as Vanbrugh Castle (1717) established on Maze Hill, next to the park. From the Georgian period estates of houses were constructed above the town centre. The maritime connections of Greenwich were celebrated in the 20th century, with the siting of the Cutty Sark and Gipsy Moth IV next to the river front, and the National Maritime Museum in the former buildings of the Royal Hospital School in 1934. Greenwich formed part of Kent until 1889 when the County of London was created.

So named by Danish settlers, Greenwich (Anglo-Saxon equivalent Grenewic) means the green place on the bay (vig, wich) or near the mouth of a river. (Similarly, Schleswig, Sandwich) The settlement later became known as East Greenwich to distinguish it from West Greenwich or Deptford Strond, the part of Deptford adjacent to the Thames, but the use of East Greenwich to mean the whole of the town of Greenwich died out in the 19th century. However, Greenwich was divided into the two Poor Law Unions of Greenwich East and Greenwich West from the beginning of civil registration in 1837, the boundary running down what is now Greenwich Church Street and Crooms Hill, although more modern references to “East” and “West” Greenwich probably refer to the areas east and west of the Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum corresponding with the West Greenwich council ward. An article in The Times of 13 October 1967 stated:

East Greenwich, gateway to the Blackwall Tunnel, remains solidly working class, the manpower for one eighth of London’s heavy industry. West Greenwich is a hybrid: the spirit of Nelson, the Cutty Sark, the Maritime Museum, an industrial waterfront and a number of elegant houses, ripe for development.

Tumuli to the south-west of Flamsteed House, in Greenwich Park, are thought to be early Bronze Age barrows re-used by the Saxons in the 6th century as burial grounds. To the east between the Vanbrugh and Maze Hill Gates is the site of a Roman villa or temple. A small area of red paving tesserae protected by railings marks the spot. It was excavated in 1902 and 300 coins were found dating from the emperors Claudius and Honorius to the 4th century. This was excavated by the Channel 4 programme Time Team in 2000, and further investigations were made by the same group in 2003.

The Roman road from London to Dover, Watling Street crossed the high ground to the south of Greenwich, through Blackheath. This followed the line of an earlier Celtic route from Canterbury to St Albans. As late as Henry V, Greenwich was only a fishing town, with a safe anchorage in the river.

During the reign of Ethelred the Unready, the Danish fleet anchored in the River Thames off Greenwich for over three years, with the army being encamped on the hill above. From here they attacked Kent and, in the year 1012, took the city of Canterbury, making Archbishop Alphege their prisoner for seven months in their camp at Greenwich. They stoned him to death for his refusal to allow his ransom (3,000 pieces of silver) to be paid; and kept his body, until the blossoming of a stick that had been immersed in his blood. For this miracle his body was released to his followers, he achieved sainthood for his martyrdom and, in the 12th century, the parish church was dedicated to him. The present church on the site west of the town centre is St Alfege’s Church, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1714 and completed in 1718. Some vestiges of the Danish camps may be traced in the names of Eastcombe and Westcombe, on the borders of nearby Blackheath.

The Domesday Book records the manor of Greenwich as held by Bishop Odo of Bayeux; his lands were seized by the crown in 1082. A royal palace, or hunting lodge, has existed here since before 1300, when Edward I is known to have made offerings at the chapel of the Virgin Mary. Subsequent monarchs were regular visitors, with Henry IV making his will here, and Henry V granting the manor (for life) to Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter, who died at Greenwich in 1417. The palace was created by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the regent to Henry VI in 1447; enclosing the park and erecting a tower on the spot of the Royal Observatory. It was renamed the Palace of Placentia or Pleasaunce by Henry VI’s consort Margaret of Anjou after Humphrey’s death. The palace was completed and further enlarged by Edward IV, and in 1466 it was granted to his queen, Elizabeth.

The palace was the principal residence of Henry VII whose sons, Henry (later Henry VIII) and Edmund Tudor were born here, and baptised in St Alphege’s. Henry favoured Greenwich over nearby Eltham Palace, the former principal royal palace. Both Mary (February 18, 1516) and Elizabeth (September 7, 1533) were born at Greenwich. The palace of Placentia, in turn, became Elizabeth’s favourite summer residence.

During the English Civil War, the palace was used as a biscuit factory and prisoner-of-war camp. Then, in the Interregnum, the palace and park were seized to become a ‘mansion’ for the Lord Protector. By the time of the Restoration, the Palace of Placentia had fallen into disuse and was pulled down. New buildings began to be established as a grand palace for Charles II, but only the King Charles block was completed. It was suggested that the buildings be adapted for a Greenwich Hospital, designed by Wren, and later completed by Hawksmoor. Anne of Denmark had a house built by Inigo Jones on the hill above, now overlooking the hospital and river – the present centrepiece of the National Maritime Museum, founded in 1934 and housed in the buildings of the former Royal Hospital School.

The royal association with Greenwich was now broken, but the group of buildings remains, forming the core of the World Historic Site.

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