Message from Lord Sterling

"Three and a half years ago, following a discussion I had with Chris Roberts, the Leader of Greenwich, as to whether he would be happy if I was to endeavour to secure Royal Borough status, I approached the then Lord Chancellor and Her Majesty The Queen.

"Peter van de Merwe's paper on the extraordinary rich history of Greenwich's very close link to Royalty over the centuries was in my view fundamental in achieving a successful result.

"This great honour for the Borough is the first to be granted for some 100 years. A further pleasure for us all was to receive a message from His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh."

A case for a 'Royal Borough of Greenwich'

  1. The modern London Borough of Greenwich (228,100 pop. [2005]), was created in 1965 by the Local Government Reform Act. This combined the former Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich (formed in 1900 from the civil parishes of Greenwich, Deptford St Nicholas, Charlton and Kidbrooke) and the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich (previously the civil parishes of Woolwich, Plumstead and Eltham).
  2. The MB Woolwich population in 1961 (census figures) was 146, 600; that of Greenwich 85,500. The latter's existing 'world-brand', based on Greenwich Time and its built-heritage assets, was adopted as the new borough name for fairly obvious reasons over that of larger industrial Woolwich, then in accelerating economic decline. (Charlton was considered as a possible compromise but also rejected).
  3. 'Maritime Greenwich', the World Heritage Site inscribed by UNESCO in 1997, comprises just the traditional Greenwich heritage area. These are the Royal Park, the National Maritime Museum (NMM) and Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) sites, and the historic 17th- to mid-19th century town centre immediately to the west. In practice, it is part but not all of the former civil parish of Greenwich.
  4. There are at present three Royal Boroughs: the two in Greater London are Kensington and Chelsea, and Kingston, with Windsor and Maidenhead outside. All reflect longstanding Royal associations, of which the common factor (except Kingston) is the presence in them of current Royal residences, broadly defined. Kingston has an ancient prescriptive right to the title as the place of coronation of Saxon kings, reaffirmed by George V in 1927.
  5. These qualifications apart, 'historic' Greenwich has been a Royal manor since the early 15th century and there are substantial historical reasons, and other arguments, for the modern London Borough as formed in 1965 being granted 'Royal' status.

They include:

  • The significant association of individual British monarchs, and other members of the Royal family, with Greenwich from the 16th century on: see Summary A below. A fuller list of 20th century events could be provided - it is worth pointing out that 2009 is, in particular, the 500th anniversary of the accession of Henry VIII, born at Greenwich Palace in 1491, which is where the story largely starts.
  • The main consequences of those associations, in terms of the built environment of Greenwich and related significant institutions and events (past or continuing): in both cases some are self-evident, but others less obvious: see Summary B. This list is indicative rather than exhaustive.
  • The approach of 2012, which is both HM The Queen's Diamond Jubilee and London Olympic year. Greenwich will be the only London borough with such a legacy of Royal associations that is hosting a substantial tranche of the Olympics and Paralympics.
  • The Olympic equestrian events in Greenwich Royal Park will have world-wide profile - not least televisual - against the architectural backdrop provided by Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren, which is entirely due to 17th-century Royal initiatives and later support.
    The present Royal family's equestrian interests and activity are well known, including at Olympic level. Olympic shooting will take place at the historic Royal Artillery Barracks on Woolwich Common; basketball and gymnastic events in The O2 (Dome) on the Greenwich Peninsula (North Greenwich). Greenwich Peninsula is emerging as an entirely new town within the Borough, in which new residential areas are centred round new educational sites at all levels, and 'hi-tech' cultural industry. Past, present and future are all represented here.
  • 'Maritime Greenwich' was inscribed as a World Heritage Site (WHS) in 1997, for similar reasons. This incorporates both the built Royal heritage and associations, and the modern cultural destination, which includes a focus on history and future of science (notably astronomy).
    The University of Greenwich and Trinity College of Music based in the Old Royal Naval College - the latter now associated with the international Laban Centre for Dance just to the west, have also made the WHS a genuine 'university town'. The University has now bought the large Stockwell Street Site in the heart of the town and WHS and has planning permission to construct there both a new Library and a new School of Architecture and Constructional Engineering. These uses could hardly be more appropriate; the new buildings are expected to be of very high standard, but not complete until well after 2012.
  • The WHS, however, is a very small part of a Borough with much else to offer, but also great distance to go in terms of developing its significant national cultural, educational and heritage potential. There has been major capital investment on many fronts, which continues, but not yet matched by recognition that ongoing standards of public realm presentation and maintenance are below the standard they need to be to maximize that potential.

  • The principal monarchs associated with Greenwich are:


    • Henry V, who created the manor, later granted to his half-brother Duke Humphrey of Gloucester. In about 1433 Humphrey enclosed what is now Greenwich Park, the oldest of all the Royal Parks, and also began what became the Palace of Placentia at Greenwich, fully developed under Henry VI.


    • Henry VII, who replaced Placentia with the Tudor Palace of Greenwich, c. 1500-07.
    • Henry VIII, who was born at Placentia in 1491, and extended his father's new palace, which was his principal London seat from 1509 until Whitehall Palace was built in the 1530s. He married his first and fourth queens at Greenwich Palace (Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves) and his son Edward VI also died at Greenwich.
    • Henry VIII's daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I, were both also born at Greenwich Palace and used it extensively: Elizabeth's Council planned the Armada campaign there in 1588 for example


    • James I carried out the final remodelling, granting the manor to his wife Queen Anne of Denmark, who in 1616 commissioned the surviving Queen's House from Inigo Jones as the Palace's last addition.
    • Charles I, who kept important parts of his art collection at Greenwich, granted the manor to his wife Queen Henrietta Maria, for whom Jones completed the Queen's House about 1638.
    • Charles II, who began a new palace in 1664 (design by Denham and Webb, now incorporated as part of the Old Royal Naval College), redesigned and replanted the Park, and in 1675-76 founded and built the Royal Observatory (designed by Wren) - Britain's oldest purpose-built scientific structure. This became part of the NMM from 1953.
    • James II, (as Duke of York and Lord Admiral to 1673) was often at Greenwich with his brother Charles and , according to Samuel Pepys, proposed of the idea of creating a Royal Naval Hospital, established at Greenwich by his daughter...
    • ...Mary II, who in 1692-3 commissioned Wren to design the Royal Hospital for Seamen, now the Old Royal Naval College (begun 1696, under her widower husband William III, who supported it in her memory).
    • Queen Anne and Prince George of Denmark continued to patronise the project (of which George was Grand Committee chairman from the 1690s to his death in 1708).


    • George I landed at Greenwich from Hanover on his accession in 1714.
    • George II in 1735 granted the Hospital the forfeited Jacobite Earl of Derwentwater estates (c. 80,000 acres mainly in Northumberland) allowing completion of the Hospital by 1751.
    • George III in 1805-06 granted the Queen's House to the Royal Naval Asylum, an orphanage school under Royal patronage, which amalgamated in 1821-25 with the pre-existing Greenwich Hospital School. Extended with the buildings which are now the NMM, it was renamed the Royal Hospital School by Queen Victoria in 1892.
    • George IV, whose donation in 1824 of nearly 40 paintings (including Turner's only Royal commission) at a stroke created the Naval Gallery of Greenwich Hospital in the Painted Hall, Britain's first public national historical art collection. These now form the Greenwich Hospital Collection in the NMM.
    • William IV, the 'Sailor King' made further donations to the Gallery, as did Queen Adelaide in his memory, and was a regular and popular visitor.

    Saxe-Coburg Gotha/ Windsor (from 1917)

    • Queen Victoria only occasionally visited Greenwich though in 1845, when it appeared on the market, Prince Albert bought Nelson's Trafalgar coat for the Naval Gallery, as the relevant national collection of the time; he personally paid £150 for it.
    • George V and Queen Mary both privately supported creation of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (est. by Act of 1934), and she presented many items to it, both from her own Nelson collection, and other royal items.
    • George VI, when Duke of York, laid the foundation stone of the new Royal Hospital School at Holbrook, Suffolk, and in 1937 his first major public act as King - three weeks before Coronation - was the opening of the NMM in its former Greenwich buildings, accompanied by Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, and Princess Elizabeth.
    • As Princess, HM The Queen, and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (created Baron Greenwich on marriage in 1947) made their first joint visit to Greenwich in 1948 - the year he became Trustee of NMM - for him to receive the Freedom of the Borough. HM and/or the Duke, have subsequently opened or visited practically all major new NMM projects, including major national anniversary events (for example Royal Observatory tercentenary or Armada 400). The Duke of Edinburgh was an active Trustee of NMM for 52 years (1948-2000), and since then its first Patron. The Duke of York was a Trustee of NMM, since 1995 and has been first Patron of Greenwich Hospital since its tercentenary in 1994.
    • To the Duke of Edinburgh, as highly supportive Patron from 1952, was largely due the original restoration and preservation of the Cutty Sark at Greenwich, where HM The Queen first opened it in 1957. The Duke remains Patron and supportive of the current difficult restoration project, due for completion in 2012.
    • The potential for Greenwich as a place for river-based Royal celebration was demonstrated at both the Silver Jubilee of 1977, when HM embarked there for the Jubilee River Pageant, and in her presence aboard the P&O cruise ship Pacific Princess off the ORNC for the spectacular Son et lumière marking the 150th anniversary of P&O in 1987.
    • The Thames as a 'Royal river' will be the theme of the opening major NMM exhibition in its new Sammy Ofer Wing Gallery in 2012, in parallel with the Greenwich Olympic programme and to mark the Diamond Jubilee year (which is also the Museum's 75th anniversary of opening).
  • These are the principal local consequences and other factors deriving from Greenwich's Royal associations.

    1. Many are fairly obvious from the list in Summary A, such as The Royal Observatory, and Queen's House (as part of NMM), and Royal Park.

    2. Others less so such as the Royal Hospital for Seamen - Greenwich Hospital. The buildings are obvious enough, as the Old Royal Naval College and the decoration of the Painted Hall by James Thornhill is the artistic celebration, par excellence, of the English Protestant succession, and its harvest of national maritime wealth and power, under William and Mary, Anne, George I and (as Prince of Wales) George II - all of whom feature there. However Greenwich Hospital, as a now largely invisible institution, is still deeply involved at Greenwich in its long role of supporting the welfare of seamen, especially of the Royal Navy, their families, the education of their children and encouragement of matters maritime.

      It built most of Greenwich's historic town centre in the 1830s, still owns it, and is now has planning permission for a multi-million pound scheme to revitalize it, to maximize economic benefit for its 'charitable objects' over the next 30 years plus. (These now include student bursaries to the University of Greenwich, housed in the ORNC). In short, this is a Royal Charity, trying to do something sensible that no other player in Greenwich can - and for prescribed 'public benefit' purposes.

    3. Other Royal associations include 'vanished uses' of sites or buildings. Excluding Greenwich Hospital, mentioned above, these include:

      • Greenwich Palace: a major site for the spectacular reception of Royal visitors and embassies under Henry VIII, including the Emperor Charles V in 1520 and 1522 and the French embassy of 1527, which echoed the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Jousting on the Palace Tiltyard - now the NMM north-east lawns - played a great element is these events - so equestrian 'Olympics' at Greenwich is nothing new. The Queen's House and Hospital also have a history of post-Civil War departures and arrivals, including of royal brides (for example Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha to marry Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1736)
      • The (now Old) Royal Naval College, which as 'the Navy's university' occupied the Wren buildings of Greenwich Hospital from 1873 to 1998 and in that time saw many members of the Royal family in many capacities. HRH the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York both attended it. Its particular history, and that of the WHS, is now made clearer to the public in its 'Discover Greenwich' visitor centre, opened in 2010 and including the new Greenwich Tourism Information Centre funded by the Borough.
      • The Royal Observatory - now a museum site, but obviously one celebrating its own history as an active working observatory until just after the Second World War.
      • Montagu House - of which only a rear wall and 'Queen Caroline's Bath' now exist alongside the Ranger's House on the edge of Greenwich Park. It was however the home of Queen Caroline, estranged wife of George IV, who also arrived at Greenwich for her marriage in 1795. (Met by a guard of honour of naval pensioners she asked, in French, 'What, do all men in England lack an arm or a leg?')
    4. Still other sites with Royal associations lie outside the WHS area but within the modern Borough of Greenwich:

      • Eltham Palace dates back to around 1400, though the surviving Great Hall, the oldest intact part dates to the 1470s. Henry V returned here after Agincourt with his prisoners in 1415, having been ceremonially welcomed on Blackheath. Henry VIII spent much of his childhood and was educated there. Many of its outbuildings survive in use, with a major 1930s period house attached to the Hall and open under the care of English Heritage
      • Charlton House, built 16070 by Sir Adam Newton, tutor of Frederick Henry, Prince of Wales (son of James I) and reputedly intended as a house for him, though if so his early death prevented this. A unique Jacobean mansion in London, now used by the Borough as a valued community centre.
      • The Royal Dockyards, Woolwich and Deptford (the latter partly now in Lewisham), both founded by Henry VIII in 15123, to build Royal Naval ships. Elizabeth I knighted Drake at Deptford after his Golden Hind circumnavigation in 1581 (as HM The Queen knighted Francis Chichester, with the same sword, at the RNC Greenwich after his in 1967). Only a few historic parts remain but the presence of these two dockyards - which largely closed in the 1860s - made Greenwich Hospital the London base for the Royal yachts from the 17th century to the end of the age of sail. Charles II and James, Duke of York, imported yachting from Holland and raced their own early ones on the Thames. The first three Georges used Greenwich as the regular departure point to and from Hanover, and the Royal yachts (of which there were always several) were also used for diplomatic traffic and other VIPs, including the arrival of Royal brides from the continent.
      • The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, begun in 1671, became the main Government armament factory in the 18th century for both Army and Navy and remained so into the 20th century, including both World Wars. George III granted it Royal status in 1805, the year of Trafalgar. The Royal Ordnance Factory of the Arsenal closed in 1967 and the remaining MoD uses in 1994, but its historic buildings have been preserved as part of major redevelopment of the site, including the Royal Artillery Museum ( now 'Firepower') originally opened on Woolwich Common in 1820 in a John Nash 'rotunda' donated by George IV: this was originally erected in St James's Park as part of premature celebration for defeat of Napoleon in 1814. The Royal Military Academy, for training gunners and engineers, was founded in the Arsenal in 1741 but moved up to a surviving historic building (now being converted to housing) on Woolwich Common in 1806: it closed in 1939.
      • The Royal Artillery Regiment was also founded at Woolwich in 1716 and remained based there until 2007 in the historic Royal Artillery Barracks on the Common, now occupied by units of the Royal Horse Artillery. Ironically therefore, for a supposedly 'maritime' borough, it is the Army which still maintains the active service presence, which the Navy gave up in leaving the Royal Naval College in 1998, but it is an equally important and locally valued historical association for the Borough as a whole.

3 February 2012

Read the Duke of Edinburgh's letter on Greenwich receiving Royal Borough status