Over the last three weeks I have visited two royal palaces and one art exhibition about a King. We are so lucky to be surrounded by a fascinating heritage and if, like me, you have a love of history then there is much to see and do on our doorstep.
My first stop was a boat trip to Greenwich to visit the Palace of Placentia built by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in 1443, on the banks of the River Thames, downstream from London. Henry VII rebuilt the palace, with a design based around three large courtyards, between 1498 and 1504. It remained the principal royal palace for the next two centuries. It was the birthplace of King Henry VIII in 1491 and figured heavily in his life. Following the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Placentia became the birthplace of Mary I in February 1516. After Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, his daughter, later Queen Elizabeth I, was born at Placentia in 1533, and he married Anne of Cleves there in 1540.
Both Mary and Elizabeth lived at Placentia for some years during the sixteenth century, but during the reigns of James I and Charles I, the Queen’s House was erected to the south of the Palace. Placentia fell into disrepair during the English Civil War, serving time as a biscuit factory and a prisoner-of-war camp. In 1660, Charles II decided to rebuild the palace, engaging John Webb as the architect for a new King’s House. The only section of the Palace to be completed was the east range of the present King Charles Court, but this was never occupied as a royal residence. Most of the rest of the palace was demolished, and the site remained empty until construction of the Greenwich Hospital began in 1694.
The Greenwich Hospital complex became the Greenwich Royal Naval College in 1873, when the naval college was moved from Portsmouth. The buildings are today occupied by the University of Greenwich and the Music Faculty of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.
Today the only part of the old Palace of Placentia that remains, is the 17th century Queen’s House, which was commissioned by King James I and built by the renowned architect Inigo Jones as the first ever classical-styled building in Britain. More recently archaeologists have uncovered remains of the Tudor Palace. As they are set back from the nearby Thames river, the rooms are likely to have been service areas, possibly where the kitchens, bakehouse, brewhouse and laundry areas were. One of the rooms was clearly subterranean and contains a series of unusual niches, which archaeologists believe may be ‘bee boles’ for the keeping of hive baskets, or ‘skeps’, during the winter months when the bee colonies were hibernating. Bee boles have occasionally been found in historic garden walls, but it is very rare to find them inside a Tudor building.
Right now there is an unprecedented opportunity to ascend 60 feet into the roof of the Painted Hall and discover the secrets of Britain’s largest painted ceiling. It was painted between 1707 and 1726, and hides many surprises. During a major conservation project, you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the drama of this vast masterpiece up close. It is well worth a visit as there are so many hidden stories that have been incorporated by the artist and you will never be able to get such a close view of it.
Next stop again along the River Thames to Windsor Castle. I live down the road from this beautiful royal home and yet I have only ever visited it twice. There is so much to see that it definitely takes more than one visit to take it all in. We were very lucky to be given a guided tour by the Governor of Windsor Castle who lives within the castle. His office is over the Norman gate and we saw engravings in his study walls by Sir Edmund Fortescue who was imprisoned there in 1642 because he was a Royalist and raised an army in Devon to fight, unsuccessfully, against the Parliamentarians.
Another little gem was the bullet that killed Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The shot was extracted from the wound by William Beatty, surgeon on board HMS Victory at the time, but it had caused fatal damage to the Admiral’s lungs and spine. The shot was still fused to lace from the epaulette of Nelson’s jacket. It was mounted for Beatty into a locket which he is said to have worn for the rest of his life. On Beatty’s death it was presented to Queen Victoria.
We loved Queen Mary’s dolls house, which was built for Queen Mary by the leading British architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens between 1921 and 1924. but was not built as a toy but rather as an exhibition piece for a trade fair. Each chair, car, toy, piece of china was made in miniature by the British manufacturer. The miniature Library is bursting with original works by the top literary names of the day, and there is a fully stocked wine cellar and a garden created by Gertrude Jekyll. The Dolls’ House even includes electricity, running hot and cold water, working lifts and flushing lavatories. It is breathtaking.
Of course the State Apartments are furnished with some of the finest works of art from the Royal Collection, including paintings by Holbein, Van Dyck and Rubens. Many of the works of art are still in the historic settings for which they were first collected or commissioned by the kings and queens who have lived at Windsor. We saw St. George’s Chapel bedecked in beautiful Spring flowers as it had just been Easter, a busy time for the church. Within the chapel are the tombs of 10 monarchs, including Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour, and Charles I. We also learned that the body and head of Charles I were sewn back together, before burial, on the kitchen table in the Deanery. The table is still in the Deanery though not in the kitchen! This was a day well spent, looking, listening and learning. Click HERE for more details about Windsor Castle.
Finally if you can do not miss the exhibition, Charles I: King and Collector, at the Royal Academy until 15th April only. It brings together the jaw-dropping array of European masterpieces Charles I assembled before his untimely decapitation. Charles loved art, and believed that a great collection made a palace look truly royal. Many of Charles I’s masterpieces ended up abroad not to return. Some of his wonderful Titians have been lent by the Louvre and the Prado.
This is a never to be seen again exhibition – even the Queen herself visited as whilst much of the exhibition comes from her own personal collection many of the pieces hang in palaces such as Hampton Court and have not been seen hanging together. Do try to visit if you can and celebrate our wonderful and fascinating heritage.