Duke Humphrey’s Tower Part I

It could be said that the fabulous Royal Observatory on top of the biggest hill in Greenwich Park is the most elegant botch-job in history. It’s superbly classical feel and timeless frontage is a tribute to the ingenuity of Sir Christopher Wren who was given bugger-all to build it by King Charles II and was reduced to some, ahem, interesting sources for building materials (more about that another day.) Which is a great shame, as without the penny-pinching of the Merry Monarch, we might still at least have a few stones left of what was there beforehand, the notorious Duke Humphrey’s Tower…

“Good” Duke Humphrey of Gloucester was the kid brother of Henry V and fought with him at Agincourt. It was an age of testosterone and derring-do and the dashing Duke slashed and parried with gusto until he was cut down. The only way he survived was by the king standing between his brother’s splayed legs swashing, buckling and presumably making stirring speeches at the dastardly French until they’d all sunk in the mud.

On his return, Humph was a bit of a hero. Also known as “The Swan,” (from part of his mother’s coat of arms,) the power-hungry young swain fancied his chances abroad and married Jaqueline, Countess of Holland for her land. She was, unfortunately for Humphrey, already married, and her first husband unsurprisingly took exception to the match. Humphrey set off with an army to get his hands on as much loot as possible, but it all ended in tears when he was forced to turn back – leaving Jacqueline behind.

Humph doesn’t seem to have been hugely upset by the loss of his wife and he soon gained a bit of a repuation as a ladies’ man, though the scandals weren’t always straightforward. He cut poor Jaqueline off without a sous and married his mistress, Eleanor Cobham, one of Jacqueline’s ladies-in-waiting. It was said that she was a witch, and it does seem that The Black Arts might well have been a bit of a hobby for the happy couple. But true or not, by this point they both had a few enemies who were delighted at any excuse to stick the knife in.

She was hauled over the coals (probably literally) for practising witchcraft against the new King, potty Henry VI, forced to perform humiliating acts of public penance in the streets of London, before being exiled to the Isle of Man.

The Duke was also arrested for treason a few days later, at Bury St Edmunds. It’s not clear why he died very soon afterwards, but it’s not unlikely that some skulduggery took place. Some say he suffered a stroke at the shock.

His supporters were mecilessly rounded up and done away with in the vilest possible manner, by being hanged, drawn and quartered.

But I digress. Humphrey, despite being a bit of a Duke-about-town who couldn’t keep his codpiece done up and enjoyed drinking the odd cup of cockerel’s blood, was also a sensitive soul who yearned to learn. He started corresponding with Italian scholars and collecting books. He inherited the manor of Greenwich (as you do) and decided that he was going to build a fancy new gaff with a massive library of splendid tomes.

He already had five other manors as well as Baynards Castle in London itself, but he craved a bijou country place all for his very own. He was granted a license to crenellate and crenellate he did – towers and turrets a-go-go. These were dangerous times and the Old Dover Road, from Roman times to Dicken’s age was a hotspot for dodgy characters, from mobs of revolting peasants to dandy highwaymen. Humphrey wasn’t taking any chances.

It was probably not just a fortress, though, but a rather nice house too. (He also had a place near the river called Bella Court or Plesaunce – from which Placentia grew.) Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester’s library was the talk of the age – volumes from all over the world, all hand-copied by scribes and monks from the great seats of learning of the Middle Ages.

Amazingly, the bulk of it survives today, as the foundation of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, “Duke Humphrey’s Library.” The Duke gave hundreds of books to the young university during his lifetime, though I confess I have never really worked out why…

More about Duke Humph’s Tower another time…


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