Excavations at Greenwich Palace 1970-71

Philip Dixon Greenwich & Lewisham Antiquarian Society, 1972

Over the weekend, in an obscure secondhand bookshop in the middle of nowhere, The Phantom Webmaster found me a lovely thing indeed – a pamphlet I had never seen before about the excavations at The Old Royal Naval College. I had only ever seen the aerial view of the dig at the Pepys Visitor Centre and had assumed that the pictures were so – well – grainy – that they must have taken place in the 1950s – and I was really rather surprised to see that they had actually been much more recent than that.

The idea of the excavations was to see what was left of the old foundations of the various palaces on the riverfront underneath the site of the Naval College, the most famous of which being the manor built by our mate, Humphrey,Duke of Gloucester and given that Changing Rooms look by Margaret of Anjou after Humph, ahem, fell from favour.

The palace was heavily repaired by Henry VII, and much enjoyed by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I but not much liked by other monarchs who, suffering from various aches and pains, preferred places a bit more luxurious. By the time Charles I came back to it, poor old Placentia was one of the classic ruins that Cromwell had knocked about and he began the redesign we see today.

Obviously the archaeologists weren’t allowed to poke around under any of the existing buildings (not least because in the 70s the Old Royal Naval College was just The Royal Naval College and still very much in use.) So they dug under The Grand Square – the green bit in the middle which lines up with the Queen’s House – where they put the ice rink these days.

300 volunteers mucked-in with the experts during the summer of 1970 and the spring of 1971, with the usual pressure that archaeologists labour under – that of the owners of the site wanting to cover it all up again. They knew that it was unlikely it would happen again in the foreseeable future so they did what they could, and left most of the analysis ’til later so they could concentrate on digging.

What I have in my sweaty little paw is the interim report, before it was all processed and I haven’t even finished reading that yet, so I will have to return to what was actually discovered on a later occasion, but for now, on a quick flick-through, it would seem they found a little 14th C, a fair bit of 15th and 16thC foundations, some very interesting bits of the old manor house, remains of the kitchen, something that may have been a bathroom (I seem to remember Margaret enjoying her baths) an area of the courtyard and a bit of aqueduct.

I really need to read this lovely book and then find its friend, the results-pamphlet before being able to say much more. I’m also keen to find out whether there were any colour photos taken (surely there must have been – colour photography was hardly in its infancy in 1971) and where I can see them. I’m most annoyed I missed the recent archaeology exhibition at the Heritage Centre, where, presumably, everything would have been made clear, so I shall just have to go about it the hard way. Next time I must get my act together.

In the meanwhile, when the archaeologists couldn’t eke any more time out of the powers-that-be, the huge spoil-heaps covering the site all went back into the holes, re-covering the foundations, for future generations to sift through. Sadly it probably won’t happen in our lifetimes.

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