© Bill Bertram (Pixel8) 2007-08
The Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, viewed from the north side of the River Thames.
It’s amazing how you can absorb history through reading ghost stories. Admittedly, some of the finer details can sometimes be wrong (readers beware!) but the historical gist of such tales is generally accurate. Readers soon acquire a profound sense of existing within a continuum of time that wells up from the depths of the long-gone and stretches ahead into the unknown.
I was reminded of this the other day when, as part of the events marking her Diamond Jubilee, Queen Elizabeth II granted royal status to Greenwich in south-east London
Greenwich was the first borough to receive this honour in more than 80 years and has thus become one of only four royal boroughs in the entire United Kingdom. (The others, by the way, are Kensington and Chelsea, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Kingston-upon-Thames.) So what made the Queen choose Greenwich?
According to the Cabinet Office, Greenwich was granted its new royal status in recognition of the close links that have existed between that place and the monarchy since the Middle Ages. While news of these links appeared to come as a mildly amusing revelation to some TV newsreaders, those familiar with the UK’s ghost stories were probably less surprised. The royal connection shines through at least two of the many ghostly tales that come from this freshly elevated part of London.
The land here on the southern shore of the River Thames was inherited by Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester and the brother of King Henry V, in 1427. It was a great location and Humphrey quite understandably decided to build himself a large riverside house, naming it Bella Court.
After Humphrey died in 1447, the house was enlarged and improved by Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI. So pleased was she with the charming location that Margaret named her new palace “Placentia”, meaning “pleasant place”.
The palace of Placentia was later enlarged further by King Henry VII, the first Tudor king, who seized the crown in 1485 after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. This Henry decided to have the palace fashionably refaced in red brick, and during his reign Placentia - conveniently accessible by river and sited in what was then idyllic countryside away from the bustle and stench of overcrowded London - became a favourite royal resort.
On 28 June 1491, Henry’s son - the future King Henry VIII - was born at Placentia. He greatly enjoyed spending time here and it became one of his favourite residences. Under his later ownership, Placentia grew into an even grander palace, with a new banqueting hall and a great tilt yard for jousting and tournaments. In time, both of Henry VIII’s daughters would be born at Placentia: the future Queen Mary I in 1516 and the future Queen Elizabeth I in 1533.
Like her father Elizabeth was deeply fond of and spent much time at Placentia. It is with her that we find the first of the site’s royal ghost stories, often embedded within some version of the preceding historical place-setting.
From time to time (it is said), a figure can be glimpsed wandering over the now-buried ruins of Placentia, which lie beneath the buildings of Greenwich’s beautiful Old Royal Naval College. This spectral figure is described as wearing a low-necked dress consistent with Elizabethan fashion and sporting a red hairpiece adorned with a small crown, which has of course led to the belief that this is the spirit of Good Queen Bess herself, revisiting and perhaps wondering at the changes wrought upon her favourite palace.
The site’s second royal phantom is rumoured to be none other than Elizabeth’s own mother, Anne Boleyn. There seems little in the way of definitive identification of this ghost, however, with the story merely stating that “some of the sightings of young female figures in Tudor costume could be of her”.
Still, if you’re going to guess the identity of a female ghost in England, Anne Boleyn would probably be your best bet; her restless shade seems not in the least the shy and retiring type, allegedly haunting numerous historic locations across the United Kingdom.
They’re great stories, but do such tales really tell us anything about the paranormal, I wonder, or should they be seen more as a form of social history, entertainingly helping us to stay in touch with the past as it continually shapes the present? Given Greenwich’s intimate association with time, it seems an especially pertinent question.
Either way, it’s interesting to speculate how our present Queen, Elizabeth II, might feature in the ghost stories told by future generations.
Visiting details: The Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich is open daily with free admission to the grounds. Find out more at the ORNC website.
The above stories, and numerous others, feature in Malcolm C. Godfrey’s "Walking Ghostly Greenwich Part 1: The Old Royal Naval College", Time for Greenwich, London, 2004. Panorama of the Old Royal Naval College © Bill Bertram (Pixel8) 2007-08.