Work to create a new visitor centre beneath the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, has uncovered the remains of service buildings belonging to a lost Tudor palace, including possible ‘bee boles’ used to house hibernating bee colonies. (Image: Old Royal Naval College)

Work to create a new visitor centre at the Old Royal Naval College has uncovered long-lost traces of Greenwich Palace – the birthplace of Henry VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth I.

Although nothing of Greenwich Palace survives above the ground today, its scale and opulence of design were comparable to Hampton Court, with state apartments, courtyards and elegant gardens, a chapel, and a substantial tiltyard to host jousting tournaments.

During the Stuart period, the grand complex fell out of fashion in favour of the new Renaissance style, and the Tudor buildings were swept away, later to be replaced by Greenwich Hospital, today the Old Royal Naval College.

Now two rooms from the Tudor palace have been uncovered while the ground was being prepared for a planned new visitor centre in the undercroft beneath the college’s Painted Hall. The chambers are set back from the river, and one has a floor of lead-glazed tiles; they are thought to be from the palace’s service range, possibly where the kitchens, bakehouse, brewhouse, and laundry were.

A more specific purpose might be ascribed to one of the rooms, which was clearly subterranean and contains a series of enigmatic niches. It has been suggested that these may have been ‘bee boles’, holes used to hold skeps (hive baskets) during the winter months when the palace’s bee colonies were hibernating – such spaces have occasionally been found in historic garden walls, but it is very rare to see them internally. In summer months, when the skeps were outside, the niches could have been used to keep food and drink cool.

Discussions are now under way over the possibility of displaying the building remains in situ within the new interpretation gallery. ‘This is a really remarkable find: to find a trace of Greenwich Palace, arguably the most important of all the Tudor palaces, is hugely exciting,’ said Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England. ‘The unusual nature of the structure has given us something to scratch our heads over and research, but it does seem to shine a light on a very poorly known function of the gardens and the royal bees.’

The Painted Hall Project will also see the Naval College’s celebrated decorated ceiling carefully conserved; while this work is ongoing it will not be visible from ground level, but special ceiling tours are giving visitors a unique opportunity to get up close to the paintings. For more information on this and the wider project, see www.ornc.org.

This article was published in CA 331.

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