June 2016 | Tom Ryley, Communications and Digital Officer

Henry VIII and Greenwich Palace

Greenwich has long been associated with shipping. Long before the construction of the Royal Hospital for Seamen (as the now Old Royal Naval College was originally known – find out more about our early history here), Greenwich witnessed the birth of Britain’s reputation as a serious European naval power as the site of Greenwich Palace, birthplace and favourite haunt of King Henry VIII.

As well as jousting, warfare and serial polygamy, Henry VIII was also passionate about big ships. He invested a considerable amount of time overseeing the production of his fleet, and was perhaps fearful of England’s vulnerability to invasion from overseas. His love for Greenwich Palace as the setting of his court is perhaps due to the dockyards that surrounded the site, particularly nearby Woolwich dockyards, which produced warships, and Deptford. Henry did much to develop and modernise these dockyards during his reign, establishing more permanent dockyards of unprecedented size at Deptford. He would soon have a navy of forty-six ships.

A diagram of the Great Harry, with streaming banners and cannon ports.

The Great Harry

Of the ships produced here, none was grander than the Great Harry. In 1512, Henry’s fleet had met defeat against the French at the Battle of Brest Haven, and its flagship, The Regent, had been burnt. Not one for subtlety, Henry’s response was to build a ship even larger in size, constructed and moored in the huge dockyards that he had constructed at Deptford.

The ship vastly outsized most other vessels of its day.

Great Ship

The design of the Great Harry was similar in design to the Carrack, the standard ship at the time, but much, much larger. Carracks of 60 to 100 tons had been built by the Spanish and the Portuguese to navigate to the New World; the Great Harry weighed at almost 1500. Such huge ships as this were soon named “Great Ships”, and were the forebears of the mighty ships-of-the-line of following centuries. The Great Harry, notably, was the first ship to feature gun-ports, setting it apart from other warships at the time, which were usually converted merchant vessels.

The Great Harry sat alongside several other ships at Deptford: the Great Galley, the Great Bark, the Less Bark, the Peter Pomegranate, and the ill-fated Mary Rose. Though larger and with more manpower than most other ships of its day, the Great Harry saw little action at sea, and its most distinguished achievement was transporting Henry to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a great diplomatic meeting between Henry and Francis I of France, in 1520.

You can learn more about the site’s Tudor history here.

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