15 September 2016 | Tom Ryley, Communications and Digital Officer

If you have already discovered our history pages, you will be aware that the Old Royal Naval College is not the first spectacular building to occupy its site. Before the construction of Sir Christopher Wren’s twin domes, the site was home to Greenwich Palace, one of the principle bases of royal power during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Greenwich Palace itself had been built from older sections of the Palace of Placentia, an opulent late medieval palace.

This is as far back as most histories of the Old Royal Naval College go. Yet, a thousand years ago, Saxon Greenwich was the centre stage of Dark Age politics, a site of military manoeuvres and executions, and later a royal site belonging to Britain’s last Saxon king, Harold.

Greenwich had always been a strategically important location. Sitting on the bend of the River Thames, and with the high ground of Greenwich Hill, it was a true gateway to nearby London, defending or controlling the settlement as its owner pleased. A Roman road had crossed Blackheath towards Londinium, as it was then known, passing even more ancient bronze age barrows, burial mounds of important chieftains. By the year 1000, in the embattled climate of Dark Age Britain, Greenwich hill became the centre of the struggle for power between the Anglo-Saxons and Danish Vikings.

Greenwich - or Grenevig – is itself a name of Danish origins, meaning “green place (grene) on the bay, or beach (vig)”. The shallow shores made it an ideal place for mooring shallow-bottomed Danish boats, and in 1012, 1013, and 1014, the Danish fleet landed here, during the reign of King Ethelred. Ethelred, who had been paying tribute to the Danes, had broken the peace with a slaughter of Danish settlers in 1002, causing the brilliantly-named Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark to rally his men and sail on England for some Viking-style revenge.

There are archaeological remnants of two camps that these armies set up, overlooking the Old Royal Naval College site where their boats were moored. Several lines of entrenchments on Greenwich hill have been uncovered, showing the real threat of attack posed to the invading Danes. With the construction of these camps, Ethelred’s communications with Kent were cut in two, and he was powerless to prevent the Vikings from raiding into his lands unopposed. Ethelred was eventually forced to flee to Normandy, the crown falling into the hands of Sweyn.

The situation came to a head with the sack of Canterbury, the Archbishop Alphege being hauled back to the camps at Greenwich as a prisoner. There he lingered for seven months as the Danes attempted to negotiate a sizeable ransom. However, no such ransom was given, and Alphege was slain – battered to death with a barrage of stones, bones, and cow’s heads, and then beheaded.

Ultimately, however, Alphege’s death proved more useful to the church than the Vikings. Seen as a martyr, Alphege was canonized as a saint, and a church erected in his name at Greenwich. Today, the church of St Alphege – built by Nicholas Hawksmoor, clerk of the works at the Old Royal Naval College – stands as the lasting memory of this violent time.

The strategic importance of this place lasted throughout the Saxon age. By the time of the Norman invasion in 1066 a manor belonging to King Harold stood at Greenwich, likely on the site of the Old Royal Naval College itself. Both the fortifications of Sweyn and Harold show that the royal history of Greenwich started long before the Tudors.

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