Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plate 2.25: Palace of Placentia

Plate: An image of the Palace of Placentia, also known as Greenwich Palace or the King’s House at Greenwich. The etching and engraving of the image was completed by James Basire (1730-1802), working from a drawing made by George Vertue (1684-1756) that itself appears to have been copied from an image in the possession of Horace Walpole (1717-1797). This image forms part of a series of views of royal palaces that begins with Plates 2.23-24 and resumes with Plate 2.27. It speaks to the Society of Antiquaries of London’s enduring interest in royal history and London history, as manifested in previous plates including Plate 1.4 (reproducing a portrait of Richard II in Westminster Abbey), Plates 1.17-19 (engravings of the Whitehall and King Street gates), Plates 1.21-26 (the Westminster Tournament Roll), Plate 1.63 (a plan of the Tower Liberties from 1597), Plates 2.1-2 (the plans for rebuilding London after the Great Fire of 1666), and Plates 2.5, 2.12 and 2.14 (depicting the Savoy).

Object: The plate depicts the Palace of Placentia, as seen looking south-south-east from a position on the River Thames off the Isle of Dogs. First built by Humphrey of Lancaster, Duke of Gloucester (1390-1447), the palace was extended by a succession of Plantagenet, Tudor and Stuart monarchs who resided there, before being neglected during the Commonwealth. It was largely demolished after the Restoration, making way for new developments that eventually became the Royal Naval Hospital.

J. Basire Sculpsit. A View of the Antient ROYAL PALACE called PLACENTIA, in East Greenwich. Publish'd according to Act of Parliament April 23, 1767. Sumpt. Societ. Antiquar. Londini.

Original Explanatory Account: Click here to read the original explanatory account for Plate 2.25.

Commentary by Matthew Sangster:
The Placentia Palace first appears in the minutes of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) for a meeting held on 17 February 1760. These minutes record that 
Dr [Andrew] Ducarel exhibited a Drawing, copied several years since by Mr. [George] Vertue, of the King’s House at Greenwich, built by Humphrey Duke of Gloucester A.D. 1437, and which was pulled down in the year 1661, to make way for the present Royal Hospital there, the Original, from which this Drawing was copied is, as Mr. Walpole was pleased to inform us, in his possession. (SAL Minutes VIII.216-17)
The reference to Vertue, the Society’s original engraver, who was responsible for many of the early plates in Vetusta Monumenta, suggests that the palace may have been on the radar of certain members of the SAL for some time. Horace Walpole’s interjection indicates his pride in possessing a unique record of the edifice, an impression reinforced by his directly mentioning his ownership of the same image in his Catalogue of Engravers (1763, 35). Images of the palace evidently possessed a degree of imaginative and social capital that was tied in part to the vanished building’s structure, but which also vested strongly in its associations. In 1757, Walpole had reprinted Paul Hentzner’s A Journey into England . . . in the Year M.D.XC.VIII, in which Hentzner visits “the royal palace of Greenwich . . . It was here Elizabeth, the present queen was born, and here she generally resides; particularly in summer, for the delightfulness of its situation” (Hentzner [1598] 1757, 47). Part of the account the SAL appended to their plate evokes sensibilities similarly attuned to the building’s given name, recording that
[i]n this fair Palace, in which the Kings and Queens of England heretofore have taken so great a Delight, were born many Royal Persons; amongst others, Henry VIII, and his brother Edmund, and Edw.VI, Queen Mary, and her Sister Queen Elizabeth, and several Children of K. James I. Here also died that most amiable and ever lamented Sovereign Edward VI (“Account” 1767, 2)
While the building’s architecture was of some interest, it was as part of an imaginative constellation associated with dynastic history—in terms both of major events and little-recorded leisure time—that the Palace of Placentia was most powerfully positioned and activated.

The assertions at the meeting also demonstrate how historical detail circulated in a restricted sphere controlled by a relatively small group of high-status actors. One of the Society’s main functions was to mediate interpersonal connections of a kind necessary when surviving records were both finite and tough to access. Certain antiquarian collectors became tightly associated with certain forms of knowledge, and it was to these collectors that those seeking enlightenment appealed. Walpole’s proprietorial pride in possessing unique records of royal history—an assertion of expertise also propagated in publications like his Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England (1758)—lingered in the mind of another antiquarian attending the 1760 meeting, Nathaniel Hillier, who over twenty years later wrote to Walpole “in hope of meeting some hints of a mansion or palace built by Humphry Duke of Gloucester” (Hillier 1780, 16.71). In his letter Hillier attributed his sense that Walpole knew of the palace to his Anecdotes of Painting, rather than recalling the specific meeting of the SAL at which Walpole asserted his expertise. the sense had remained with Hillier that Walpole might be a good source for “authentic documents” that could help to validate an image Hillier had acquired (Hillier 1780, 16.75). Walpole’s side of the correspondence with Hillier does not survive, although Hillier’s letters imply that Walpole may have found this particular enquiry rather tiresome. Had the Vetusta plate come to the mind of either man, it might have obviated the need for a longish correspondence, indicating that while the Society’s publications were seeking to open up archival knowledge, they remained far from ubiquitous as first recourses for research, even among those who would certainly have had access to them.

The 1760 meeting did not lead directly to the Vetusta plate, but members of the SAL Council may have had the discussion in the back of their minds when in a meeting on 4 April 1765 they put plans in motion for commissioning “an Engraving of the ancient Royal Palace at Greenwich, from a Drawing in the Possession of Dr. Ducarel, or such other Drawing as shall be approved of” (SAL Council Minutes I.112). The production of other engravings took precedence, but in a general meeting of the SAL on 27 February 1766, those present worked to determine which source image would best suit the Society’s needs:
Several Drawings of the old Palace at Greenwich, built by Henry Duke of Gloucester A.D. 1437, and pulled down in the year 1661, were laid before the Society, one by the President [Charles Lyttelton], one by Geo. Scott, Esqr., and one by Dr Ducarel; in order, by comparing them severally together, to select the fittest to be engraved after, for the Use of the Members; the Council having resolved upon engraving it as a proper Subject for their Monumenta Vetusta. All the Drawings were found to agree, being probably made from one and the same Copy; but that in the Possession of Dr. Ducarel, made by the late Mr. Vertue, being more neatly finish’d, was judged the fittest to engrave after, and was accordingly put into Mr. Basire’s Hands, who attended the occasion. The original Drawing, from which the rest were copied, ’tis supposed, was that produced by the President; said on the Back of it to have been drawn by Q. Elizabeth. (SAL Minutes X.110-11)
There is a lot of suggestive information in this passage, but one of the most revealing moments is when the minutes stipulate that one of the drawings being “more neatly finish’d” than the others was the criterion the SAL used to determine which image they would have engraved. This may reflect a judgment about a greater level of historically meaningful detail (despite the drawings' shared source), but it also strongly implies that other discourses were in play. The SAL sought to circulate knowledge, it also valued taste. The minutes of the same meeting include a testimonial for “William Macguire of Bloomsbury Square,” describing him as “a Gentleman well vers’d in the Study of History and Antiquity, particularly that of our own Kingdoms, as well as in other Branches of polite Literature”: these are qualifications deemed likely to lead to his becoming “a valuable and useful Member” (SAL Minutes X.106-7). The selection of a well-finished drawing hints at a similar balancing of social value and practical usefulness.

The phrasing in the minutes likewise implies that the members present doubted the attribution of the sketch to Elizabeth I, but that they nevertheless record the potential association indicates that the glamour of this particular royal residence was a contributing factor in its inclusion in Vetusta Monuments. Seeking to recover evidence of the talents of Elizabeth I was hardly unusual. She is the monarch who occupies the most space in Walpole’s Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors, and he cites George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie (1589) on the queen as a speaker “whose learned, delicate, noble Muse, easily surmounteth all the rest that have written before her time or since, for sense, sweetness or subtlety, be it in ode, elegy, epigram or any other kind of poem” (29).

Walpole’s particular literary sensibility, as demonstrated through such collecting, would sometimes take imaginative association and reconstruction further than other antiquarians would comfortably countenance. This eventually led to Walpole’s breaking with the SAL, a consequence of Jeremiah Milles’ response to Walpole's breaking with the SAL, a consequence of Jeremiah Milles' response to Walpole's Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III (1768) in the first volume of the Archaeologia (1770). In his Historic Doubts, Walpole claimed to have shown that the accusations of murder against Richard III “rest on the slightest and most suspicious ground, if they rest on any at all” (1768, 121). The main source he employed was a document he characterised as a coronation roll. In an article pointedly titled “Observations on the Wardrobe Account for the Year 1483,” Milles argued that Walpole misconstrued the evidence, privileging the inferences he wanted to draw rather than “Impartial judgement” (1770, 383). In appealing thus, Milles sought to draw a line between Walpole’s volume and proper antiquarian practice. However, while the production of the Placentia plate is bound up in the Society’s relatively dry institutional record-keeping, there are indications in the image itself and in its paratexts that the SAL as an institution was prone at times to judge aesthetically and express partiality towards royalty.

The Society’s Council meeting of 5 May 1766 received and approved an estimate of sixteen guineas from Basire for the work of engraving; the minutes also provide some details on the compilation of the plate text:
It was recommended to Sir Jos[eph] Ayloffe, & to such other Members of the Council as are possessed of any Articles relative to the History & Antiquity of Greenwich Palace, to favour the Council with the Particulars thereof in order to furnish Materials to the Director, towards accompanying the Plate of the said Palace with a Letter-Press Account thereof, for the use of the Members. (SAL Council Minutes I.120)
This account discusses the use of the land the palace was built on prior to the Norman conquest, information on the renewal of land grants perhaps originating with Ayloffe, who was one of the three keepers of the State Paper Office. It documents assiduously, but its language also entwines the glory of the building with laudable royal care:
This House together with the Manors of Lewisham and East Greenwich, being conveyed, and assured, to King Henry VIII, his Heirs, and Successors, in the Twenty-second Year of his Reign; he spared no Cost to render it a splendid and magnificent Palace. Queen Elizabeth made several Additions to these Buildings; another Front towards the Gardens was built by Queen Ann, Wife to K. James I, who also laid the Foundation of the House, next [to] the park, where the Governor of the Hospital afterwards resided, which House was finished and adorned in a superb Manner by Henrietta Maria, Queen to King Charles the First (“Account” 1767, 2).
By contrast, the account attributes the palace’s eventual decline to a “Want of necessary Reparations during the Usurpation” (2). The last word may reflect the language of the document the account is drawing on, but it also clearly attributes the palace’s fall from splendour and magnificence to republican neglect.

Some more contemporary renderings of the palace have cast it in a rather sinister light, coloured by the darker historical events with which it is associated. In Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, for example, Thomas Cromwell feels that it is “so far to the Palace of Placentia, the Thames so black, that they could be rowing along the River Styx” (2009, 273). Later in the novel, the palace provides the backdrop to waterborne ceremonies celebrating the crowning of Anne Boleyn:
Fifty barges in procession, furnished by the city livery companies; two hours from the city to Blackwall, their rigging hung with bells and flags; a light but brisk breeze, as ordered from God in his prayers. Reverse order, anchor at the steps of Greenwich Palace, collect incoming queen in her own barge – Katherine’s old one, rebadged, twenty-four oars: next her women, her guard, all the ornaments of the king’s court, all those proud and noble souls who swore they’d sabotage the event. (462)
This is a busier and far more ambivalent river scene than the Vetusta plate imagines. If Mantel figures the palace as a site of politics, menace, and hypocrisy, Basire’s rendering, with the chatting occupants of the boat in the foreground, the sunbeams in the sky overhead, and the lazy chimney smoke, seems to lean into the idea of the palace as a place of leisured ease. It is possible to pick out elements of more active business: the oarsman labor, the smoke might imply kitchen work, and the boat on the right may be engaged in commercial activity. However, these elements only occupy small parts of the frame, setting off the calm palace and the great expanse above, rather than serving as points of meaningful ideological contrast. Their positionings - the oarsmen in service, the other boat in the corner, the smoke blending into the vast clouds - support the sense that the palace is a legitimate place of quiet aristocratic retreat.

Rosemary Sweet writes that among the self-consciously artistic Basire was “despised for his old-fashioned reluctance to soften the lineal sharpness of his style with fashionable mezzotints or stipple work,” adding that “[i]t was this sharpness, allowing for minute detail, which so endeared him to the antiquaries” (2004, 304). In this plate, though, Basire, while by no means approaching the self-conscious drama of works like Thomas Malton’s later aquatints of more modern buildings at Greenwich, does appear to vary his line in his combination of etching and engraving, allowing a certain level of softness to creep in. The account appended to the plate speaks of a “delightful Prospect,” and this appears to have been the guiding principle of the engraving (2). If the paucity of available sources tightly determined what could be displayed, it seems that Basire made no particular effort to veer from the view of the palace as an Arcadian idyll.

The SAL evidently endorsed this direction; the minutes of 6 November 1766 note that “Mr. Basire sent in, for the Inspection of the Society, a Proof Print of Greenwich Palace,” and its publication was subsequently approved (SAL Minutes X.176). The Society’s Council also authorised a more general distribution, their minutes of 4 June 1767 recording that it was
Order’d, that the Plate of Placentia Palace, lately engraved, be forthwith published & advertised for Sale at Two Shillings & Sixpence, & that Messrs. Whiston & White have Directions to send Copies thereof for Sale to Greenwich.

Order’d that the other Works of the Society be advertised at the same time. (SAL Council Minutes I.128)
The Society’s activities required substantial funds, and while the plate had scholarly functions for members, the SAL was canny enough to recognise that what they had commissioned possessed local topographical interest for prosperous inhabitants of Greenwich, who might then be brought to purchase other SAL works, or even tempted to apply for membership. The more general interest of such a plate thus gave it the potential to serve a promotional and aesthetic function, in addition to its ostensible first purpose as a replicated historical record.

In his introduction to this edition, Noah Heringman argues that “Vetusta Monumenta effectively promoted the history of everyday life,” quoting Bernard Nurse’s assertion that “[b]y producing representations of everyday objects, the SAL extended the idea of what would be acceptable for publication” (2007, 143). This may be the case, but while the plate series displays interest in the quotidian, it is also concerned with socio-political resonances on grander scales. The Placentia Palace plate is by no means simple royalist propaganda, but it is a relatively traditional subject and one that speaks more to the affairs of the advantaged than to common experience. In this respect, the SAL was curating an elite history, expressing forms of interest that have continued to swirl around the site. Historic England, in discussing the site’s listing, contends that “The Tudor Palace represents a unique royal establishment where history was made: the birth and marriage place of kings and queens, the site of the royal armoury, and the first permanent tiltyard in England.”

On a larger scale, UNESCO granted Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site status to the palace and its surrounding environs in 1997 in part due to the ways the area’s buildings, landscape and memories encode its history as a site of privilege: “The Palace, Royal Naval College and Royal Park demonstrate the power, patronage and influence of the Crown in the 17th and 18th centuries and its illustration through the ability to plan and integrate culture and nature into a harmonious whole.” For UNESCO, these constitute “attributes of Outstanding Universal Value.” Whether enduring evidence of the overweening influence of a small, unrepresentative, and sometimes despotic elite should really sit at the heart of a history for everyone is perhaps open to debate. What seems clear, though, is that a taste for flattering perspectives on monarchical legacies has remained a constant of antiquarian monumentalism.

Works Cited

Adams, Bernard. 1983. London Illustrated 1604-1850: A Survey and Index of Topographical Books and their Plates. London: Library Association.

An Account of the Ancient Royal Palace of Placentia, In East Greenwich.” 1767. In Vetusta Monumenta, Vol. II.

Bold, John. 2001. Greenwich: An Architectural History of the Royal Hospital for Seamen and the Queen’s House. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hentzner, Paul (1598). 1757. A Journey into England . . . in the Year M.D.XC.VIII. Strawberry Hill.

Hillier, Nathaniel. 1780. “From Hillier, Thursday 17 April 1780.” In The Yale Edition of the Correspondence of Horace Walpole (1937-1983), edited by W.S. Lewis, 16.71-72. New Haven: Yale University Press.

------ . “From Hillier, Monday 1 May 1780.” In The Yale Edition of the Correspondence of Horace Walpole (1937-1983), edited by W.S. Lewis, 16.72-77. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Historic England. [2013]. “Greenwich Palace.”

Nurse, Bernard. 2007. “Bringing Truth to Light.” In Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007, edited by David Gaimster, Sarah McCarthy, and Bernard Nurse, 143-45. London: Royal Academy of Arts.

Malton, Thomas. 1792-1801. A Picturesque Tour Through the Cities of London and Westminster. London.

Mantel, Hilary. 2009. Wolf Hall. London: Fourth Estate.

Milles, Jeremiah. 1770. “Observations on the Wardrobe Account for the Year 1483.” Archaeologia, 1, 361-83.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

------. 1754-. Minutes of the Council of the Society of Antiquaries.

Sweet, Rosemary. 2004. Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Hambledon and London.

UNESCO. “Maritime Greenwich.”

Walford, Edward. 1878. “Greenwich.” In Old and New London: Volume 6, 164-76. London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin. British History Online.

Walpole, Horace. 1763. A Catalogue of Engravers, who have been Born, or Resided in, England. Strawberry Hill.

------. 1758. A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England. 2 vols. Strawberry Hill.

------. 1768. Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III. 2nd edition. London: J. Dodsley.

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