The place-name 'Greenwich' is first attested in a Saxon charter of 918, where it appears as Gronewic. It is recorded as Grenewic in 964, and as Grenawic in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1013. It is Grenviz in the Domesday Book of 1086, and Grenewych in the Taxatio Ecclesiastica of 1291. The name means 'green wic or settlement' (from the Latin 'vicus').
The settlement later became known as East Greenwich to distinguish it from West Greenwich or Deptford Strond, the part of Deptford adjacent to the Thames, but the use of East Greenwich to mean the whole of the town of Greenwich died out in the 19th century. However, Greenwich was divided into the registration subdistricts of Greenwich East and Greenwich West from the beginning of civil registration in 1837, the boundary running down what is now Greenwich Church Street and Crooms Hill, although more modern references to "East" and "West" Greenwich probably refer to the areas east and west of the Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum corresponding with the West Greenwich council ward. An article in The Times of 13 October 1967 stated:
East Greenwich, gateway to the Blackwall Tunnel, remains solidly working class, the manpower for one eighth of London's heavy industry. West Greenwich is a hybrid: the spirit of Nelson, the Cutty Sark, the Maritime Museum, an industrial waterfront and a number of elegant houses, ripe for development.
Manor of East Greenwich
Royal charters granted to English colonists in North America, often used the name of the manor of East Greenwich for describing the tenure (from the Latin verb teneo, hold) as that of free socage. New England charters provided that the grantees should hold their lands "as of his Majesty's manor of East Greenwich." This was in relation to the principle of land tenure under English law, that the ruling monarch (king or queen) was paramount lord of all the soil in the terra regis, while all others held their lands, directly or indirectly, under the monarch. Land outside the physical boundaries of England, as in America, was treated as belonging constructively to one of the existing royal manors, and from Tudor times grants frequently used the name of the manor of East Greenwich, but some 17c. grants named the castle of Windsor. Places in North America that have taken the name "East Greenwich" include a township in Gloucester County, New Jersey, a hamlet in Washington County, New York, and a town in Kent County, Rhode Island.
Tumuli to the south-west of Flamsteed House, in Greenwich Park, are thought to be early Bronze Age barrows re-used by the Saxons in the 6th century as burial grounds. To the east between the Vanbrugh and Maze Hill Gates is the site of a Roman villa or temple. A small area of red paving tesserae protected by railings marks the spot. It was excavated in 1902 and 300 coins were found dating from the emperors Claudius and Honorius to the 5th century. This was excavated by the Channel 4 television programme Time Team in 1999, broadcast in 2000, and further investigations were made by the same group in 2003.
The Roman road from London to Dover, Watling Street crossed the high ground to the south of Greenwich, through Blackheath. This followed the line of an earlier Celtic route from Canterbury to St Albans. As late as Henry V, Greenwich was only a fishing town, with a safe anchorage in the river.
During the reign of Ethelred the Unready, the Danish fleet anchored in the River Thames off Greenwich for over three years, with the army being encamped on the hill above. From here they attacked Kent and, in the year 1012, took the city of Canterbury, making Archbishop Alphege their prisoner for seven months in their camp at Greenwich, at that time within the county of Kent. They stoned him to death for his refusal to allow his ransom (3,000 pieces of silver) to be paid; and kept his body, until the blossoming of a stick that had been immersed in his blood. For this miracle his body was released to his followers, he achieved sainthood for his martyrdom and, in the 12th century, the parish church was dedicated to him. The present church on the site west of the town centre is St Alfege's Church, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1714 and completed in 1718. Some vestiges of the Danish camps may be traced in the names of Eastcombe and Westcombe, on the borders of nearby Blackheath.
The Domesday Book records the manor of Grenviz in the hundred of Grenviz as held by Bishop Odo of Bayeux; his lands were seized by the crown in 1082. The name of the hundred was changed to Blackheath when the site of the hundred court was moved there in the 12th century. A royal palace, or hunting lodge, has existed here since before 1300, when Edward I is known to have made offerings at the chapel of the Virgin Mary.
Subsequent monarchs were regular visitors, with Henry IV making his will here, and Henry V granting the manor (for life) to Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter, who died at Greenwich in 1426. The palace was created by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Henry V's half-brother and the regent to Henry VI in 1447; he enclosed the park and erected a tower on the hill now occupied by the Royal Observatory. It was renamed the Palace of Placentia or Pleasaunce by Henry VI's consort Margaret of Anjou after Humphrey's death. The palace was completed and further enlarged by Edward IV, and in 1466 it was granted to his queen, Elizabeth.
Ultimately it was because the palace and its grounds were a royal possession that it was chosen as the site for Charles II's Royal Observatory, from which stemmed Greenwich's subsequent global role as originator of the modern Prime Meridian.
The palace was the principal residence of Henry VII whose sons Henry (later Henry VIII) and Edmund Tudor were born here, and baptised in St Alphege's. Henry favoured Greenwich over nearby Eltham Palace, the former principal royal palace. He extended Greenwich Palace and it became his principal London seat until Whitehall Palace was built in the 1530s. Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves at Greenwich, and both Mary (18 February 1516) and Elizabeth (7 September 1533) were born at Greenwich. His son Edward VI also died there at age 15.
The palace of Placentia, in turn, became Elizabeth's favourite summer residence. Both she and her sister Mary I used the palace extensively, and Elizabeth's Council planned the Spanish Armada campaign there in 1588.
James I carried out the final remodelling work on Greenwich Palace, granting the manor to his wife Queen Anne of Denmark. In 1616 Anne commissioned Inigo Jones to design and build the surviving Queen's House as the final addition to the palace.
Charles I granted the manor to his wife Queen Henrietta Maria, for whom Inigo Jones completed the Queen's House. During the English Civil War, the palace was used as a biscuit factory and prisoner-of-war camp. Then, in the Interregnum, the palace and park were seized to become a 'mansion' for the Lord Protector.
By the time of the Restoration, the Palace of Placentia had fallen into disuse and was pulled down. New buildings began to be established as a grand palace for Charles II, but only the King Charles block was completed. Charles II also redesigned and replanted Greenwich Park and founded and built the Royal Observatory.
Prince James (later King James II & VII), as Duke of York and Lord Admiral until 1673, was often at Greenwich with his brother Charles and, according to Samuel Pepys, he proposed the idea of creating a Royal Naval Hospital. This was eventually established at Greenwich by his daughter Mary II, who in 1692–1693 commissioned Christopher Wren to design the Royal Hospital for Seamen (now the Old Royal Naval College). The work was begun under her widower William III in 1696 and completed by Hawksmoor. Queen Anne and Prince George of Denmark continued to patronise the project.
George I landed at Greenwich from Hanover on his accession in 1714. His successor George II granted the Royal Hospital for Seamen the forfeited estates of the Jacobite Earl of Derwentwater, which allowed the building to be completed by 1751.
In 1805, George III granted the Queen's House to the Royal Naval Asylum (an orphanage school), which amalgamated in 1821–1825 with the Greenwich Hospital School. Extended with the buildings that now house the National Maritime Museum, it was renamed the Royal Hospital School by Queen Victoria in 1892.
George IV donated nearly 40 paintings to the hospital in 1824, at a stroke creating a gallery in the Painted Hall. These now form the Greenwich Hospital Collection at the National Maritime Museum. Subsequently, William IV and Queen Adelaide were both regular donors and visitors to the gallery.
Victorian and Edwardian
Queen Victoria rarely visited Greenwich but in 1845 her husband Prince Albert personally bought Nelson's Trafalgar coat for the Naval Gallery.
In 1838 the London and Greenwich Railway (L&GR) completed the very first steam railway in London. It started at London Bridge and had its terminus at London Street (now Greenwich High Road). It was also the first to be built specifically for passengers, and the first ever elevated railway, having 878 arches over its almost four mile stretch. In 1853 the local Scottish Presbyterian community built a church close by. The church was extended twice in the 1860s during the ministry of the increasingly well known Dr Adolph Saphir, eventually accommodating a thousand worshippers.
In 1864 opposite the railway terminus, theatrical entrepreneur Sefton Parry built the thousand seater New Greenwich Theatre. William Morton was one of its more successful managers. The theatre was demolished in 1937 to make way for a new Town Hall, now a listed building under new ownership and renamed Meridian House.
Greenwich Station is at the northern apex of the Ashburnham Triangle, a residential estate developed by the Ashburnham family, mainly between 1830 and 1870, on land previously developed as market gardens. It is now a designated conservation area. The present Greenwich Theatre, further to the east, was constructed inside the shell of a Victorian music hall. Beginning life in 1855 as an annexe to the Rose and Crown, the music hall was rebuilt in 1871 by Charles Crowder and subsequently operated under many names.
Modern and the present
George V and Queen Mary both supported the creation of the National Maritime Museum, and Mary presented the museum with many items.
The Prince Albert, Duke of York (later George VI), laid the foundation stone of the new Royal Hospital School when it moved out to Holbrook, Suffolk. In 1937 his first public act as king (three weeks before coronation) was to open the National Maritime Museum in the buildings vacated by the school. The king was accompanied by his mother Queen Mary, his wife Queen Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother) and the Princess Elizabeth (now Elizabeth II.)
Princess Elizabeth and her consort Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (who was ennobled Baron Greenwich on marriage in 1947) made their first public and official visit to Greenwich in 1948 to receive the Freedom of the Borough for Philip. In the same year, he became a trustee of the National Maritime Museum. Philip, now the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was a trustee for 52 years until 2000, when he became its first patron. The Duke of Edinburgh has also been a patron of the Cutty Sark (which was opened by the Queen in 1957) since 1952.
During the Silver Jubilee of 1977, the Queen embarked at Greenwich for the Jubilee River Pageant. In 1987, Her Majesty was aboard the P&O ship Pacific Princess when it moored alongside the Old Royal Naval College for the company's 150th anniversary celebrations.
To mark the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II, it was announced on 5 January 2010 that on 3 February 2012 the London Borough of Greenwich would become the fourth to have Royal Borough status, the others being the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. The status was granted in recognition of the borough's historic links with the Royal Family, the location of the Prime Meridian and its being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.