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Henry VIII's Lost Chapel Discovered Under Parking Lot

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
February 9, 2006
 
It's not in the most glamorous location, but British archaeologists are still excited about the remains of a 500-year-old royal chapel that have been discovered under a parking lot in the Greenwich district of south London.

Generations of British monarchs worshipped at the lost chapel, including Henry VIII, the Tudor king who had six wives.

The ancient tiled floor emerged by chance when a bulldozer's bucket scraped against some brickwork three weeks ago.

Since then careful digging by archaeologists has revealed the eastern walls of the chapel and a ten-foot-by-five-foot (three-meter-by-six-meter) area of floor covered in a checkerboard of what were once black and white glazed tiles.

The area was once on the grounds of the Palace of Placentia, which was demolished in the late 1600s.

Among the rubble, fragments of stained glass, and pieces of decorative stonework have been found.

"This used to be a private chapel belonging to the palace. There aren't really any of these surviving, and so it is a unique find," said Julian Bowsher, senior archaeologist from the Museum of London Archaeology Service. (wallpaper photo: London taxi)

Lost Palace

Henry VII built Placentia—whose name means "pleasant place to live"—on the banks of the Thames at Greenwich in 1500.

The palace was a favorite haunt of his son, Henry VIII, some of his ill-fated wives, and his daughter, Elizabeth I.

However, by 1699 the palace had fallen out of favor, and it was demolished to make way for a hospital designed by British architect Sir Christopher Wren.

The hospital later became the Royal Naval College, and today it belongs to the nonprofit Greenwich Foundation.

An old painting shows that Henry VII's palace had a chapel at its eastern end, but it was never clear exactly where it lay.

"The perspective of the painting leaves a bit to be desired," Bowsher said.

Until now archaeologists had assumed that the chapel was destroyed with the rest of Placentia.

All that changed three weeks ago, when Bowsher was called in by the Greenwich Foundation to monitor building work being done at the college.

At the site Bowsher spotted a brick peeking out from a muddy hole in the parking lot.

After further excavation revealed the discovery, it caused excitement in the British archaeological community.

"This is the most significant find from Greenwich over the last ten years," Bowsher said.

Royal Weddings

Records show that the chapel was a focal point for a number of important royal events.

"Henry VIII attended St. George's Day services [in honor of England's patron saint] at the chapel, and it is thought that two of his marriages took place in a closet overlooking the chapel," said Duncan Wilson, chief executive of the Old Royal Naval College, as the complex is now called.

Beyond the chapel, archaeologists have also uncovered the vestry—a room where religious objects were kept—and the old river frontage, where Tudor monarchs may once have strolled.

"We uncovered a Tudor wall and a cobbled waterfront walk used before the river was pushed further back in the 18th century," Wilson said.

Now Bowsher and his team are busy finishing the excavations before burying the chapel again.

"Everything is being photographed and recorded before being back-built under protective layers," he said. "We couldn't leave it uncovered, as it would just disintegrate."

The glass and stonework is being carefully wrapped and sent off to a laboratory for analysis, he added.

"We won't know the full story until a few weeks after the analysis is done," Bowsher said.

Eventually the finds will be put on display at the visitor center at the Old Royal Naval College.

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