London’s underground treasures reveal lifestyles of the rich and English
Published September 27, 2022
11 min read
London, the center of England’s commercial power and home to a lengthy line of monarchs, has long been a place for high society to enjoy a privileged lifestyle graced with unimaginable riches. They had elaborate palaces and jewelled possessions that were so valuable that very little was left on the streets of London. These rare photographs of wealthy ancient Londoners, which were discovered by dedicated archaeologists, are even more valuable. These three treasures are a glimpse into the glamorous lives of Londoners in the past.
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Palace of Placentia
The southeast London district of Greenwich, downriver from central London, is not just known for being the beating heart of Britain’s maritime empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Long before, the Palace of Placentia–Pleasure Palace–was first a royal playground, hosting every indulgence and vice for two centuries of royals, between 1485 and 1660.
Today, not one of the 600,000 bricks Henry VII (r. 1485-1509) bought in 1499 to build his Pleasure Palace still stands. The wonder of the age was knocked down in 1663 and replaced by the Georgian Royal Hospital for Seamen, which later became the Royal Naval College, and today is the University of Greenwich. Slowly, it is giving up its secrets.
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Soundings beneath the Old Royal Naval College in 1970 uncovered the rectangular floor of the palace’s great tower, with yellow-and-green glazed tiles. A drainage trench cut under the college’s Queen Anne building in 2006 unexpectedly hit the intact Royal Chapel and its checkered Flemish tiles. 11 years later, restoration work in Painted Hall of Old Royal Naval College revealed a sunken area with its yellow, dark, and green glazed tiles. It was overlying two vaulted cellars that were likely Tudor palace’s kitchens and bakehouses.
One of the most unique discoveries that recently emerged along the Thames, bordering the former palace, is a private wooden landing stage used by the Palace of Placentia’s boats. It is surrounded the bones of boars, lambs, chickens, and cows, as well as oyster shells thrown out the back of Henry VIII’s palace kitchen after royal feasts 475 years ago.
But perhaps the greatest find came in 2020 from Simon Withers of the University of Greenwich, who specializes in futuristic remote sensing technologies that build digital models of cultural heritage hidden deep belowground. Withers discovered the octagonal tower of Henry VIII’s jousting ground, right near where the king had a near-fatal accident in 1536.
“Ground-penetrating radar under the green lawns of Queen’s House in Greenwich allowed us to see shadows of the past layered upon each other, year by year,” he says.
New technologies continue mapping what lies beneath the surface without disturbing anything.
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Southwark’s bishops’ palace
Palaces were not just the playthings of kings and queens. Turn west at London Bridge, six miles upriver of Greenwich. The lanes narrow behind Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and life is reverted to a medieval feel. The palace’s great hall’s intact sidewall emerges from nowhere. It is surrounded by boutique shops and bohemian coffee shops, as well as Victorian-era warehouses. A stunning rose window looks out from the top of London’s most notable ruined survivor, the massive sidewall of the Bishops of Winchester’s medieval palace.
Large-scale digs under demolished 19th-century wharves and warehouses have explored the palace’s surviving spaces since 1983–even a Roman bathhouse with swanky-colored wall frescoes below it. A rich blend of archaeology and history offers a rare look into elite life on this busy side street 700 years ago.
Bishops with religious, and often political, authority lived here on Clink Street for five centuries after Henry de Blois, the deep-pocketed bishop and brother of King Stephen (r. 1135-1154), bought up land on the Southwark riverfront in the mid-12th century for his London residence when in town on royal business.
“Winchester was the traditional base of the royal treasury, so most of its bishops were chancellors to the monarch,” explains the site excavator, Derek Seeley from the Museum of London Archaeology. The bishops’ palace had everything you could need, including a tennis court, a bowling alley and a brewery. It also featured 6,000-acres of garden that was maintained over the centuries.
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The Bishop of Winchester’s palace in 1660. It was built on prime land to the south of the river and has easy access to the city across The Thames.
Image courtesy of Alan King/Alamy Stock Photo
The bishops’ palace came with extensive land and privileged landlords’ rights called the liberty of the Clink. The Clink, a notorious prison, was bolted onto the palace’s ground. “Clink” is a slang term for “prison” that originated here. After the prisoners’ moans faded away in the 18th century, the spicemakers Linguard and Sadler turned the noble palace into a mustard factory. The arc of this great palace’s life had shifted 180 degrees from one of the high and mighty to a humble yard making spice to cheer up everyday London’s dinner tables.
The Cheapside Hoard
Constructed in 1667 after the Great Fire gutted the area, the buildings occupying 30 to 32 Cheapside–London‘s most famous goldsmith and jeweler district in the 17th century–were sagging by 1910 and had to go. On June 18, 1912, workmen had demolished the timber-framed shoe, silk, and watchmaker shops and were using picks to dig out the dank soil in the cellars. Sixteen feet below, the soil sparkled. A crumbling wooden box contained a treasure trove of jewelry, gems and precious objects. It was like nothing else.
“We’ve struck a toyshops, I thinks guvnor!” a workman was convinced. He was wrong.
The Cheapside Hoard–a collection of 500 gems and jewels imported from across the globe and named after the leading market street where it was dug up (chepe meaning “market” in Anglo-Saxon)–is the world’s greatest cache of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewelry and raw gems. The lavish bling was a gift from a jeweler who wanted to sell to high society. It included rings, chains and pendants, buttons, brooches and brooches. There were also natural pearls from Colombia, India, and the Caribbean, as well as emeralds from Colombia, the Persian Gulf, Scotland, and possibly the Caribbean. Also, there was turquoise from Persia, and amethysts sourced from Russia or Brazil. A gold watch was found in a large Colombian emerald; an enamel scent bottle with milky chalcedony leaf carvings; and the star jewel, a Roman cameo by Queen Cleopatra.
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Nobody can say for sure when the Cheapside Hoard was stashed away for safekeeping in an age riddled with natural disasters and instability. Did the cache vanish at the start of the English Civil War in 1642, when the Puritan politician Oliver Cromwell toppled the monarchy and split society down the middle? Or perhaps the owner succumbed to the bubonic Great Plague of London, which wiped out 20 percent of the city’s 300,000 citizens in 1665? Charring on the walls of the building where the Cheapside Hoard was dug up raised speculation that the jewels were lost when the Great Fire destroyed London in 1666. It is certain that the unfortunate jeweler did not get his finery back. Many of them are on display at the Museum of London today.
Portions of this work have previously appeared in Hidden London by Sean Kingsley. Compilation copyright (c) 2022 National Geographic Partners, LLC.
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The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.