Horses in History: Greenwich Park’s past

There’s a lot more to London Olympic equestrian venue Greenwich Park than grass and trees. HN’s historian-in-resident Lorraine Jackson reveals the park’s storied past.

Top photo: Greenwich Park overlooking London. Photo from Wikimedia Commons. 

From Lorraine:

This week we are taking a slight diversion in Horse History so that we can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the London Olympics’ unique and historic equestrian venue!  And when you’re watching the equine drama unfold this month in Greenwich Park with your non-horsey family, feel free to toss in an historic reference or two.  They’ll be so impressed.

The oldest enclosed Royal Park, Greenwich Park is 183 acres, and is encircled by a 12 foot tall brick wall built in 1615 by King James I. The park and subsequent Queen’s House (the visual focal point of the park on the River Thames to this day) were gifts from King James I’s to his wife, Queen Ann.  Allegedly, this was an apology gift of sorts: James I swore at Ann in public after she accidentally shot his favorite dog, and you might say this left him in the dog house. Hey-oh!)

But the park’s history goes back many more centuries than that!  To this day, you can visit Roman-Celtic ruins in the park that were uncovered in 1902, and date back to an initial construction date of 100 A.D.  It is believed that the ruins were a temple and city center, and were in continuous use until approximately 400 A.D., when the Roman Empire was in full decline.

Virtual reconstruction of Greenwich Roman remains

In its medieval years, Greenwich Park was not a place of the people. It was owned for some time by the Roman Catholic Church, and later transferred to the English crown in 1427. Built upon the grounds was the Palace of Placentia, which was the birthplace of the previously highlighted Horses in History villain, Henry VIII, and much of the infamous Tudor Family.  Additionally, the green space was turned into Henry’s personal deer hunting preserve, and a secondary estate known simply as Greenwich Castle was temporarily converted into the exclusive residence of Henry’s mistresses. What a charmer.

The Queen's House today. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1675, The Park got new life when Greenwich Castle was deemed the site for the Royal Observatory. King Charles II, eager to expand the sciences and educational prowess of England, insisted that Greenwich be the literal center of universal time, astronomical movement, and longitude, which is how we came to have Greenwich Mean Time and the Greenwich Meridian.  You might say equestrian events at the London Olympics will be Ground Zero!

The Royal Observatory. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In more recent years, the park was opened to all of Britain and the world for the general public’s enjoyment, and has become a British Sport epicenter. When not turned upside-down for the Games, the park has Rugby Fields, Cricket, Tennis, and a putting green.  Because there are 400 year-old trees on the premises, London went to great lengths to have the Three Day Eventing cross country course leave a wide berth around the 1,500 or so “veteran trees” and their roots.  When the games are over, the 2012 Organizing Committee has a comprehensive plan to reinstate Greenwich Park into its former state as quickly as possible.

A "veteran tree." Photo: Wikimedia Commons

So remember in the days to come as you watch Rafalca piaffe, Ringwood Magister tackle the coffin, and Cylana sail over a six foot oxer, that while history is being made, history is all around them. And what you see at Greenwich Park today will be gone tomorrow, ever changing to meet the needs of its people.

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