London's underground treasures reveal the historic lifestyles of the rich – National Geographic UK

London has long been a place for high society to enjoy a privileged lifestyle graced with unimaginable riches. The elaborate palaces of monarchy and nobility and their jewelled belongings were so precious, though, that little ended up lost and abandoned in the capital’s soils. The rare snapshots of ancient wealthy citizens teased out of hidden London by dedicated archaeologists are all the more valuable. Here are three ancient treasures that have emerged from London’s depths that provide a glimpse into the champagne lifestyles of Londoners of the past.
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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. But 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. Eleven years later, restoration work in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College uncovered a sunken room, its yellow, black, and dark green glazed tiles overlying two vaulted cellars, which were probably the Tudor palace’s kitchens, bakehouse, brewhouse, and laundry.
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 specialises in futuristic remote sensing technologies that build digital models of cultural heritage hidden deep below ground. 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 to map what lies below the surface without disturbing a thing.
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Palaces were not just the playthings of kings and queens. Six miles upriver from Greenwich, turn the corner west of London Bridge. Behind Shake­speare’s Globe Theatre, the lanes narrow, and life rewinds to a medieval vibe. Out of nowhere, the intact sidewall of a palace’s great hall veers out of the shadow of bohemian coffee shops and boutique stores trading out of Victorian-era warehouses. High above ground level, a stunning rose window overlooks London’s most striking 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-coloured 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, with its tennis court, bowling alley, brewery, butchery, and six-acre garden down the centuries, had every convenience.
Constructed in 1667 after the Great Fire gutted the area, the buildings occupying 30 to 32 Cheapside—London’s most famous goldsmith and jeweller 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 down, the soil sparkled. Seeping out of a crumbling wooden box lay a tangled heap of jewellery, gems, and precious objects, the likes of which had never been seen before.
“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 jewellery and raw gems. Belonging to a jeweller ready to sell to high society, the lavish bling included rings, chains, necklaces, pendants, buttons, brooches, and hat pins. Among the stash were diamonds from India or Borneo; emeralds from Colombia; natural pearls from the Persian Gulf, Scotland, or perhaps the Caribbean; turquoise from Persia; and amethysts from Russia or Brazil. Alongside the gems was a gold watch nestled in a giant Colombian emerald; a gold-and-white enamel scent bottle set with milky chalcedony carvings of leaves; and the star jewel: a Roman cameo of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt.
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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.
What is certain is that the unfortunate jeweller never got his finery back. Most are on display today at the Museum of London.
Portions of this work have previously appeared in Hidden London by Sean Kingsley. Compilation copyright © 2022 National Geographic Partners, LLC.
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