Landscaping Greenwich Park

Duke Humphrey’s Tower, detail from Wenceslaus Hollar’s View of Greenwich, 1637

Duke Humphrey’s Tower, detail from Wenceslaus Hollar’s View of Greenwich, 1637

The Greenwich Park we see today has been extensively landscaped over many centuries.  Before the park was enclosed in the 15th century, much of the land in the area was open heathland.   Its natural topography and high ground were seen as a strategically defensible position, offering a lookout over London and beyond. It has witnessed successive occupations for thousands of years, with evidence of early Stone Age, Neolithic, Roman, Anglo Saxon and Danish occupation.

From the 7th century the park was manorial land, occupied successively by church and crown. ‘Grenevic’ or ‘Gronovic’ manor was listed among the possessions of King Alfred passing to the Abbey of St Peter’s at Ghent in 918. After the Norman Invasion in 1066 the area was further developed as a large manor that belonged to Lewisham Priory.  It only reverted to the Crown in 1414, when Henry V suppressed monasteries and priories. 

Before the 15th century, much of the manorial land was unenclosed heathland, woodland and pasture. It was the construction of a great house or tower, in 1426 and the enclosure of ‘200 acres to make a park at Greenwich’ in 1433 by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, that set the stage for the transformation of the landscape into the park that exists today. 

Under the Tudors, Greenwich’s Palace of Placentia and gardens were used for hunting and as a setting for rich displays of pageantry. Under the Stuarts, the Park was reserved largely for hunting, archery and rambling, with James I encircling the park with a high brick wall in 1624.

It was not until the 1660s, after the Restoration of Charles II, that the park was radically transformed from a medieval hunting park into a stately landscape inspired by French formal design. This was the foundation for the extant tree avenues and parkland that were used for entertainment and recreational purposes.  The landscaping work began in 1661 under the management of Sir William Boreman to create a garden in the French style, with the Grand Ascent cut into the Observatory escarpment and the parterre around the Queen’s House influenced or designed by André Le Nôtre, garden designer for Louis IV.

The Woodlands Plan, Greenwich Park, 1707 – 20The Woodlands Plan, Greenwich Park, 1707 – 20

The building of Flamsteed House and gardens in 1675-6, to house John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, led to this area of high ground being adapted for astronomy and scientific research - now the Royal Observatory.  By this time, Charles II had abandoned the completion of his new palace in Greenwich, and the park fell out of favour.

For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, the landscape within the park remained the setting for recreation, walking and rambling, and the deer herd was left to graze throughout the park.  

By the 19th century, the park was viewed as a place for relaxation and enjoyment, as reflected in the ornamental tree planting in the Flower Gardens from 1854.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the combination of formal and informal landscaping, the formal tree avenues and the original 1660s layout of the park, has ensured that the park remains one of the most spectacular examples of Baroque landscaping in England.