Was Roman temple at Greenwich Park dedicated to Britannia?

Roman temple reconstruction, Greenwich Park

Greenwich Park Roman temple reconstruction by the Channel 4 Time Team

On 6 February 1902, Roman remains were discovered on an artificial mound on the east side of Greenwich Park. The then superintendent of Greenwich Park, Angus Webster, believed that the find – at that time thought to be of a villa – was the most important discovery ever made in the Park.

Roman pavement
“Further search was made on the 3rd March, when the floor of a room with a portion of the tesserae intact was happily hit upon at a distance from the surface of hardly 2ft … This portion has been left uncovered, and fenced around to prevent damage, and in order that the public might have an opportunity of viewing these interesting and historic remains.

“The concrete foundation on which the tesserae rest is of a rather formidable nature, averaging 9 inches in depth, and is remarkably hard and well preserved.” (Greenwich Park, its history and associations, by A D Webster, 1902)

Writing in the London Archaeologist journal (“Excavations in Greenwich Park 1978-79” vol 3 no. 12), Harvey Sheldon and Brian Yule, described the area of the Roman temple site. “Until quite recently the remains were within an impressive group of closely set old elms, thought to have been planted c. 1650, but age, and in the last few years the ravages of Dutch elm disease, have resulted in their destruction.” Within the area enclosed by railings (removed in 2012) was a small area of tesserae, part of a Roman pavement.

Roman temple tesserae, Greenwich Pakr

The tesserae photographed at the time they were found in 1902

Fragment of Roman pavement, tesserae

Photograph of the fragment of Roman pavement, Greenwich Park (obliterated in 2012)

Roman coins and Roman goddess?
Hundreds of Roman coins were unearthed and, as the earliest of coins dates from about AD70, this suggests that it may have been around then that the temple was erected. Among the other archaeological finds from the temple site, listed in Webster’s book, is a piece of ivory carved with a depiction of a woman holding a shield over her head. The Romans invented Britannia, and a shield is one of her attributes as goddess.

Greenwich Park, fragment of ivory found on Roman temple site

Fragment of ivory found on the Roman temple site, Greenwich Park

Bibliography: Clive Aslet, The Story of Greenwich; Harvey Shelton and Brian Yule, “Excavations in Greenwich Park 1978-79” London Archaeologist, vol 3 no. 12; A D Webster, Greenwich Park, its history and associations, 1902)

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The geology of Greenwich and east/south-east England

International Geological Map of Europe and the Mediterranean - detail

Detail of the International Geological Map of Europe and the Mediterranean (published 1971)

Detail of the beautiful International Geological Map of Europe and the Mediterranean published by Bundesanstalt fur Bodenforschung and UNESCO (1971).

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Queen Elizabeth I : the Armada Portrait

Queen Elizabeth I, Armada portrait

The Armada portrait, once owned by Sir Francis Drake, was saved for the nation in 2016.

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On this day: Queen Elizabeth I born at Greenwich

ORNC tweet 7 Sept 2017

Queen Elizabeth I born at Greenwich Palace, 7 September 1533

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The Queen Elizabeth Oak – last survivor of ancient forest

Queen Elizabeth Oak 1922

The Queen Elizabeth Oak, Greenwich Park 1922

The Queen Elizabeth Oak was the last survivor of the forest that grew on part of Blackheath, an outriding of the vast ancient raised tract of the impenetrable Forest of Anderida 120 miles long and nearly 40 miles (64km) wide in southeastern England, separating the London basis from the English Channel coast, spreading north through the breaks in the North Downs.

Britain of pre-Roman days (the Roman Senator Aulus Plautius led the invasion of Britain in 43 AD) was a wild and savage country.  The typical English landscape of today, with fields and neat hedges, hardly existed. In early pre-Roman Britain forests ands scrub, fen, moor and marsh occupied most of the land.  Britain was certainly far more rainy then than now, owing to the vast forests such as Anderida (named during the Roman conquest, and later in Anglo-Saxon and Medieval times known as the Weald) which covered the land, and consequently it would also have been more misty.

The last of the Roman legions left Britain in 405AD.

Queen Elizabeth Oak 1905

Queen Elizabeth Oak 1905 from http://www.londonpast.org/postcards/

Writing in Greenwich Park: its History and Associations (1902), the then Superintendent of Greenwich Park, Angus Webster, wrote that,

The old tree beneath which Henry VIII. danced with Anne Boleyn, and whose hollow trunk was afterwards used as a prison, is still standing, although quite dead, … must, in its heyday, have been a tree of giant proportions, the hollowed trunk in which Queen Elizabeth oft partook of refreshments, and where offenders against the Park rules have been confined, being fully twenty feet in girth, while the internal cavity is six feet in diameter. A door was at one time placed on the entrance and a window cut through the shell in the direction of One Tree Hill. The interior is paved, and a rustic seat placed around, on
which fifteen persons can sit with comfort. The tree is quite dead (the last living shoots having been noticed about twenty-four years ago), and is mainly supported by a thick coating of ivy; but although every attention has been given to lessen the wind-pressure by reducing the surface of ivy, it is hardly likely that this ancient and honoured monarch of the forest will remain intact for many years.

Queen Elizabeth Oak 1902, from AD Webster

Queen Elizabeth Oak 1902, from AD Webster, Greenwich Park: its History and Associations


The oak (tree number 0845 in Royal Parks’ tree schedule 2010, prostrate, mis-described as a sweet chestnut, later corrected) finally collapsed in a storm in June 1991.

Queen Elizabeth Oak April 2009

Queen Elizabeth Oak, April 2009 Photo © Christine Matthews (cc-by-sa/2.0)


The following year, a young English oak tree was donated by the Greenwich Historical Society, to mark 40 years of the reign of HM Queen Elizabeth II, and this was planted by HRH Duke of Edinburgh KG KT Baron Greenwich on 3 December 1992.

Plaque at Queen Elizabeth Oak

Plaque at Queen Elizabeth Oak Photo © Christine Matthews (cc-by-sa/2.0)

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A masterpiece of human creative genius … the interaction of man and nature over two centuries

From the draft Statement of Outstanding Universal Values,


1.2.5      The Royal Park is a masterpiece of the application by Andre Le Notre of symmetrical landscape design to irregular terrain.

1.2.8     [UNESCO inscription] Criterion (i): represent a masterpiece of human creative genius; The public and private buildings and the Royal Park at Greenwich form an exceptional ensemble that bears witness to human artistic and creative endeavour of the highest quality.

1.2.9 [UNESCO inscription] Criterion (ii): exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town planning or landscape design; Maritime Greenwich bears witness to European architecture at an important stage of its evolution, exemplified by the work of great architects such as Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren who, inspired by developments on the continent of Europe, each shaped the architectural development of subsequent generations, while the Park exemplifies the interaction of man and nature over two centuries.

1.2.10 [UNESCO inscription] Criterion (iv): be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history; The Palace, ORNC and Royal Park demonstrate the power, patronage and influence of the Crown in the 17th and 18th centuries and its illustration through the ability to plan and integrate culture and nature into an harmonious whole.

1.2.11 [UNESCO inscription] Criterion (vi): be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance; Greenwich is associated with outstanding architectural and artistic achiegements as well as with scientific endeavour of the highest quality through the development of navigation and astronomy at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, leading to the establishment of the Greenwich Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time as world standards.

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To begin at the beginning, best beloved

Greenwich affords one of the instances in which the monarch’s property is actually the people’s … for a nobleman makes a paradise only for himself, and fills it with his own pomp and pride; whereas the people are sooner or later the legitimate inheritors of whatever beauty kings and queens create.” Nathaniel Hawthorne 1863

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