Greenwich has been officially designated a “royal borough” since 2012.
It was given the title to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee, on the basis that monarchs Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and “Bloody” Mary were all born in the borough, at Placentia Palace, which used to stand where the Old Naval College now is. Greenwich was also one of London’s original metropolitan boroughs; it didn’t then include the modern royal borough’s Woolwich half (which was a separate metropolitan borough on its own), but Charlton and Kidbrooke were inside it. It also stretched out across Deptford Creek to take in a slice of Deptford.
We won’t make any jokes about having a mean time, and we won’t take sides in the “-itch” vs “-idge” debate, but long before there was any sign of a meridian here, Greenwich was an Anglo-Saxon town. Before that it may have been settled back in the Bronze Age, when the ancient burial mounds in Greenwich Park could originally have been built. It seems there was a Roman temple in the park too, which isn’t so surprising given that the Roman road Watling Street ran straight through the park.
At the beginning of the eleventh century, a Viking army occupied Greenwich, captured the archbishop of Canterbury, whose name was Alfege, and demanded a ransom for him. When the English king refused to stump up, the Vikings stoned the poor old archbishop to death – or rather, they boned him to death, apparently using ox bones. For his unfortunate martyrdom, the church made him a saint, and St Alfege's Church in the centre of Greenwich (on the spot where he got stoned, or at any rate boned) is named after him to this day.
The new millennium saw the construction of the Millennium Dome on the site of an old gas works on the North Greenwich peninsula (as it’s nowadays known, although “North Greenwich” originally meant the northern end of the Greenwich foot tunnel – and before that, of a ferry crossing – across the River on the Isle of Dogs). The Dome put previously derelict land to use, but cost £789 million, and was widely panned as a white elephant (Prince Charles called it a “monstrous blancmange”). The exhibition it was built to contain was a flop and attracted barely half the number of people it was supposed to, and its only big success was on the part of the police, who managed to foil a spectacular £350m diamond heist from an exhibit by De Beers. Perhaps the Dome’s problems were down to bad feng shui, but in 2008 it became part of the O2 entertainment centre and has had a whole new lease of life.
Although Greenwich is world famous, thanks to its meridian and its mean time, Greenwich Village in New York is not named after it (it’s an anglicized version of the neighbourhood’s original Dutch name), but there are Greenwiches in Nova Scotia and Connecticut which are, not to mention an island in the Antarctic archipeligo of South Shetland.