Friday, June 27, 2008

The Great Harry II?


Yesterday I promised to write more about my ideas for making more of our heritage in the Borough of Greenwich, and specifically for marking our Tudor connections around the 500th Anniversary of Henry VIII's accession next year. Well, here goes.

One of my first ideas was commissioning a statue of Henry VIII to be placed somewhere suitable in the Borough - amazingly, there is currently only one public statue of him in London, which stands over the gate of St Bart's Hospital. I also thought about various Tudor-themed events such as a jousting tournament on the site of Henry's Tiltyard at Greenwich, and perhaps an exhibition of Tudor Armour made in Greenwich (there is a fantastic suit of armour for horse and rider made for the King, now on display in the Tower of London). Then there are music festivals, events around the Tudor Barn and Eltham Palace, and lots of other things we can do.

I mentioned some of these in my speech to Council, and have discussed them with various local groups. But the one I'm most excited about only occured to me in the last few weeks. On the stained glass window in the Council Chamber in Woolwich (see below) King Henry is depicted in the centre, whilst on the left hand side is a ship. This is Henri Grace a Dieu ('Henry by the Grace of God'), soon popularly known as 'The Great Harry' after the King himself. Launched in Woolwich in 1514, she was then the largest warship to have been built for the English Navy, and the pride of the fleet.

'So what?' you may ask. Well, as I said to Council on Wednesday, it's simple:

Let's rebuild her.

From the reaction in the Chamber, few colleagues took me seriously, and who can blame them? The credit crunch is biting, inflation soaring, and violent crime rampant, and Cllr. Fletcher wants to build a Tudor warship. Why? Well, I'm not pretending it will solve the world's ills, but I think it could certainly make a positive contribution to the life of our Borough. As I've thought about it more seriously, it seems to me it could be a perfect project to tie together the various elements of our history: Not just our rich Royal heritage and strong maritime tradition, but also the history of the people of the borough, whose families served on ships, in the armed forces and in the industries that grew up around those activities. The Royal Dockyard at Woolwich was founded to enable the building of The Great Harry, so 500 years on it would be a fitting way to mark the regeneration of the area today.

Businesses and other private donors could help raise the finance needed to build the ship, whilst trade apprentices could benefit from helping with the design and building. It could showcase local arts and crafts, and schoolchildren could be involved in projects and learn about it during the whole process. Then when it's finished, it can be used as a sail training vessel, helping disadvantaged young people and others to learn new skills and work together in a team - there are many charities which do amazing work turning round young lives with such activities.

And beyond all that, we would have a great asset we could take pride in and celebrate, in time for the anniversary of the launch of the original ship in 2014. When it is not sailing, income from tourists and corporate functions would be able to support its charitable work, and it would be great to have a fully sailing flagship for Woolwich to complement the much-loved Cutty Sark at Greenwich, and add to our heritage offer by bringing alive the Tudor period.

So there it is - a flight of fancy or a worthwhile project? I'm sure people will differ in their view, but I am determined to explore the idea.

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