On this date, 500 years ago, King Henry VIII threw a huge party in Woolwich for the launch of the largest ship in his Navy, Henry Grace a Dieu ('Henry, by the Grace of God'). The vessel, quickly and popularly better known as 'The Great Harry', was the pride of his fleet - at 1,500 tuns the biggest the Royal Navy would see for over 250 years afterwards. In a few weeks' time, our present Queen will also launch a namesake vessel, as the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier - again, the largest the Navy has ever seen - has its naming ceremony. The parallels are striking.
The launch of The Great Harry, on Tuesday 13th June 1514, was certainly an impressive occasion. The Royal Dockyard at Woolwich had been established for the ship's construction, so it was a hugely significant local occasion, putting the growing town at the centre of national events and world diplomacy. The Royal family, nobles, bishops, Papal representatives and foreign dignitaries all attended.
The historian Geoffrey Moorhouse cites one distinguished overseas guest at the ceremony who recorded the ship was 'dedicated with great triumph' and that he was 'most honourably received, and conducted by the King through the ship, which has no equal in bulk, and has an incredible array of guns.' It was certainly designed to impress - sails made of gold cloth, long streamers flying from all masts, and eighteen colourful silk-edged banners with a variety of emblems to add further decoration. As the event ended, there was a final flourish for the guests: 'On the ambassadors leaving the ship, a salute was fired from all the guns.'
That display of naval firepower - a real reminder of the nation's growing maritime supremacy - also pointed to a future chapter in the growth of Woolwich, as the home of armaments manufacturing at the Royal Arsenal, and the significant military presence that continues to this day.
So Woolwich owes a great deal to that ship, and what it represented. Sadly, in Woolwich today there has been no big event or celebration to mark the occasion. Instead, I just went for a pleasant walk along the river-front before heading for lunch at The Great Harry pub (where else?). Six years ago I highlighted the forthcoming anniversary in a speech to Council about our local heritage, hoping that something could be done to mark it. Amongst the ideas I proposed was an ambitious plan to build a replica of the great vessel (which I blogged about at the time). I got a little press coverage for the idea, but nothing really came of it. But it has continued to drift into my mind every so often.
Building even a scaled-down replica would, I soon realised, be a gigantic task, and prohibitively expensive. But developments since I floated the idea in 2008 have led me to think there is another variant on the proposal that could make a lot of sense. Later this year, Royal Greenwich will host the Tall Ships Regatta, building on the 'Sail Royal Greenwich' events that have taken place for the last couple of years. It is now an explicit aim of the Council to position Woolwich as an international destination for tall ships and associated events.
At the same time, plans are being made to develop the historic buildings of the Woolwich Arsenal into a cultural and heritage quarter. With the planned departure of Firepower (my views on which are well known), there is a need to maintain a significant heritage element on the site, commemorating its military and industrial links. I have long thought that such an offer should also highlight more strongly the shipbuilding origins of the town, forming a conscious link with the global recognition given to maritime Greenwich just up the river.
By now, you may already have seen where this is heading. I think there is a good case for procuring a modern tall ship, named the Great Harry II, which could be based alongside the Woolwich heritage quarter as visible sign of that maritime heritage. It would be a working vessel, able to be hired for corporate events, but more importantly as a sail-training ship which could be used by the many excellent charities that offer such opportunities to young and disadvantaged people. Many such organisations would find it a burden to maintain a large vessel on their own, but could find a partnership arrangement much more manageable.
On top of all this, a 'Flagship for Woolwich' would offer an additional draw for tourists when it wasn't out on the high seas - establishing and drawing attention all year round to Woolwich's status as London's home for tall ships, and bringing in visitors (perhaps literally). I certainly think a business case can be made for the project, and today's anniversary has made me more determined to return seriously to the idea.