Friday, 24 February 2012

Battlefield regicide

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“A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
Alarum. Enter KING RICHARD III and RICHMOND; they fight. KING RICHARD III is slain.”

Richard III, William Shakespeare

Richard III was slain during the battle of Bosworth Field. He became the last king of England to be killed in battle but was not the only one to suffer this brutal fate. King Harold was slain whilst opposing the Norman invaders and a clutch of earlier Saxon and Alpin kings would die in English and Scottish battles respectively
Scottish kings were even more prone to battlefield deaths – two kings from the House of Stuart would be killed within 61 years of Richard III’s death. James III died fighting an army led by his son in the Battle of Sauchieburn. His son would become James IV, and would suffer the same fate as his father but this time at the hands of the English in the battle of Flodden Field.

Richard III was also not the last English king to go into battle. A number of subsequent monarchs commanded their troops personally, a royal tradition that ended with George II’s command at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743.
The battle of Bosworth Field was a particularly bloody, brutal and confused affair. Although historians are sure that Richard III died on the battlefield, nothing else about his death is certain. Thomas Penn writes in the Winter King that Richard received so many blows to the head that his helmet was lodged in his skull.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Stalling for surrender at Stalinburg

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On 30 January 1943 Friedrich Paulus was promoted to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall. On the very next day, this freshly minted field marshal did something no German field marshal had ever done before: he surrendered.
Just one year earlier things were very different for the Germans. In January 1942, Paulus was promoted to the rank of general and commander of the German Sixth Army. In this role he led the attack on Stalingrad, his mechanised forces surging down the River Don valley towards the River Volga.

By August, the Germans had reached the city. They had no way of knowing that their advance would mark the furthest extent of German control. From this point, the Soviet steamroller would steadily, mercilessly and irresistibly roll back German conquests.

Stalingrad was one of the most brutal battles in a war of staggering brutality. The ruined city proved a formidable theatre for vicious street fighting. Battles lasting days and weeks were fought for each block and the close quarters rewarded the defenders and their improvised weapons.
By the time the Russian winter fell, the German position was hopeless. The Soviets had executed a brilliant pincer manoeuvre to completely surround the German Sixth Army. Soviet air power had increased and improved, preventing the Luftwaffe from successfully supplying the beleaguered land forces from the air.
By January 1943, the soldiers were slowly starving. Thousands of miles away, German Army headquarters were trying to prevent the army from surrendering. Adolf Hitler sent Paulus a telegram on 22 January rejecting Paulus’s request to be able to surrender and making clear that the army’s orders were to fight “to the last soldier and the last bullet”.
Paulus’s promotion on 30 January was a clear message from Hitler and army headquarters – fight to the death or retain honour by suicide – surrender to the Bolsheviks was not acceptable. Paulus ignored the pressure from the ‘Bavarian corporal’ and surrendered the next day.

Are Zurich? If not, live somewhere else

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New York may be the unofficial capital of the world, but it doesn’t have the highest living costs to match. In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Worldwide Cost of Living Survey New York is only the 47th most expensive place to live out of 131 cities.
This year’s priciest place is Zurich, largely thanks to the rising strength of the Swiss Franc. The Swiss financial centre displaces Tokyo as the world’s most expensive city.

There have been some other big changes over the past decade. Sydney has ridden the highs of Australia’s mineral boom and proximity to Asian markets to become the world’s seventh most expensive city. In 2001 it was only in 71st place.
It might surprise hard pressed Londoners to discover that their city is only the 17thmost expensive this year, with Paris, Frankfurt and Oslo all pricier places to live.

Fixing the shape of the Stars and Stripes

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The flag of the United States of America is so instantly recognisable and ubiquitous that it is hard to believe its design was only formalised in 1912. On the 24th June 1912, President Taft signed Executive Order 1556 stipulating the correct proportions of the flag and specifying the proper arrangement and orientation of the stars.
Until then, the basic design was well known – there were always thirteen horizontal stripes alternating in red and white and a blue canton featuring as many white, five-pointed stars as there were states. But within these parameters there remained a great deal of flexibility in how Old Glory was designed, a flexibility that was used to political effect both during and after the American Civil War.

In the north, anger at the southern cessationists manifested itself in flags with a ‘southern-exclusionary star count’. At a strike, the 14 rebellious states are removed from the banner, suggesting that their actions had forever removed them from the bounds of union and amity with the others.
At the other side of the country, southern pride and defiance was marked in flags that buried the Confederate Flag’s diagonal cross of stars amidst the other stars in the blue canton.
These, and other flag designs, were highlighted in Andrew Graham-Dixon’s excellentArt of America, repeats of which can be seen on BBC Four.

The magnetic Mr Dickens

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Earlier this week I highlighted Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Charles Dickens. I have been pleasantly surprised by the numerous revelations of surprising idiosyncrasies and quirks that make him a particularly fascinating subject.

One of the most surprising facts is that Dickens was a passionate believer in mesmerism (sometimes referred to as magnetism). He even went so far as to practice this unconventional form of medical treatment with his wife as a frequent patient.
In the nineteenth century, mesmerism, magnetism or animal magnetism (as the practice was variously known) was controversial, influential and excited the popular imagination. The basis of mesmerism was found in the work of Anton Mesmer. Mesmer held European audiences enthralled (or, perhaps more appropriately, mesmerised) by his theories that embraced physics, metaphysics, spirituality and the healing power of the mind.

The core of his philosophy was that the cosmos was permeated by an invisible magnetic fluid. This fluid greatly influenced all life, including humans, and could be encouraged and strengthened by the use of magnets. He also believed that the mind could be healed whilst in a state of trance.
By the time Dickens came into contact with mesmerism its use in medicine was well established. Dickens was strongly influenced by John Elliotson, an eminent and controversial doctor who had been shunned by the mainstream profession because of his strong beliefs in the power of mesmerism.

Dickens went on to absorb Elliotson’s teachings and go so far as to practice them. His sister-in-law and wife were successfully induced into a trance but Dickens was less successful on his dour Scottish friend Charles Macready. His most intensive treatment was reserved for Augusta de la Rue, treated by Dickens during his family’s extended visit to Italy in 1844.
All of this may not be as mad as it first appears. Although some of mesmerismsclaims are now completely discredited, the idea of healing the mind via trance-like states is the basis of hypnotism. Hypnotism is an accepted weapon in a wider arsenal had has been successfully deployed in the treatment of stubborn mental health issues

Like maggots in nuts – Dickens in the Inn

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In a year that is crowded with major anniversaries and major events, the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’s birth looms large. The BBC has been awash with documentaries, adaptations and readings and exhibitions on the great man are being staged across London, Portsmouth and Rochester.
My own ‘tribute’ has been to read Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. It is a cracking biography, and provides a fascinating insight into the man as well as the writer. One fact that arrested my attention was the revelation that Dickens seriously considered becoming a lawyer and went so far as to become a member of the Middle Temple.
Dickens’s fiction reveals his familiarity, fascination and pointed disdain for the law and his books are packed with assorted legal flotsam. Lawyers are portrayed at best ambivalently (as with Mr Jaggers in Great Expectations), as lazy (Mr Lightwood in Our Mutual Friend), scheming and manipulative (Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House) or as downright crooks (Mr Brass in the Old Curiosity Shop).
At the start of his career, Dickens worked as a solicitor’s clerk - first in the offices of Ellis and Blackmore and then for a brief spell at the law firm of Charles Molley. He gained further experience of (and a distinct distaste for) the legal profession from his early career in journalism as a court reporter working in Doctors’ Commons (the distinctly musty and archaic courts of the civil law branch of the English legal system).

But what is more surprising is that Dickens was already a published and successful author by the time he took the decision to enter Middle Temple. He was admitted to the Inn in 1839, by which time ‘Sketches by Boz’, ‘Pickwick Papers’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ had all been released. He only finally relinquished his membership in 1855. Why did the superstar writer consider entering a profession he had already so mockingly lampooned?
Biographer Michael Slater suggests it was to provide a security blanket in case his celebrity and riches were fleeting:

Aware as he was of the vagaries of literary fame, and haunted as he was by the spectre of Scott writing himself out in order to pay off his debts, Dickens was determined to contrive a safety net for himself.”

Dickens would probably have made a fine advocate, but I think I prefer him on the outside and writing distinctly unflattering portrayals of the profession. Of all the many great quotes on the legal system and lawyers in Dickens, I’ll provide just a couple of my favourites:

The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Garden, into Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now; and in these shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts.”

If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.”

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Getting by on Bondi Beach

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I was at a talk this morning on Australian labour practices. As my day job involves employment law, this was not as random as might seem. The speaker was rattling through some of the key differences between UK and Australian employment law and noted that the minimum wage in Australia was AU$15.51 per hour. In the UK the national minimum wage rate currently stands at £6.08 per hour.
This disparity helped me to understand why buying a small round of four beers in Perth last year had not given much change from a twenty dollar bill. At the very least, it helped explain how Aussies could afford to live in what seemed like an eye-wateringly expensive country.

I’ve been to some other painfully pricey places – Tromsø in the Norwegian Arctic, Iceland (before the crash) and Dublin (both before and after the crash) – but Australia was in a different league. It could make a grown man cry as his wallet dissolved into a pile of worthless shrapnel. The only way to cope was to shrug, suspend reality and credit limits and not think about the credit card bill.
All of this got me wondering how minimum wage levels compared around the world. On a simple back of fag packet calculation, Australia seemed to be the highest. But this did not take into account purchasing power parity (PPP).

Factoring in PPP lets you compare currencies and minimum wages by basing it on the equivalent purchasing power of a dollar (actually an ‘international dollar’, but I’ll leave that level of complexity to the economists).

After crunching the numbers through the IMF’s comparison table, it seems that Australia still tops the charts, but only by a couple of cents. A raft of European countries have relatively high minimum wage rates.
Minimum wage by country (per hour in 2012 US$)

Australia – $10.07 (AU$15.51)
Brazil $2.84 (R$4.78 reais)
Canada (Ontario) – $8.29 (CA$10.25)
China (Shanghai) – $1.99 (¥7.877)
France – $8.58 (€9.22)
Hungary – $3.85 (Ft93,000)
Luxemburg – $10.06 (€10.68)
Russia – $1.08 (руб27.24)
Spain – $5.90 (€4.55)
UK – $8.92 (£6.08)
USA – $7.25 (US$7.25)

Note: if a weekly or monthly minimum wage is prescribed, a per hour rate has been calculated based on a 39-hour week.

Digging the freeminers

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During the industrial revolution landowners throughout Britain became rich on the proceeds of mineral deposits found deep beneath their estates. Coal was the ‘black diamond’, yielding a carbon-crusted fortune to families such as the Fitzwilliams of Wentworth or the Pembertons of Trumpington Hall.

The primacy of the land-owning families was nearly universal. The only major exception to aristocratic domination was found in the thoroughly egalitarian freeminers of the Forest of Dean.
Any male born within the Hundred of St Briavels (roughly the area of the Forest of Dean and some of its surrounding parishes), who is over 21 years old and who has worked for a year and a day in a coal or iron mine within the Hundred is considered a Freeminer. This was an ancient privilege given legislative certainty in the Dean Forest (Mines) Act 1838.

Freeminers are entitled to mine personal plots called ‘gales’, with a register of their entitlements kept by the Deputy Gaveller, a Crown officer responsible for administering free mining customs.

Why were Freeminers given such valuable rights in perpetuity? Legend recalls that the area’s miners were instrumental in constructing the earthworks and tunnels needed to capture the key town of Berwick-upon-Tweed under Edward I (see my earlier post on this vital border position) and were rewarded by a grateful king.
Other stories suggest it was their services in the Hundred Years’ War that resulted in Henry V granting the privileges. Or was did this later service merely result in the king reconfirming existing privileges?

The historical truth has been lost, along with the original deeds and charters. What remains is a patchwork of stories, copied texts and legend stitched together in statute. Michael Portillo visited one of the last surviving mines in the latest series of BBC 2′sGreat British Railway Journeys (Oxford to Milford Haven).
According to the Forest of Dean’s Iron Mining Museum, there are approximately 150 Free Miners living today and only a handful of small collieries still operate. In addition, an iron mine (Clearwell Caves) and five small stone quarries still operate within the Hundred of St Briavels.

Revenge in the rose garden

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The American Civil War is one of history’s most horrifying and bloodiest conflicts of all time. This mid-nineteenth century spasm of fratricidal butchery ranks as the most savage war to have ever blighted the American continent. The anger and obstinacy of a civil war found a distinctly uncivil outlet in mechanised, industrial fighting.
Although the fighting was particularly fierce and bitter, the post-conflict peace held. Reconciliation, rehabilitation and magnanimity were, for the most part, the order of the day. This applied equally to pardoned soliders, vanquished commanders and defeated Confederate politicians as the United States tried to heal its deep and rancorous wounds.

President Jefferson Davis was charged with treason and imprisoned, but released after two years. Vice-President Stephens was only imprisoned for five months and would later serve in Washington D.C. as a Congressman.
This forgiving approach was not, however, universally popular or always applied. One piece of personal revenge, individually targeted and vindictive, was the seizure of the wife of General Robert E. Lee’s Virginian property, the Custis-Lee Estate.
During the war, the Quartermaster of the Union, General Montgomery C. Meigs, was charged with finding a solution to overcrowded federal burial sites. General Meigs was a southerner who had served under General Lee. He firmly believed Lee had committed treason and held him personally responsible for much of the national calamity.

He therefore ordered that the Custis-Lee Estate in Arlington be seized for use as a burial ground. Demonstrating his personal animosity he ordered thousands of burialson the site of Mrs Lee’s prized rose garden. His intention was to render the estate uninhabitable should peace ever see the return of the Lees to Arlington.
In the BBC’s The American Future: A History, Simon Schama notes that Meigs’s righteous vengeance increased when his own son was killed. First Lieutenant John Rodgers Meigs was also buried in what would become Arlington National Cemetery with his tomb a deeply personal memorial and manifestation of his father’s grief.

Back and forth in Berwick

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Berwick is a small town on the Northumbrian coast occupying the northern shore of the River Tweed. Today it lies 2.5 miles south of the Scottish border and is a peaceful tourist town and local administrative and service centre.
This peaceful existence belies its turbulent past as the epicentre of Anglo-Scottish struggles. Wars, sieges, conquest and raids were Berwick’s lot for centuries. It is estimated that the town changed hands 13 times up to 1482 when it finally reverted to English control.

And, whilst it might have been under English control, it was not technically a part of England until the Reform Act of 1885 specified its inclusion. Until then, it was either mentioned specifically in legislation (as Great Britain, Ireland and Berwick Upon Tweed) or deemed to be included in England under the Wales and Berwick Act 1746.

A wonderful apocryphal story emerged that, as a result of these constitutional quirks, Berwick is still at war with Russia. The story suggests that Britain went to war in the name of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions. The Treaty of Paris in 1856 ended the war, but made no mention of Berwick. This officially resulted in Berwick (population 11,000) being pitted against the Russian Empire and subsequently the USSR.

Unfortunately, and like so many of the best historical ‘facts’, this is not true. It was so famous a story that it was investigated by the BBC’s Nationwide programme, and they found that Berwick was not mentioned on either the declaration of war or the peace treaty, and that the Wales and Berwick Act 1746 ensured any reference to England included Berwick.

Why is there a ‘b’ in subtle?

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Why is there a ‘b’ in subtle? And, for that matter, why is there a ‘b’ in debtdoubt orplumber? The letter ‘b’ is not the only seemingly redundant silent letter in English – why is there a ‘p’ in receipt, a ‘c’ in indict or a ‘s’ in isle or aisle.
A sensible guess might suggest that the pronunciation has shifted over the years, leaving the silent letter exposed like a rocky outcrop revealed by a receding tide. Or perhaps it reflects the etymological origins of the word and was retained regardless of its later redundancy.

Few would guess that the redundant and silent letters were later additions, or that their insertion was as a result of intellectual snobbery on the part of middle age and Renaissance scholars.

All of the words listed above entered English from Old French. I will use the example of debt, but the derivation for the others is set out at the end of the post. Debt comes to English from the Old French dette or dete. In both Old French and Middle English, the word had no letter ‘b’ and is completely absent from the pronunciation in both languages.

So where did it come from? Scholars from the middle ages and into the Renaissance started to fully immerse themselves in classical texts and languages. They worked out the ultimate Latin roots of many words, and wanted the Latin original to be made obvious in their ‘modern’ spellings.

Thus the Latin debitum (think of debit) gave its ‘b’ to debt. This happened in both English and French, but Modern French purged itself of redundant letters. The English language, lacking so effective an exfoliant as the Académie française, never lost these letters. As a result they remain, petrified remnants demonstrating the strange and twisting history of language development.
All word references from the Oxford English Dictionary, third edition (September 2006); online version (December 2011).

As a postscript to the above, plumber arrives from the Latin root plumbum, meaning lead. A plumbārius in classical Latin is a worker in lead, and Roman pipes were invariably fashioned from lead. Nowadays, regardless of whether the pipes are lead, iron, copper or plastic, they are all attended to by plumbers.

Run for your life

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You are being chased through a thick pursued by horrific creatures – half man and half goat. Your heart is racing as you run, stumbling over roots and bushes, thorns ripping at your clothes and branches whipping at your face and hands.

Behind you, the forest echoes with the blood curdling yelps and cries of the pursuing host. They are faster than you, more nimble in the forest, darting through the trees until they surround you. You fall, collapsing in blind panic as the unearthly beings close in.

And so, in slightly roundabout way, we get to the etymological origin for the word ‘panic’. In modern English, panic has come to mean a feeling of sudden terror, a wild and unreasoning state of fear. The ancient Greeks had a far more specific meaning for the word – it started life as a description of the terror induced by the god Pan.
The god Pan was the Greek god of wild places, nature, deep and dense forests, inaccessible mountain passes and valleys. He was thought to frequent wild hilltops, deserted caves and remote, lonely places. The terror inducing sounds and echoes that fired already nervous minds and the fears experienced in such places came to be attributed directly to the patron god.

Over time, Pan was forgotten along with the rest of the ancient pantheon. Although he was replaced with new gods, his terrifying legacy would live on in the word panic.

This is one of the many splendid nuggets I came across reading the rather wonderfulEtymologicon, by Mark Forsyth (of the Inky Fool blog).

Keeping count of the Karls

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I am making my unintentional continuation of the royal theme on this blog a tribute to the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne. A less regally-focused service will resume tomorrow!

Call them traditional or unimaginative, but royal dynasties enjoy using their favourite names – think of all the French kings called Louis (18), Edwards in England (8) and Alfonsos in Spain (13).

This would cause terrible confusion for historians if it wasn’t for the system of ordinal(or regnal) numbers. These are the numbers that are placed after a monarch’s regnal name at a stroke distinguishing them from their identically named predecessors and descendants.

The system should be straightforward and self explanatory – for example George V was the fifth King of England called George. So Karl IX of Sweden, son of King Gustav I, was the ninth King of Sweden called Karl, right? And his brother, Eric XIV, was obviously the 14th King of Sweden called Eric.

Unfortunately not. Both monarchs were influenced by Johannes Magnus’s ‘Historia de omnibus gothorum sueonumque regibus’ (History of all Kings of Goths and Swedes). Johannes catalogued the Swedish monarchy from the dawn of time but drew heavily on his own fertile imagination to fashion ‘facts’ from the murky and undocumented past.
In setting down his categorical collection of rulers, he invented at least six Erics and six Karls. His work was so influential that King Gustav’s sons both styled themselves with ordinal numbers far higher than the real number of predecessors sharing their regnal name.

As a result Karl IX was probably the fourth Karl to occupy the throne of Sweden, whilst only eight or so Erics preceded Eric XIV’s reign.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

What is royal about Royal Greenwich

In my previous post I talked about the London Borough of Greenwich being elevated in status to a Royal Borough – an exclusive club with only three other members. The honour has been bestowed as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. But is it a fitting accolade? What is royal about Royal Greenwich?

There is plenty of royal history in the borough with connections that stretch back centuries. The earliest records note that Edward I made offerings at the chapel of the Virgin Mary in Greenwich in the thirteenth century. His son, Edward II, was givenEltham Palace by Bishop Bek of Durham for use as a royal residence.
Eltham continued in royal use for 300 years until falling into ruins as royal favour shifted decidedly northwards to Greenwich. From the sixteenth century onwards, royal presence in the borough focused exclusively on Greenwich.

Its royal manor was in existence by the time of Henry IV who wrote his will from there in 1408. Henry V granted the manor to his half brother, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, who built Greenwich Palace. Subsequent occupants renamed it Placentia, the pleasant place, and it became a royal favourite for the next two centuries.
Placentia was the birthplace of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I and was much in use throughout the Tudor era. Easy access to the river combined with a pleasant aspect, decent hunting and a sufficient distance from the heaving masses in London made it a perfect spot.

After Elizabeth I, Greenwich lost its pre-eminent position amongst London’s royal residences. The Queen’s House was built for James I’s wife, Anne of Denmark, but it didn’t receive much use before the English Civil War swept away any vestige of court life in Greenwich.
From the seventeenth century onwards, royal attention focused on Greenwich’s relationship with the sea. Royal dockyards sprung up along the Thames (the Royal Dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich), building and servicing many of the Royal Navy’s ships of the line.

The crowning glory of Greenwich’s maritime links was the Royal Naval College. This hospital, the maritime equivalent of the army’s Chelsea Hospital, was proposed by James II, established by Mary II and supported to completion by William III, Queen Anne, George I and George II.  Subsequent monarchs donated paintings, money and patronage.
Whilst Greenwich is intimately connected to the sea, its eastern neighbour Woolwich is historically bound to our land forces. Woolwich is home to the Royal Artillery Barracks, and hosted the Royal Artillery regiments for over 200 years from the start of the nineteenth century.

It was also home to the Royal Arsenal, with a history of armaments production and storage stretching back to 1671. The Royal Laboratory focused research into gunpowder and metallurgy whilst the Royal Brass Foundry produced high quality guns.
The final component of this considerably focused military complex was the Royal Military Academy. The Academy, founded in 1741, aimed to produce good officers for the Royal Artillery and perfect engineers.

That takes care of royal connections to the sea and land, but there are even royal links to the sky. The Royal Observatory is literally a crowning glory, sitting on top of Greenwich Hill and looking over the spectacular vista of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and views across Docklands and London.
Whilst Greenwich’s role as a royal residence had ended, it still received more royal attention than most places. George I landed at Greenwich from Hanover on his accession in 1714 and the Duke of Edinburgh was made Baron Greenwich on his marriage to the Queen.

In addition to the palaces and institutions Greenwich has the following ‘royal’ streets:

Royal Place, SE10, Royal Hill, SE10, The Jubilee, SE10, Queen Anne’s Gate, SE10, Queen Elizabeth’s College, SE10, Queen Mary’s Court, SE10, King George Street, SE10, King John’s Walk, SE9, King William Lane, SE10

It also has a plethora of royal pubs:
Greenwich: The Crown, King’s Arms, the Prince Albert, the Royal Standard, the Royal George, the Rose and Crown, Richard I, the Star and Garter, Victoria
Eltham: The Crown, the Royal Tavern
Woolwich: Queens Arms, Prince Albert
Blackheath: The Crown, the Royal Standard

And finally a batch of random institutions:
Crown Woods school, Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich, Queen Elizabeth’s College in Greenwich (a set of alms houses, rather than a place of learning) and the Queen Elizabeth II Pier on the River Thames.