Before the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and the arrival of the Tudors, St Alfege was a well-established medieval church. Remains of that building can be still be seen in the tower, which was not demolished but hidden by rebuilding in the 18th century, and in the crypt, where the Kentish ragstone foundations were not completely removed. Further down the river there was a medieval palace, built in 1443 by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, brother of Henry V and uncle of Henry VI. When he fell out of favour in 1447, Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, took over the palace and changed its name from Bella Court to the Palace of Placentia.
The baptism of Henry VIII
After his victory over the Yorkists, Henry VII moved into Greenwich Palace, where, in June 1491, Henry VIII was born. It is very likely that he was baptized at St Alfege Church, a scene depicted in one of the stained glass windows. However, the only primary source on the subject mentions a different location. Giving evidence at the divorce proceedings of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, Richard Fox, Bishop of Exeter, said he baptized Henry in the Church of the Observant Friars at Greenwich.
The friary church was located next to Greenwich Palace. The problem is that it appears not to have been finished until after Henry VIII’s baptism. Fox was 79 when he gave evidence on Henry’s divorce and may have named the friary church because, once it was built, it would have been the obvious place for such an occasion. Two 18th century works, The Environs of London by Daniel Lyssons (1796) and A Genealogical History of the Kings and Queens of England (1707) by Sandford and Stebbing, locate the baptism at St Alfege Church.
The marriage of Henry’s sister, Mary Tudor, to Charles Brandon, Earl of Suffolk, in 1515, is the subject of another stained glass window at St Alfege Church. This is more likely to have happened at Greenwich Palace than in the church.
Very little is known about the life of Thomas Tallis. The year of his birth is suggested as 1505, and he was a chorister at Waltham Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral before joining the Chapel Royal in 1543 or 1544. The Chapel Royal comprised a number of different chapels. One was the royal chapel at Greenwich Palace, uncovered by archaeologists in 2006. A better preserved example is the beautiful chapel at Hampton Court Palace.
Tallis stayed with the Chapel Royal until his death in 1585. He is believed to have played the organ at St Alfege Church, where his fingers may have played the well-worn keys of the ‘Tallis keyboard’. He is said to have lived near St Alfege in Stockwell Street and was buried in the church. The bones of Tallis and his wife, Joan, lie somewhere beneath the chancel. The death of the great musician is marked every year in the church by the singing of the moving lament by his pupil, William Byrd.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the place where Tallis was buried was marked by a brass plaque in the chancel “set up after the death of his wife, Joan, but before the death of Queen Elizabeth”. The text of a poem on the plaque was recorded in the early 18th century by clergyman and historian John Strype. It recalled that Tallis served in the chapel “with grete prayse” a total of “fower sovereygnes” – Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Elizabeth I – “a thing not often scene”.
In the right-hand corner of the church as you come in from the west door, between the Tallis keyboard and the stained glass window showing Tallis standing in front of an organ, there are two brass plaques on the wall. The bottom one has the full text of the poem in memory of Thomas Tallis. The top one, dated 1876 and in an elegant arts-and-crafts style, is a testimony to the Victorian revival of interest in the "father of English church music".