The Old Royal Naval College

The Old Royal Naval College

King Charles Block and Queen Anne Block, Old Royal Naval College, from the Queen's House (click to enlarge image).

The Palace of Placentia

There have been various important uses of the land on which the Old Royal Naval College stands.

The manor of Greenwich passed to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Regent of England, in 1427. He started building a palace near the river, to be named Bella Court, and enclosed the rectangular area of land which now comprises the Old Royal Naval College, the National Maritime Museum, and Greenwich Park. When he died in 1447 the manor reverted to the Crown, and Bella Court became the residence of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI. It was renamed the Palace of Placentia, and was to become the principal Royal palace for the next two centuries.The palace was extensively rebuilt during the period, especially during the reign of Henry VII.

Henry VIII was born at the palace in 1491, and during his marriages to Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn he spent most of his time there. A great enthusiast of the Navy, he set up two naval dockyards nearby, at Deptford and Woolwich. Elizabeth I was born to Anne Boleyn at Placentia in 1533, and she spent most of her summers there. A tree in Greenwich Park is known as Queen Elizabeth's Oak, where she was reputed to play as a girl. The tree died in the nineteenth century, but was kept upright by a strong growth of ivy until a severe storm a few years ago blew it down.

During the reigns of James I and Charles I The Queen's House was erected, as part of the palace, but some distance away. Placentia fell into disrepair during the Commonwealth, and in 1660 Charles II decided to rebuild it in the new classical style. John Webb, who also enlarged the Queens House, was engaged as architect, but the only section of the new palace to be finished was the east range of the present King Charles Block. The rest of the old palace was demolished, although the remains of part of the cellars can be seen under Queen Anne Block, known as 'The Undercroft'.

The Royal Naval Hospital

William III did not want to live at Greenwich, preferring Kensington, and eventually his Queen, Mary, decided to build a naval almshouse, the Royal Naval Hospital, on the site of the old palace, incorporating the King Charles Block. Sir Christopher Wren was engaged as surveyor, assisted by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Wren, probably realising that he would not live to see the work to completion, insisted that the footings for all four blocks be laid first, so that later trustees or architects could not change his design substantially. Later a number of other leading architects were also involved, such as Campbell, Ripley and James. The main work took place between 1696 and 1712, although the construction was not finished completely until 1752.

The buildings comprise four separate blocks, each with its central courtyard. Along the riverside are King Charles Block and Queen Anne Block, and behind them to the south are King William Block and Queen Mary Block.The latter two are the domed buildings which contain the two main points of interest for the visitor, the Painted Hall and the Chapel.

The Painted Hall is a masterpiece of decoration. The artist was Sir James Thornhill, and it took him nineteen years to complete the work, finishing in 1727. He was paid three pounds a square yard for the ceiling and one pound a square yard for the walls. The Hall was designed as a dining room for the pensioners, but proved to small for the population. It was not used for this purpose again until 1939, when the Navy used it as their Mess until 1998. In 1806 the body of Nelson lay in state in the Painted Hall until he was taken upriver by funeral barge for burial at St Pauls Cathedral.

The interior of the Chapel, situated in the Queen Mary Block, was destroyed by fire in 1779 and was redesigned by James 'Athenian' Stuart in a completely different style, using intricate patterns of plaster mouldings on pale Wedgewood coloured backgrounds. Services recommenced in 1789 and continue to the present day.

In 1705 the first disabled or retired seamen came to live in the hospital, the numbers rising to about three thousand by 1814, after which they declined sharply, mainly because of the end of the Napoleonic wars. Despite the magnificence of the buildings in which they were housed, there were many complaints about poor food and pettiness on the part of the trustees. For even minor offences the old pensioners were forced to wear their uniform coats inside out; the yellow lining making them very noticeable and causing unnecessary humiliation to the proud old sea-dogs. By 1869 the numbers had fallen so low that it was decided to close the hospital.

The Royal Naval College

The Admiralty took over the buildings and the Royal Naval College was transferred from Portsmouth in 1873. For a while some ward spaces were used as museum rooms of the Naval College, though subsequently all the ward spaces were sub-divided in one way or another for use as lecture theatres, classrooms and offices, together with some residential accommodation. The contents of the museum rooms were moved to the National Maritime Museum on its opening in 1937.

A few years ago it was decided that the staff colleges of the Navy, Army, and Air Force should be merged into one, and this, of course, meant that the Greenwich buildings would be no longer required by the Navy. After some discussion, it was announced in 1996 that the buildings would be let, and the government set up trustees to look after the buildings and liaise with the new tenants. A charitable trust, The Greenwich Foundation for the Royal Naval College, was set up, and responsibility for the site passed to them when the Royal Navy moved out in December 1998.

Click on the thumbnails below for larger pictures
The Painted Hall
The College from the River
The Chapel
The Painted HallThe College from the RiverThe Chapel
The Painted Hall
- detail showing Thornhill
(to the right)
The chapel organ loft
The Chapel altar
Thornhill with his hand out for money The Chapel organ The chapel altar

This site and all contents Copyright © 2000 - 2012 Alan Palmer, apart from Greenwich Day by Day, which is Copyright © 2005 - 2008 David Male.