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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

The Maritime and Royal Greenwich

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

Canaletto, Greenwich Hospital from the North Bank of the Thames, c. 1752, the Quuen's house, Royal Museum Greenwich, © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Greenwich is a famous place for its Maritime history and for giving its name to the Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time.

The majestic and classic beauty of its buildings and its surroundings were inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997 for their importance and outstanding universal value.

Its history had a strong connection with the Royal Family from more than 600 years, giving the birth to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

Greenwich was always a strategic passage for everyone who wanted to enter in London, because it was in the Roman road from London to Dover, that followed the line of an earlier Celtic route from Canterbury to St Albans.

In the period of Henry V, Greenwich was only a fishing town, with a safe anchorage in the river.

During the reign of Ethelred the Unready, the Danish fleet anchored in the River Thames off Greenwich for over three years, with the army being encamped on the hill above.

The place-name "Greenwich" is first attested in an Anglo-Saxon charter of 918, that means "green wic", indicating that Greenwich was what is known as a -wich town or emporium, from the Latin 'vicus'.

In 1433 Henry VI granted the area of Greenwich to his uncle and his regent Humphrey Duke of Gloucester.

The Duke was so fascinated by the area that decided to build a house with various courts and gardens known as Bella Court, from the river to the foot of the hill and there he built a watchtower on which the Royal Observatory now stands. The duke fenced the heath and woodland surrounding the house creating the first royal park of London.

In 1447, Humphrey fell out of favour with Henry VI and was arrested for high treason and died in prison in not clear circumstances, though it was popularly believed that he was murdered as is depicted in William Shakespeare's plays about Henry VI.

At his death, Bella Court was occupied by Margaret of Anjou and renamed “Palace of Pleasaunce” or “Palace of Placentia”.

A five-year programme of alteration and enlargement followed under the direction of Robert Kettlewell, purveyor of works at nearby Eltham Palace. In 1482 Edward IV invited the Observant Friars to establish a house at Greenwich, the first to be built in England, on a site adjoining the palace.

The elevation of Placentia from manor to palace came under the Tudor King Henry VII who renamed it, Greenwich Palace.

Artist unknown, Old Greenwich Place oldest view(early 17th century), © National Trust Images

In 1500-5, under the direction of the master mason Robert Vertue, the old buildings were demolished and replaced by a much larger house, centred on an inner courtyard containing royal lodgings, with the river immediately to the north, the hall and chapel to the east and a gallery to the west leading to the House of the Observant Friars. A detached gatehouse marked the entrance to the site from the roadway to the south.

In the Palace on the 28th June 1491 was born the son of Henry VII of Lancaster and Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII Tudor.

Henry favoured Greenwich Palace over nearby Eltham Palace, the former principal royal palace, because here he can control his fleet in the new shipyards at Deptford and Woolwich where were moored two of his favourite warships Great Harry and Mary Rose. Henry VIII is known as ‘the father of the royal navy’ for investing heavily in fleets.

Henry VIII was a compulsive builder of royal palaces, he enlarged the Greenwich Palace by redesigning the chapel, remodelled the stables and added a tiltyard (a courtyard for jousting) with towers and a viewing gallery. Henry introduced as well the deers in the park for his passion for hunting.

An armoury complex, the first of its kind in England, was built in 1517. It was designed to accommodate the accomplished foreign armourers already working for Henry at Greenwich and manufactured suits of armour for both King and court using steel from a Lewisham mill.

Edward Walford, Old Palace in Greenwich 1630, Old and new London, vol. VI, Cassell, Petter & Galping, 1899, 174.

The palace was one of the principle royal palaces where foreign dignitaries and ambassadors arrived and departed. The tournaments in which Henry played a vigorous part were an attraction for dignitaries, as the banqueting, the performances of masques and dancing until dawn and a tennis court built in the area in 1534.

During the Christmas period of 1594 the Lord Chamberlain’s Men played at Greenwich Palace; the players included none other than William Shakespeare himself.

The scale and significance of the palace can be illustrated by the fact that it was one of only a

Peter Kent, Reconstruction of Greenwich Palace, 2002

handful of royal places nationally where was possible to accommodate the full court of approximately 600.

Many of the most important moment of Henry life happened in Greenwich: the daughters Mary and Elizabeth were born at Greenwich, here he married Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves, here his 15 years son Edward VI also died and where Anne Boleyn was imprisoned for high treason before to be sent to the London Tower for execution.

During one tournament at Greenwich in January 1536, King Henry was thrown from his horse.

He lay unconscious for two hours and never jousted again.

When Whitehall replaced it as the leading seat of Tudor government, Greenwich became a royal country retreat.

Greenwich Palace became one of the favourite summer residences of Elizabeth I who modified just the gardens including the installation of an elaborate fountain.

In 1585 from her rooms the Queen saw the passage of the Golden Hind returning from Drake’s circumnavigation of the world, in the same place she signed the death warrant of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth's Council planned the Spanish Armada campaign there in 1588.

On the accession of James I in 1603, Greenwich Palace was assigned to his consort, Anne of Denmark, in apology for losing his temper after she accidentally shot his favourite dog while haunting.

She made a number of modifications to the building: these included the construction of a new main sewer and the (still surviving) undercroft below the main hall used as wine cellar, storeroom and coal cellar.

Old Royal Naval College, the undercroft

Old Royal Naval College, the undercroft

The Queen extending her own lodgings terminating in a Classical stone loggia designed by Simon Basil and modified the gardens in Rococo style by the designer Salomon de Caus, who completed it with fountains, statuary and a grotto.

Anna of Denmark is famous in Greenwich for have commissioned to the architect Inigo Jones the construction of the first Palladian villa to be built in England, the Queen's House, on the site of the old outer gatehouse.

Inigo Jones, the Queen's House, 1616- 1638, Greenwich,© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

The house’s main purpose was as a retreat for the Queen and her immediate court and Inigo Jones took his inspiration from Villa Medicea at Poggio a Caiano by Giuliano da Sangallo.

Instead of Sangallo’s central salon, however, Jones designed the House as an H-block with a central bridge over the old Deptford to Woolwich Road, which then divided the palace gardens from the Park.

At the time it was regarded as a “curious device” (as an intriguing creation) but in 1660 the upper floor was altered to a more conventional, fully connected square layout with the addition of two further bridge rooms, creating the king’s side and the queen’s side apartments that partly obscure the original H-plan.

The works had stopped in 1618 but they continued with Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I.

The cubic galleried hall with the beautiful geometrical marble floor, the dramatic tulip Stairs, the mid-17th century plasterworks of the rooms and the view of the Park from the Loggia, give a flavour of the grandeur intended by the royal occupants.

The Queen's House, Tulip staircase, Greenwich, © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

The Queen’s house, wide angle view of the Great Hall Greenwich, © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Much of the decorative painting of Henrietta Maria remained incomplete and many artworks dispersed after the execution of Charles I in 1649.

Orazio Gentileschi and Artemisia Gentileschi, Allegory of Peace and Arts under the English Crown, 1635-38, Marlborough House, London

The original ceiling paintings in the Great Hall, forming the “Allegory of Peace and Arts under the English Crown” were by Orazio Gentileschi, probably helped by his daughter Artemisia, who oversaw their installation after his death. The canvases were removed to Marlborough House, now the Commonwealth’s headquarters for Sarah Churchill Duchess of Marlborough.

During the Civil War, Greenwich Palace was used as a biscuit’s factory and a prison camp.

When Charles II returned the Palace was in bad conditions and was demolished.

In 1661 Charles II commissioned to the architect John Webb to prepare a project for a new building but just one block was completed. Around 1666 the old palace gardens to the north of the Queen's House were remodelled with new parterres to a plan by the great French landscape designer André le Nôtre, but also these were not completed.

The fame of Charles II in Greenwich is connected to another building that gave fame to Greenwich, the Royal Observatory.

Christopher Wren, The Royal Observatory, Greenwich

Charles II studied physics, chemistry and the mathematics of navigation and he was fascinated by new concepts and discoveries, especially to find the solution of the problem of the longitude at sea for the importance of the trades, of the navigation and the prosperity of the country.

He appointed John Flamsteed as his first Astronomer Royal and ask for the construction of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich to Christopher Wren, the architect of the Saint Paul Cathedral but also Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in London.

The King was very short of funds, so to save money, second-hand building materials were used to build the Observatory. Brick and stone were brought along the River Thames from an old Tudor fort at Tilbury that was being repaired and the ruins of Humphrey’s Tower, later the Greenwich Castle, that was held by the Earl of Northampton as keeper of the Park.

The construction was in a strategic position inside the royal ground, on high ground, away from London’s smoke but accessible by river or road.

In spite of these limitations, Wren managed with the support of Robert Hooke created Flamsteed House that included on the lower floors the living quarters for the Royal Astronomer and theirs families and above he created the beautiful Octagon Room to place the long telescopes.

Later were added other buildings because unfortunately Flamsteed House that reused the foundation of the Greenwich Palace was not aligned for meridian observations.

The first idea of creating a Royal Naval Hospital was proposed by James II, Duke of York and Lord Admiral until 1673, who was often at Greenwich with his brother Charles II.

This was eventually established at Greenwich by his daughter Mary II, who in 1692–1693 commissioned Christopher Wren to design the Royal Hospital for Seamen with one specific clause to not obstacle the view of the Queen’s House to the river, hence the unusual arrangement of paired buildings each side of a central vista.

The Royal Hospital at Greenwich, from Sutton Nicholls's 'Prospects of the Most Considerable Buildings about London' of 1725,© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

The idea of Maria was a fix intention of Magnificence not only in welcoming the disable men who served their country but also it had to show to the visitors entering through the Thames the symbols of state power, wealth and benevolence.

Given Britain’s role as a leading maritime power, building her Royal Naval Hospital on the river highway connecting London with the world was as much a political than a philanthropic act.

The work was commissioned to Wren assisted by Nicholas Hawksmoor and his assistant John James.

Old Royal Naval College, portico

Old Royal Naval College, view of the twin domes

Christopher Wren laid out the main lines of the Hospital, the courts were designed by Wren and Hawksmoor with the exception of the last, the Queen Mary Court, creating a symmetric, uniform and monumental Baroque style with beautiful porticos.

Also this project was bedevilled by financial difficulties, with construction spread across four main phases ended with the construction of Queen Mary’s Court designed by Thomas Riplay.

Another Royal Magnificence is the Painted Hall, the finest example of baroque decorative paintings by an English artist James Thornhill concluded in the span of twenty years.

James Thornhill, The Painted Hall, 1708-25, Old Royal Naval College

The ceiling celebrates the triumph of Protestant monarchy with the Queen Mary II and her husband William III of Orange attended by the Virtues, Concord and Peace, present the cap of liberty to Europe above the crouching figure of tyranny, in the form of Louis XIV of France.

The two halls are separated by an arch with the Royal Arms and gilded signs of the zodiac, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, are depicted Queen Anne with her husband the Prince George of Denmark to mark the end of the Stuart lineage, as they didn’t have heirs.

In the final wall is depicted the Royal Family arrived from Hannover with George I and his rich descendants with figures of the Naval Victory, Peace and Abundance.

James Thornhill, The Painted Hall, 1708-25, George I and his rich descendants with figures of the Naval Victory, Peace and Abundance.Old Royal Naval College

When the Painted Hall was finally ready for use, in 1727, it was deemed too grand for everyday eating and the Greenwich pensioners began to take their meals in the undercrofts below.

Instead, the public were admitted with an entry fee used to pay the Royal Hospital School for the orphans of the seamen died on duty.

The body of Admiral Nelson lay in state here for three days in January 1806 and 30,000 people paid their respects.

In 1845 Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, personally bought Nelson's Trafalgar coat and presented it to the maritime gallery opened in 1824 with more the 100 naval paintings donated by George IV in 1824 in the Painted Hall and now displayed in the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich.

Opposite to the Painted Hall in the twin dome was built the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul built by the architect Thomas Ripley su disegno di Chistopher Wren following designs by Sir Christopher Wren, for the use of the staff and pensioners of the Royal Hospital.

Thomas Ripley, Chapel of St Peter and St Paul, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

John Papworth, plaster decoration of the ceiling, Chapel of St Peter and St Paul, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

The naval veterans were expected to attend the Chapel every day.

In 1779 the Chapel was gutted by fire but was rebuilt by British architect and neoclassical artist James ‘Athenian’ Stuart with nautical motifs designed to make the Naval Pensioners feel at home.

The beautiful ceiling was designed by the master plasterer John Papworth in a neo-classical design of squares and octagons, plastered in light blue and cream following a Wedgewood-inspired colour scheme.

In the decoration of the Chapel are displayed an organ a fine example of the work of Samuel Green with mahogany case, designed by William Newton, and the huge altarpiece by Benjamin West that depicted St Paul shipwrecked on the island of Malta. A well-known subject about the rescue and protection of seafaring men.

The Old Royal Naval College is today home of the University of Greenwich, and the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. The Queen’s House and the Royal Observatory are part of the Royal Museums Greenwich with the Maritime Museum and the Cutty Sark, the most famous of the tea clippers.

The beauty of the monumental Greenwich and the town with its old Georgian houses still infused nowadays a sense of majesty and elegance that touch dramatically all the visitors, specially to the one coming by the river.

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