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HomeCultureBuildingsGreat London Buildings - Old Royal Naval College Greenwich

Great London Buildings – Old Royal Naval College Greenwich

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A World Heritage site located in Maritime Greenwich, the Old Royal Naval College is one of the grandest examples of architecture in Greater London.  Of course, the building there now is not the first one to exist on the site.  In 1433, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, built a palace named Bella Court, but after he fell out of favour with Queen Margaret, who took over the house and renamed it the Palace of Placentia.  After some remodeling from King Henry VII in 1490, he renamed it Greenwich Palace.  It was here that Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I were born.  It remained a principal royal residence until King Charles II had it demolished in 1660, with the intent to replace it with another palace.

However, Charles never got around to building the palace apart from one wing that was designed by John Webb, now known as the King Charles Block.  After the ascension of King William III and Queen Mary II, the couple chose to move into Hampton Court Palace and issued a Royal Warrant to transform Charles’s palace into the Royal Hospital for Seamen, a place of healing and retirement for injured and aging sailors.  Sir Christopher Wren was hired to expand the building so that it would rival Chelsea Hospital, which had been built for the army.  Early in the design process, an issue arose when it was discovered that the initial plans would end up blocking Queen Mary’s view of the Thames from her home.  This led to the buildings being split into the four quadrants that set it apart architecturally.

Work on the buildings began in 1696, but Wren’s commitments to expanding Hampton Court Palace, building St. Paul’s Cathedral, and rebuilding many of London’s churches lost in the Great Fire meant that his assistant, Nicholas Hawksmoor, supervised most of the construction.  While King Charles Court would finish construction in 1705, the rest of the buildings would not be completed until 1742 by Thomas Ripley.  Once finished, the hospital could accommodate over 2,000 servicemen.

Wren wanted a design that was more imposing than Chelsea Hospital, and the King William and Queen Mary Courts were topped with domes not dissimilar from the one Wren designed for St. Paul’s.  Both towers have a clock face, though one of them actually marks the points of a compass rather than the hours in a nod to its maritime purpose.  The compass was also linked to a weather vane so that ships could determine the direction of the wind and navigate accordingly.  Within the courts, the Painted Hall in King William Court and the Chapel in Queen Mary Court were the most visually striking parts of the hospital.

The Greenwich Hospital would continue operating until 1869, when decreasing numbers led to its closure.  However, the buildings wouldn’t go unused for long, as the Royal Navy reopened it as the Royal Naval College in 1873 for the education of officers.  Greenwich became a major naval center over the net several decades.  The Royal Naval War College transferred there from Portsmouth in 1914.  During World War I, it became a barracks and place for scientific experiments.  Prior to World War II, the Navy began to train Women’s Royal Naval Service officers and increased the number of male and female officers at the college during the war.  The buildings continued to see use for training and administration until the shrinking of the Royal Navy closed the Royal Naval College in 1998.

When the Royal Navy sold the Grade I listed buildings, they were purchased by the University of Greenwich, who uses them for the Business School, the Maritime Institute, and the Faculty of Architecture, Computing, and Humanities.  The grandeur of the Old Royal Naval College buildings have been a big attraction for the film industry.  Films that have been shot there include:  Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Madness of King George, Tomb Raider, Shanghai Knights, Thor: The Dark World, and more.  The Old Royal Naval College was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site with the rest of Maritime Greenwich in 1997.  The buildings are still available to visit and is a must if you find yourself in that part of London.

John Rabon
Author: John Rabon

John is a regular writer for Anglotopia and its sister websites. He is currently engaged in finding a way to move books slightly to the left without the embarrassment of being walked in on by Eddie Izzard. For any comments, questions, or complaints, please contact the Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson's haircut.

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  1. “Fell out of favor” is such a tactful way of putting it! Duke Humphrey was never in Queen Margaret’s favor, and after his death she was first in line to grab anything of his she fancied.

  2. They were given money and with it built the Royal Hospital School at Holbrook in Suffolk.
    Initially the school only took boys whose father was in the Royal Navy. Numbers started to drop in the 60’s, so they changed the entry.

  3. The last time I visited there was a wonderful Nelson exhibit in the maritime museum. Had that been taken away along with the other Naval history exhibits? Also later a fabulous Elizabeth and her Court exhibit.

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