London History Podcast - Buckingham Palace

Episode 58: Greenwich Palace and Hospital

Greenwich has some of the finest architecture in London. Join tour guides Hazel Baker and Ian McDiarmid as they discuss .

We cover:

  • Tudor Greenwich
  • Building Stewart Greenwich
  • How the British Monarchy created a different identity to that of their counterparts in France
  • How Greenwich Palace became Greenwich Hospital

Greenwich Palace and Hospital


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Show Notes:

Your host: Hazel Baker

Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

She has been an expert guest on Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain (Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7).



Ian McDiarmid


Ian McDiarmid

Ian qualified as a City of London tour guide in 2017 and has a particular passion for Roman and Medieval history, having in an earlier incarnation studied history at Cambridge and London universities.


Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 

Joining me in the studio today is city of London guide Ian McDiarmid. Hello Ian. 

Ian McDiarmid: Hello. 

Hazel Baker: Welcome back. 

Ian McDiarmid: Yeah, it’s good to be back. 

Hazel Baker: Well, I’ll tell you what, it’s good to be back on the streets, isn’t it? During the tours. 

Ian McDiarmid: Yeah, it makes a big difference, doesn’t it? I think we’re all relieved to be out again. 

Hazel Baker: Now, today, we’re going to be talking about gorgeous Greenwich. I must advise the listeners, however that both you and I, Ian, live in the Royal Borough of Greenwich so this might be slightly biased?


Ian McDiarmid: Well, actually I was thinking about bits of London before we we’re going to do this. And I was thinking that actually, in all honesty, Greenwich is one of my favourite bits of London. It’s invidious to really make comparisons, but I find the kind of posture more touristy. I know Greenwich is touristy, but the posher parts of London, I find less interesting than some of the other more, shall we say, rundown Burroughs.

And I know with the explosion in London, property prices like Greenwich, that the house prices are astronomical and that’s complete human tragedy, very bad for the economy, but nevertheless, Greenwich is still a bit sort of rundown and a bit Tatiana. I like it that way. And the history of these boroughs like Greenwich and another one I love is Southwark as well.

 The history is just so, so rich. And yeah, we’ll be covering quite a bit of that today, hopefully. But it is just a really interesting place. And the other thing to say about Greenwich of course, is just the splendour of the architecture, because we’re going to be talking about the Royal Naval hospital or Royal Naval college as is. I mean, it’s just amazing. I mean, just the list of architects that worked on it. I mean, you’ve got the Queen’s house by Inigo Jones. Then the overall design for the Naval hospital is by Christopher Wren. He’s aided by Hawk score and Van bruh. The original bit of the hospital is built by John Gere, who’s one of the leading architects in Charles the second, right? It’s later worked on by James Athenian Stewart in the 18th century. Thomas Ripley, who’s the man who designs the apple building also works at Greenwich hospital. It’s a roll call of the finest English architects. I mean, it’s just.

On baseball and that view of Greenwich either from the north or from the south is just amazing. So from the south, if you stand on the top of the hill in Greenwich park, where the observatory is and look out over the Queens house, the hospital, and then onto Canary Wharf and admittedly, Canary Wharf has obviously changed dramatically. Not necessarily for the better over the past 30 years, but nevertheless it provides some kind of backdrop to it. But even more so if you look from the other way, which is the way it’s designed to be looked at, from the river. And also I imagine that in the pot, you know, if you were important in the past, you’d probably be quite high up in quite a big boat. So maybe the best way. I mean, you can do it from the river ferries today, but maybe the best way is to go over the river to island gardens on the other bank can look back and it’s got to be, I mean, that view is unsurpassed. It surely in all of Britain. I mean, it’s the best, it’s the best. And it, you know, it’s here in London. It’s fantastic. 

Hazel Baker: So Ian, what are we going to be talking about first then? What’d you reckon? Do you want to start with the Tudor? 

Ian McDiarmid: Well, yeah, the, the history is extremely rich. So we’re just describing the Royal Naval hospital and the Royal Naval hospital is built on the side of a Tudor palace. So the origins go back to the 15th century when Duke Humphrey of Bluster, who’s the brother of Henry V, has a house there. And it’s rather a splendid Brooke made house. And that is then taken over by the Queens of England. And then in the reign of Henry VII, he rather likes it himself and he makes it one of his main palaces and he rebuilds Greenwich palace. 

Then, of course it’s taken on by Henry VIII. And Henry VIII made some important changes. He adds some armoury to it. He adds a tennis court and he adds most famously a tilt yard. And the tilt yard brings us sort of right up to date in terms of news about Greenwich palace cause it was just last autumn that archaeologists from grungy university found the footprint of this tilt yard. Originally, they thought it had been sort of immediately in front of the Queens house, but they’ve now located it a bit further to the east of that, about a hundred meters to the east, because they actually found the origins of the octagonal towers that marked out the ground stamped at this Tiltyard.

So if you mentioned the tilt yards or a jostling ground with a pole of woods separating the horses. And then on one side of that, there was a big grand stand. And this grand stand was made up of the octagonal towers where there’s kind of a grand stand built in between the middle of them. So it’s quite a splendid thing. 

And as I was saying, this was Henry VII’s favourite palace or one of his favourite palaces. And it was here that Henry VIII was born. And then later on it’s where Henry VIII’s daughters Elizabeth and Mary are born. And it’s also where Henry, in 1536, has this terrible fall from a horse, which leads to a leg wound, which will never heal. And some writers on Henry VIII think that this might account for why the king is so unpleasant in his later years, executing people who are quite close to him. The problem with that is, I think it rather implies a sharp distinction between the younger Henry. He doesn’t seem to be particularly reluctant to have people executed. But nevertheless, anyway, that all happens at Greenwich. 

And we’ve got to imagine in print that there’s nothing left of this. But you’ve got to imagine the sort of low built brick built building with a large tower at the western end of it, and so extremely important. And then what happens historically is that first of all, in James I’s reign, he gives to his wife Greenwich park and she commissions Inigo Jones to build the Queens house in amongst all this jumble of Tudor buildings, arises Inigo Jones, his house for her. And this house, which is still there, obviously, is of enormous importance. It’s often described as the first Renaissance building in England. 

If we pick that apart a bit, first of all, it is true to some extent because Jones is the first person to fully utilise the ideas of Italian architecture without any kind of decoration, embellishment getting in the way. So we can talk about a Renaissance buildings in England, but they tend to be covered in a massive detail, things like strap work, grotesques, which are all inspired by classical models, but the overall effect isn’t particularly classical. With Jones, you get a real expression of Italian mathematically inspired architecture. And his particular inspiration came from Palladio. And if you are familiar with Palladio or you can look up his buildings in a book, you can see that the Queen’s house is very similar to a lot of Palladio’s designs. So it’s got a little running around the top. It’s got this swirly staircase in front of it and round on the pop side, it’s got an area cut out of it from a lot to make a lodger and all of these are fairly directly inspired by Palladio. 

The main thing is it’s geometrical in form and it’s all down to proportions. And inside, it’s got this famous cube room, which is the sort of main room in the house. I mean, we might want to qualify that first Renaissance building in two ways: one is it’s a bit problematic talking about Renaissance itself, because if you accept that this building, which was finished about 1640 as part of the Renaissance, it makes the Renaissance itself rather an unwieldy concept extending all the way from the early 15th century to the 1640s, England. So there’s a bit of a problem with defining the Renaissance. But also, this building took a very long time to complete. And by the time of queen ends death, it’s like later taken on by Henrietta Maria, only the foundation’s being built. And in the meantime, James himself builds and completes the banqueting house rather in Whitehall. So the precise claims about it being the first Renaissance house, I’m thinking we need to take with a degree of scepticism, but nonetheless, enormously important building. 

Hazel Baker: And it’s beautiful. isn’t it? 

Ian McDiarmid: It is. I mean, it is absolutely splendid, as I say, you know, look from those two few points that I’ve mentioned. Absolutely important. And I was earlier going on about how fantastic all the architects were and how brilliant this view is. 

One long standing criticism of the hospital as a building complex, which goes back to Dr. Johnson, if not earlier, is that later on when they build the hospital, queen Mary, who is the consort of William III and who is one of the main inspirations behind the hospital, she insists that the view of Queen’s house from the river is maintained. And Wren, when he comes up with his first drawing, he’s got this sort of long palatial block going along the river and he has to go back and he has to come back with a design that maintains the view of the Queen’s house. And as a result of that, the Naval hospital itself is in two separate parts, an Eastern and a Western part. And then you’ve got the view of the Queens house in the middle. And a lot of people from Johnson onwards have remarked that in a way, it lacks a kind of unifying whole as a result. So that’s the one sort of criticism really of all this fantastic architecture that’s on the show there. 

Hazel Baker: But it also makes it very unique.

Ian McDiarmid: Yeah. Yeah, indeed. 

Hazel Baker: So what were the origins of the Greenwich hospital then? 

Ian McDiarmid: Well, you’ve got this sprawling Tudor palace towards the end of its life with this very geometrically inspired building sitting in the middle of it. And Charles II comes to the throne and he decides he’d like to build an entirely new palace there. And he’d like to build something rivalling a fair side of the palace that’s being built for Louis XIV and plans are drawn up from this. And as I was saying earlier, it uses the leading architects today, John Gibbs and John starts building this palace. And the first block of it is almost complete, but not quite when building is abandoned and you can see Gibbs block today. It’s known as the chance, the second block. And it’s quite easy to identify because on the riverfront, there’s this big inscription, Carlos, Charles Rex, Charles. Charles King on, on the Riverside of it. 

 And it’s quite interesting, if you go into the Queen’s house, they’ve got a display of a large number of paintings of maritime things, but also of Greenwich. And you can see quite a few paintings of Greenwich of this time, and you can see the remains of this sort of higgledy-piggledy Tudor palace of most of which has been pulled down but some of it’s still standing and you can see the Queen’s house and you can also see this block arising on its own amongst the midst of all of this. What happens is they run out of money and Charles lacked interest in the project and it’s never completed. And then in 1688, Charles II’s brother in Syria after fits in, in in fact chase from the throne, William and Mary come in and they’ve got this sort of site with a Royal palace that’s been begun, but not quite completed. And the question is what to do with the site. 

And one of the things that’s interesting about Greenwich and reflects on William and Mary’s priorities is that because they’ve come in in the what’s so-called glorious revolution, which is largely at the behest of parliament and the English aristocracy, their monarchy is defined in a way in opposition to the absolutism and what they regarded as the arbitrary power of merely the 14th over in France. And in addition to this, they are Protestant monarchs unlike James II, who has been in fact deposed. And unlike Louis XIV. And therefore for them to build a big palace like Versailles, even if they had the money to do so, would not have fitted in with this new ideology. And if you think of William and Mary’s main palace building, it’s that extra courtyard at Hampton court, which is very splendid, but very modest and a very small dimensions compared to Versailles, for example. And queen Mary is keen on founding using the site for a Royal hospital. And in 1692, there is a long battle. Hoag a sea battle, which lasts a few days in which the Dutch and English fleets are victorious, but for which the casualty list is horrendous and it might be worth adding at this point that battles throughout history are always absolutely horrific. But the particularism in the ways in which they are particularly horrific vary over time. And when you’re talking about wooden sailing ships, the majority of the casualties are caused by Wharton spins or so Cannonball goes into the side of the ship, massive, or the end of the ship. Massive wooden splinters ascent flying or younger the interior. And. Limbs are ripped off, horrific injuries. And this battle and the list of casualties provides extra inspiration for her. And she dies shortly after this of smallpox and William as a kind of commitment to the memory of his dead wife, decides to carry on with the projects.

And as I said, also in deference to her wishes, he maintains this desire of hers, that the Queen’s house should be visible from the river. They start building the Royal hospital and are saying that it’s significant that they decided not to build a palace there. It’s also significant that on this highly prominent sides on the river, using all these resources and using, what’s going to turn out to be a very inspired roll call of English architects. They designed a monument to the English Navy, really. It’s going to be a home for retired and maned sailors. 

And this site is so important because Greenwich in many ways is a gateway to London. You’ve got to imagine that the Thames is the most important route into London and foreigners in particular, high ranking foreigners in particular will come along the Thames. And in the past, diplomats have often got off at the palace to go and see royalty. This is kind of like a gateway into London and perhaps into England itself and what do the English state decide to put up there? Well, monument to its Navy. And this is kind of a state rather than having a palace as you might’ve had, or as you had in the past. And as you might’ve had, if you were a continental Monarch. You have a hospital to the sailors saying that these are the people who are defending English liberties. They are so important that they are here. We have this truly fantastic building which is dedicated to them. So it’s kind of sending out a message again, on the contrast between England and her French absolutism.

And we shouldn’t get too starry-eyed about this. I mean, when we’re talking about England is an oligarchy at this time, it’s run by a fairly small group of aristocrats. So this English Liberty is not the Liberty of everybody, but nevertheless, it’s an extremely important distinction between the what, by the stages of what it’s about to become the British state and the French state.

Hazel Baker: And for the hospital, what did that entail? 

Ian McDiarmid: Well, first of all, they got to raise the money for it. So we’re saying that one of the limitations of the British crown is a lack of resources compared to these absolute monarchs like Louis XIV in particular. Its parliament controls the purse strings. So the first thing is to raise the money and they did this in various ways. If you go into the painted hall, which is open, you have to pay an entrance fee. 

Hazel Baker: Yeah. If you buy a ticket online, it’s £12.50. Or if you go on the Sunday, the first of the month, it’s only £5. 

Ian McDiarmid: What is the eastern end of the painted hall, you can look up and you can see these large ports with lists of subscribers headed by the king and queen. And these were subscriptions that they elicited. And so if you want it to be seen to be amongst the great and good, you were under a certain amount of pressure to have your name up in golden letters on these boards. The treasury voted a certain sum to the building of it. I think they allocated £2000 per annum for the construction of it. This is how the hospital is financed. But it is interesting, if you go into the courtyard facing the river and you stand in the middle and look at the two blocks, if you turn to the west, you can see the Charles II block, which was this one by Gabe, which they took on and which they completed. And you can see a rather splendid, an ornate pediment with figures, one of which is the Thames in it. And then if you turn around and face the other way to the, what is the queen and block, you can see the pediment is empty. It’s just completely play. And this indicates that money was always a problem. And they were always a bit short of funds. But nevertheless, in the early 18th century, I think it’s 1795, they’d taken the first pension as they’re there until the 1870s when the hospital is converted into a college for Naval officers for their training, 

Hazel Baker: So once again, Ian, I think you’ve shown that there is so much to see and do and to learn about Greenwich. It is a fantastic place to explore. So thank you very much for that. 

Ian McDiarmid: My Pleasure.

Hazel Baker: And for anybody listening, if you want to hear more about Greenwich, then we do have a Charles Dickens in Greenwich in Episode 40. And we also do guided walks in Greenwich, private tours and scheduled walks as well. So you can book those on our website,

And just a little shout out to Tracy from Pennsylvania, thank you so much for reaching out. You have listened to every single one of the episodes, which is really amazing. So it’d be lovely to see you when you cross the pond, finally. That’s all for now. I’ll see you next week.

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