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The Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich

Greenwich, given the English aversion to overbearing crowned heads, is significant that it was not built as a royal palace but as a retirement home for injured and maimed sailors

London does not really do triumphal architecture in the way continental cities do. It has grown up piecemeal, with a belief in private enterprise, suspicion of autocratic government, and a relatively impecunious monarchy.

Greenwich is in some ways the exception, and one of the best views in all of Britain is to be had looking south at it from Island Gardens on the north bank of the Thames, or better still, as it was meant to be seen, from a boat on the river. It is undeniably grand. However, given the English aversion to overbearing crowned heads, it is significant that it was not built as a royal palace, but as a retirement home for injured and maimed sailors. Its roots lie in an attempt by a king Charles II who did have absolutist ambitions to imitate Versailles, but the weakness of royal finances meant the project ran out of funds when just one part of the grand design had been built.

Charles had employed the leading architect John Gibb to build an impressive royal residence out of white Portland stone. The site had previously been occupied by one of the main Tudor palaces, and had in the early seventeenth century been used to build the Queen’s House, by Inigo Jones.

Foreign dignitaries and monarchs sailing up the Thames to visit London, would have been welcomed and impressed by this royal gateway to the capital.

Charles II ran out of money though, and Gibb’s block was left sitting on its own. It can be seen in several paintings of Greenwich of the period, looking isolated alongside the Queen’s House and some remains of the earlier brick palace.

Queen Mary provided the impetus to use the site, and to use what had already been built as a new royal hospital. England’s growing naval power and wars with the French provided the need for an institution of this kind. In 1692 when her interest in the project was awakened the Royal Navy fought alongside the Dutch in a five-day battle against the French off La Hogue. The result was a victory for the allies, but one which produced a long casualty list.

Mary died of small pox in 1694, but the project as kept going by her husband William III. One lasting legacy of Mary’s involvement was her insistence that the Queen’s House should be visible from the river. Previously, Jones’ building had been obscured by the old Tudor palace. This placed a major constraint on the design of the new institution. Wren was chosen as architect, but had to bin his initial designs for one building occupying the whole of the site towards the river.

Wren made use of Gibb’s block, creating a nearly identical buildingon its eastern side, and then creating two further ranges behind these to the south. Wren was aided by his clerk, Nicholas Hawksmoor. Vanbrugh later worked on the project, and finally, after a fire in the eighteenth century the chapel was remodelled inside by James Athenian Stewart.

Charles II’s project had been inspired by Versailles. In 1688 William and Mary came to the throne in the ‘Glorious Revolution’. They in contrast wanted to draw a distinction between England’s monarchy which was founded on principles of liberty and law, and which was Protestant, and the Catholic absolutism to be found in France. Huge palaces were to be left to the Sun King. William and Mary’s main palace building was restricted to a relatively modest addition to Hampton Court.

However, a charitable institution could be made to be palatial. Greenwich would still serve as an impressive gateway to the capital, advertise England’s naval power, and show how important were her sailors who acted as the guardians of her liberties.

Mary’s demand that there be a clear view of Jones’ Queen’s House has left many feeling the Royal Hospital lacks unity.  Dr Johnson in addition thought it odd that a charitable institution should be so grand. According to Boswell: ‘He remarked that the structure of Greenwich Hospital was too magnificent for a place of charity, and that its parts were too much detached to make one great whole.’

The scale of the architectural ambition which Johnson disliked, is however unparalleled in Britain, and the buildings hugely impressive. Greenwich is unrivalled in Britain for the grandeur of its architecture and its vistas, and for its roll-call of the great names of English architecture.

Ian McDiarmid is a qualified City of London Tour Guide who delivers guided walks and private tours in London. View all of Ian’s walking tours.

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