The Queen’s House set into Greenwich

The Queen’s House, which we visited and talked about yesterday, is the jewel in the crown of Greenwich, according to one of the posters advertizing that it is now open.


Queen’s House; beyond it, the Old Royal Naval College, and the River Thames.

And it did start as an addition to a group of buildings which, being a palace, you could call the town’s crown.

The Royal Borough of Greenwich is rather too royal for my liking.  Many institutions in it are “Royal”; streets (including the one we are living on) are named for kings and lords.  A wide block of the frontage onto the Thames is a spacious and symmetrical complex of grandiose neoclassical buildings, with haughty expressions and royal histories.  They occupy the riverward end of a band of green land running south, up a hill to the Old Royal Greenwich Observatory and beyond.  This imperialist environment becomes more interesting as I learn how it came to be and how the Queen’s House fitted into it.

In 1433, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who was regent for his child nephew King Henry VI, built a house called Bella Court, on the Thames bank several miles downstream from London,  When the king grew up, his French wife Margaret of Anjou had Humphrey imprisoned (and murdered, according to Shakespeare) and took over his country house, renaming it the Palace of Placentia or Pleasaunce.  Around 1500, the new tyrant Henry VII rebuilt it as a larger spread of red-brick buildings around three courtyards.  It was the favored palace of the Tudor dynasty.  Born in it and spending their childhoods in it were Henry VIII, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.

In 1589, Anne, fifteen-year-old second daughter of Frederick II of Denmark, married James VI, Stuart, of Scotland.  She too was a forceful woman, opposed her husband in various ways and used Scottish politics against him.  After 1603, when he became James I of the united kingdom of England, Scotland and Ireland, he decided she should have a separate house, in the garden to the south of the Pleasaunce.

The architect was Inigo Jones.  His forename is one of those that cause some puzzlement: it is through Spanish Íñigo from a Basque name Eneko, and for some reason became popular in Wales, homeland of all Joneses.

Inigo had made sketching journeys to Italy, and learned of the new Palladian school of architecture.  The Queen’s House, begun in 1616, was his first masterpiece, and was England’s first completely neoclassical building.

Anne didn’t enjoy it for long.  She fell ill in 1618, work on the house stopped, and she died the next year.

(Anne of Denmark is not to be confused with the later Queen Anne, who reigned 1702-1714, and under whom fifty new churches were planned for London; those actually built were called the Queen Anne Churches; one was St. Alphege’s in Greenwich, whose medieval predecessor had collapsed.)

In 1629, Charles I, son of James and Anne, gave the house to his queen consort Henrietta Maria, and work on it resumed.  As it was situated on the central axis of the corridor of land, Henrietta Maria insisted that it should have a clear vista north to the river, along an avenue between the buildings of the old palace.  You can still, despite some tall railings, see along this vista, as far as the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf.

England’s civil war broke out in 1642, putting a temporary end to royals and palaces.  Charles I lost his head, and the decaying buildings of the palace by the river were gradually demolished.

Monarchy resumed in the persons of Charles II, James II, and then Mary II and her Dutch husband William III.  In 1692, the French tried to reimpose James II on England, and were stopped by the naval battle of La Hogue.  The sight of wounded sailors so moved Mary that she ordered the building of the Greenwich Hospital for Seamen, replacing the old palace buildings.

The architect was Christopher Wren, assisted by Nicholas Hawksmoor and followed by John Vanbrugh.  Wren’s initial design would have blocked Henrietta Maria’s vista to the river; Mary insisted that it be kept clear.  The result is the symmetrical array of four large neoclassical rectangles around courtyards.


A bird’s-eye view of the Naval Hospital; beyond it, the Queen’s House and its former garden.


And Canaletto’s view of it from across the river

The buildings later became the Royal Naval College; and are now known as the Old Royal Naval College, having become the University of Greenwich.  Or rather, it is the university’s main campus of three.  For more complication, one of the buildings is occupied by the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance; or rather it is one of the two campuses of that, the other being nearby in Deptford.  The Greenwich part is the musical part, and from it come floating to us the strains of cellists or trombonists practising for their examinations.

As for the Queen’s House, inland from all this beyond the highway that crosses the green band: no longer used as a palace, it became in 1805 the Royal Hospital School for the sons of seamen.  To the central house were added two flanking buildings, quite far to the east and west and connected by the long colonnades which now make one of Greenwich’s most striking features.

So the Queen’s House, when it housed the queen, was not so vast as it now appears.  Yet it was a large block, more than forty yards on a side, with  more than a dozen imposing rooms on each floor.  The Queen’s Closet could house a family, and the Presence Chamber a tribe.

Finally, in 1937 the Queen’s House, or part of it, became the National Maritime Museum.  The Museum is concentrated in the western flanking house and a building next to it.  The rest of the Queen’s House, having been refurbished, serves as a great gallery for paintings and other artefacts, mostly to do with royals and the sea.


Captain Cook.


A ship in a case, and a ship on the wall.

But not all.  This is Potiphar’s wife trying to seduce Joseph:


From the rear balcony of the house you can see up along the park to Greenwich Observatory.


And in this park pensioners picnicked, as many others still do.


One more quirk.  At a couple of places in the streets of Greenwich you glimpse down to a railway in a cutting; it can’t be the Dockland Light Railway, because that runs north and south, whereas this runs east, to connect to a railway system in Kent.  It disappears into a runnel, which was dug in 1878 by what is called the cut-and-cover method.  It’s underneath your feet as you stroll across the wide lawns, which once were gardens, in front of the Queen’s House.


Write a comment