A Potted Old Royal Naval College History…

…for Jack, who asks:

I have tried everwhere 4 info about the Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich Park During the war it was used as an air raid shelter by the local residents my wife being 1 of those. Can u help me please.

The Phantom will try…

The reason why you may have had difficulty finding out about Greenwich Hospital is that it changed its name and became The Royal Naval College in the mid 19th Century – it is currently the OLD Royal Naval College. Although that was about 150 years ago, it’s likely that the locals never stopped referring to it as the Hospital in the early and mid 20th Century.

I’m guessing you’re not from round here – otherwise you’d have visited these fabulous buildings – they are open to the public nowadays and make a wonderful day out.

In many respects it’s a case of ‘what would you like to know?’ I could write an entire blog about this incredible place – not just one post!! (I frequently write about different aspects of it on here, though. The more you find out about it, the more there is to find out.

I’ll give you a general overview for now, but I urge you to try to make a visit to see it for yourself.

It’s built on the site of at least two old palaces. The first was built by Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, on top of an old priory, which had been granted in a brief moment of piety by Henry V after he won the battle of Agincourt. After Henry’s death, his brother Humphrey swapped some land with the monks and built his palace there. Actually, the monks got quite a good deal – they ended up with better land – even if they would only lose it again later under Henry VIII.

Humphrey’s palace was called Bella Court, and he also had a tower built on Greenwich Hill – where the Royal Observatory is now. While he was there he founded a library – which was to become the basis for the Bodliean Library at Oxford. It didn’t last. Henry VI’s ambitious wife, Margeurite of Anjou, had her eye on Humph’s palace and, after accusing his wife of witchcraft (it was claimed she had been sticking pins into mannekins of the King,) ‘arrested’ Humphrey and he rather too conveniently died.

Marguerite moved in and prettied-up the palace, by now called “Placentia.” It became the favourite of the Tudor monarchs – both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born and held court there. If you care to wander though this blog you can find some stories of those times in there.

It was beginning to get a bit dog-eared by the time that James came to the throne – he started building what is now the Queens House on the site of Katherine of Aragon’s garden and the old palace fell into disrepair.

What really did for the old girl was the Commonwealth. Oliver Cromwell sold off all the valuable stuff in the palace, and allowed his men to vandalise the buildings. On the reformation Charles II decided to build anew and created the first of what would be come the buildings of the Royal Hospital.

It was Queen Mary (of WilliamandMary fame) that really founded the Royal Hospital though, She was shocked at the sight of all the old, crippled sailors hanging around with nowhere to go after serving their country. Her husband indulged her and they took on Sir Christopher Wren as architect (working for nothing, by the way.) Hewanted to pull down everything and build a radical new complex, but he was thwarted, just as he was with his grid-plan London after the Great Fire.

Mary insisted she wanted to keep her palace (The Queen’s House) and that she wanted a view down to the river. Her husband wouldn’t hear of knocking down the King’s House. Wren had to work around those two constraints, but what he came up with was extraordinary – today’s wonderful – and arresting sight – best viewed from the river, so if you come, do try to get a boat down from London. Mary died suddenly, though, and her broken-hearted husband carried on in her name. The first pensioners moved in in 1704 during the reign of Queen Anne, who did nothing to the palaces, save pinch one of the ceilings for her best friend’s house.

There were a lot of wars around that time – and hence, a lot of disabled seamen, but by 1869, there were fewer wars, fewer pensioners and many of them ‘lived out,’ ayway, and the hospital closed. It was turned instead, into the Royal Naval College, training young naval cadets. It continued as such, with the addition of the National Maritime Museum in 1934, until 1997, when it, too, closed.

Although part of the University of Greenwich and Trinity College of Music occupy two of the buildings today, much of it is open to the public – the best bits being the wonderful chapel and the exquisite Painted Hall, decorated by Sir James Thornhill.

I’ve been trying to think which bits would have been safe for sheltering in in the war, and I can only really think of the crypt – the only part that remains of the old medieval palace. I would be terribly grateful to hear any of your wife’s memories about sheltering there. There is a lot of material written about really old history – but very little about the 20th Century. If she wouldn’t mind, I’d love to know anything she’d like to tell me.

Do try to get to see The Old Royal Naval Hospital. If you go on one of the guided tours they will take you down to the crypt as part of the tour – it’s not open otherwise.


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