The King’s House

Sir Christopher Wren did such a great botch-job on what is now The Old Royal Naval College, that most people tend to assume it was all built at the same time. Truth is, one of the four main courts of Greenwich Hospital is considerably older than the other three, and it was only after eating a slice of humble pie (the recipe of which modern architects could use a taste) that Wren actually came up with what we have today.

It was all a bit of a mess, really. Duke Humphrey’s Bella Court (now firmly underneath the lawns at the ORNC) had been subsumed into Placentia, prettied-up by Margaret of Anjou and enjoyed by sundry monarchs up to James I (or VI of Scotland, if you’re being picky.) But by the time he was building The Queen’s House for his wife (who most ungratefully died before it was finished) poor old Placentia was looking pretty feeble. James, being a weak and feeble type (accused by one contemporary of having ‘spindly legs,’ no less) found the maritime air of Greenwich too bracing and the damp worsened his aches and pains, so he upped sticks to Whitehall. Placentia sat and rotted. Charles I’s wife Henrietta Maria found it more to her taste – but stuck to the Queen’s House.

Cromwell sold off everything he could during the Commonwealth, and allowed his soldiers to vandalise the old palace to such an extent that when Charles II came to inspect what was left in 1661, it was a pile in the truest meaning of the word. The place was so neglected that the rusty old gates had to be broken open for him.

The Queen’s House was to be finished – even if now Henrietta Maria was somewhat older – a sad Miss Haversham-esque dowager attended by twenty four gentlemen in black velvet. Her son just wanted a new place. Work began on 4th March, 1664. Samuel Pepys was most excited. “I observed the laying of a very great house for the King,” he wrote, adding “which will cost a great deal of money.”

Pepys was right on the nail, as always. John Webb, the architect, had a grand plan to build it as a grand, three-sided affair, but, in truth everyone knew it was going to be difficult enough to manage just the one.

Like many of Charles’s Big Ideas, the King’s House ran into financial difficulties almost immediately. It was a building site for bloomin’ years. When Pepys came to stay in Greenwich on 24th August 1665, trying to get away from the Plague, he was planning on taking rooms in the palace, but had to content himself elsewhere, as it was nowhere finished.

After three years £26,433 had been spent, and it still wasn’t complete. It didn’t help that Charles was a veritable butterfly – starting projects all over the shop, then flitting onto the next – The Observatory being a case in point. By 1669, Pepys was used to there being nowhere for him when he came to Greenwich. He wearily wrote that it “goes on slow, but is very pretty.”

The East Wing of the King’s House was finally done in 1669. But by this point the world had moved on.

William and Mary were on the throne. Mary wanted to turn the place into a seaman’s hospital, and commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to design it. He came up with an enormous plan that would flatten both the Queen’s and King’s houses and create an enormous grid-affair of buildings. Mary would hear nothing of it – she wanted to keep the King’s house – and the view from her own gaff. So Wren swallowed his pride, moulding his ideas and ego to fit what was already there.

I ask you. If Sir Christopher Wren could work with old, historic buildings already standing and make something new, vibrant, exciting and relevant out of them, why can’t today’s architects do the same thing? Take the – Victorian, say, buildings we have and adapt them for today’s purposes instead of imposing their conceits and arrogance on us and insisting on razing what is already there to flatter their petty egos?

But I digress yet again. Back to the King’s House.

It’s serious stuff. Heavily classical – pediments, columns, rustications – and with no doubt about its instigator – Carolus II Rex enscribed in giant letters on the river-side. It’s definitely best seen in blazing sunshine or, as photographed at the top by Stevie, by night, when its floodlit severity pays dividends against the black night sky. Inside is the Admiral’s House (for another day) and Trinity College of Music (ditto…) The interior courtyard, still quaintly cobbled, feels more out-of-another-era than the rest of it, and always seems to have a snogging couple lurking in the shadows somewhere whenever I walk through. Aahhhh.

Don’t you just take one look at Stevie’s picture and think what a great place we live in?

Comments are closed.