Rambling Rose: Tourist in My Own Town Blog
Painted Propaganda & Naughty Seamen - Tales from the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich
One of the amazing things about London is that you can live with undiscovered treasures under your nose, until someone gives you a tip off….or digs up your backyard. Especially if your backyard was formerly a Palace.
Tudor treasures have been re-emerging from the river and the earth at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich. In 2009, some mysterious stumps of water-worn wood turned out to be remnants of the dockyard of Greenwich Palace, birthplace of Henry VIII and his daughters - Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. When the Pepys Building, originally built in 1874 as a sports centre for naval officers, was transformed into Visitors Centre in 2017, two underground rooms were identified as cellars of the Friary where Henry wed the first of seven unlucky wives, Catherine of Aragon. It’s possible to peer down at the ‘bee holes’ made to store the Friary’s hives during winter hibernation.
So, after a good friend received a tip-off about the spectacle of The Painted Hall, we find ourselves standing on the multi-layered historical ground of Old Royal Naval College on a hot September afternoon. Intrigued by the stories uncovered by our tour guides, I dug a bit further into this complex excavation of tangled royal dynasties, religious rivalries, nationalistic naval pomp and naughty seamen.
View of the Old Royal Naval College from Greenwich Park in May 2023
The first mention of Gronewic / Greenwich pops up in an Anglo-Saxon Charter in 918. Bronze Age barrows, Roman coins and centuries of royal hoof-prints have been ploughed into the soil of Greenwich Park. The grounds served as a juicy gift to keep royal family members sweet. On receiving 200 acres to ‘empark’ in 1433, Humphrey of Gloucester, Henry V’s brother and Henry VI’s regent, embarked on building a riverside Palace and Greenwich Castle aka Duke Humphrey’s Tower, now Greenwich Observatory. He enclosed his park in the wall which still lines the Roman road across Blackheath.
Thanks to a giant hike in taxes, Henry VII gave the Palace of Placentia a makeover in 1498. His son, Henry VIII would blow some of his parsimonious Dad’s inheritance fund on blinging up the Palace to the size and scale of Hampton Court, hosting jousting ceremonies where knights embarked on the Tudor equivalent of speed dating, rescuing damsels play-acting distress. His son Edward died there and it was a favourite haunt of Queen Mary I. After her father founded the first Royal Navy and built dockyards upriver in Deptford and Woolwich, Elizabeth I strategised the Spanish Armada campaign from the Palace’s riverside vantage point in 1588.
Looking across the monumental courtyards towards the Queen’s House at the foot of Greenwich Park, we hear how James I, unifier of England and Scotland, and great-nephew of Henry VIII, resolved a spat with his wife Anne of Denmark, whom he’d offended by throwing a public wobbly when she mistakenly shot one of his hunting hounds, by offering her Greenwich Park and commissioning Inigo Jones to build the Queen’s House. Lively Anne with her fine European-style court and patronage of the arts was not well matched to her dour Scots husband with his roving eye. They lived increasingly separate lives and her death in 1619 derailed the building project. Inigo later completed it for her son Charles I’s wife Queen Henrietta.
Father Time rules long beyond the rulership of Kings. During the Civil War (1642-51), monarchs went out of fashion, Charles I lost his head and the Tudor Palace descended into disrepair, serving as a biscuit factory and a prison of war camp. Charles II decided to pull the whole thing down and build himself a fashionable Versailles-style pad, but ran out of cash and enthusiasm after one wing. Grandma Henrietta, emerging from Civil War exile, did however finally get to enjoy living at the Queen’s ‘House of Delight.’
It's all a matter of perspective in Wren's architecture
View of the Grand Square and the faceless statue of George II
Charles II’s brother James II had a brief go at restoring Catholicism - or at least tolerance of it - and reestablishing the divine right of monarchs, but Parliament were having none of it and arranged a coup that ensured the throne passed to his Protestant daughter Mary and her hubby, his Dutch nephew William of Orange. James II fled to France and unsuccessfully attempted to reinstate his leadership with the support of the Irish and the Jacobites, ending his days in exile. The couple were crowned William III and Mary II in 1689 and it was decreed that only Protestant monarchs could rule Britannia henceforth, with significantly reduced powers.
With an interest in maritime matters, Mary II, moved by the plight of wounded naval veterans, decided to build a Royal Hospital for Seamen. Venerated architect Sir Christopher Wren was so moved by the cause that he took on the grand design for free in 1696. In a financially prudent act of architectural recycling, he preserved and built a mirror image of Charles II’s wing and created courtyards which perfectly framed the view of the Queen’s House. Intended not just as a charitable institution but an epic British naval status symbol, the Royal Hospital took 50 years to complete, so Mary did not live to see it as she died of smallpox aged 32 in 1694.
William, who spent most of his time in fisticuffs with French King Louis XIV, died from pneumonia soon after Mary in 1702. They left no heirs, and to ensure a Protestant monarch, the death of their successor, Mary's sister Anne in 1714 resulted in the choice of a Hanoverian relative, George I. The fact the new monarch alighted with his son at Greenwich without speaking a word of English and had a more distant heritage than nearer Catholic relatives caused more than a few raised eyebrows and rebellions. Nonetheless, a new dynasty was born and a statue of George II stands in the Grand Square, now faceless as the result of weather, over-enthusiastic cleaning and naval shooting practice.
Enter Baroque Painter James Thornhill, commissioned in 1707 to create an extraordinary piece of political propaganda depicting the Protestant monarchs William and Mary and their Hanoverian ‘heirs’ as a through line of English global supremacy. Whereas today’s headlines flash across screens in seconds, Thornhill took 19 years to create the 40,000 sq feet of painted walls and ceilings known as The Painted Hall. He received the princely sum of £6,685 – about £1.4 million in today’s money, going on to paint the domes of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1715 and receive a knighthood in 1720.
The Painted Hall was originally created as a dining hall for naval pensioners, but instead became a visitor attraction and stage for state ceremony such as Nelson’s laying in of state before his funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1806. When the Naval College in Portsmouth acquired the buildings in 1873 the hall became a banqueting suite for officers, whose smoking and general shenanigans were not great for the paintings. After being taken over by Greenwich Foundation in 1997, a restoration project was undertaken and completed in 2019.
Ceiling of The Painted Hall
Today, tourists flock to walk - and lie - awestruck by panoramas of the royal family surrounded by a glitterati of 200 mythological and famed personages. English scientists peer through telescopes at the nude Greek moon Goddess Diana, whilst Neptune, God of the Sea, lends a hand alongside St George to bring the Hanoverian Georges safely to Britain. Symbols of naval might, pomp and power abound - the zodiac and the four known continents circle the English royal centre of the universe and Louis XIV is crushed under William’s foot. George II’s children are personified as the arts, looking to an ongoing dynasty. A watery blue toga wends its way old Father Thames, protecting his modesty as he consorts with the younger River Isis, whilst Father Winter’s face is modelled on the oldest resident of The Royal Hospital, John Worley - a troublesome drunk, whose punishment was to sit still whilst his portrait was painted.
Viewing the Ceiling!
Until 1869, The Royal Hospital accommodated up to 2,700 ‘Greenwich Geese,’ a characterful cast of seamen, many of whom, despite the savage surgeons whose knife-sharpening grooves are embedded on the window ledges of Skittle Alley, lived to a ripe old age as a result of being well fed and watered and enjoying their pick of 88 pubs around the site. Aged 12-99, they were an international crew which included black and mixed heritage sailors from Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas during the time of the slave trade, such as Briton Hammon, author of one of the first published accounts of slavery and his time in the Navy, The Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man (1760). John Simmonds, a Jamaican veteran, was treated at the hospital for yellow fever in 1824 and awarded the Trafalgar Medal for serving during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1846. He went on to forge a new life, marrying and working as a hawker with his English wife Anne in Mansfield. Much of the wealth of Greenwich was built on the backs of slavery, and many black people were enslaved at affluent houses including Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) who having been born on a slave-ship in the Atlantic, escaped enslavement in Greenwich to become a shopkeeper, writer, playwright, abolitionist and the first person of African descent to vote in a British election.
Many stories and, some say, ghosts stalk the halls and grounds of the Old Royal Naval College, with many stories yet to emerge. As our guide comments, ‘old meets new’ across the river as Wren’s domes face the glassy tiara of Canary Wharf’s skyscrapers shimmering atop the trees of Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs, called so because Edward III kept his greyhounds there. The dazzling reflections of The Painted Hall in modern-day mirrors affirm that what we see in history reflects our own story back to us.
Access and tours of the Old Royal Naval College and Painted Hall costs £15 from the Visitors Centre - which includes annual membership.