A Hospital Fit For Heroes

A Hospital Fit For Heroes

Taking a Boat trip down to Greenwich has to be one of the best days out in London, but unless you know exactly what you want to do when you get there, it’s worth dropping into the excellent Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre first before dashing off like a headless chicken.

If you’re anything like me, a day in Greenwich will be nowhere near enough, but for the purposes of expediency, I’m going to start my virtual tour of the town at the Old Royal Naval College, which the visitor centre is part of.

Greenwich has an exceptional maritime history, and next to the visitor centre is the Old Brewery, which used to supply sailors of the Royal Hospital for Seamen with their daily allowance of 4 pints of beer, but which now serves people like you and me, and although I suggested coming to the visitor centre first, I’m also suggesting that you leave the Old Brewery bar to last – otherwise you might not end up going anywhere.

The Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre
The Old Brewery

The magnificent Old Royal Naval College was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and is a major part of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site.

The building sits over the top of the former Greenwich Palace, or the Palace of Placentia as it was also called. This palace, built in the 15th century, is best remembered for being the birthplace of King Henry VIII and his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, but unfortunately all that’s left of it are the foundations buried beneath Grand Square. A stone plaque set into the floor near to the Water Gate marks the position where it once stood.

05-Marking-the-spot-of-Greenwich-Palace

During the Commonwealth period Oliver Cromwell removed all the palace’s possessions and it quickly fell into disrepair, but with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II started work on building a new palace but it was never completed.

However, what was built was put to good use when foundations were laid in 1696 for a new Royal Hospital for Seamen.

What is now the eastern part of King Charles Court, was incorporated into Queen Mary II’s dream of building somewhere suitable to look after the large number of casualties returning from the country’s naval conflicts.

King Charles Court
King Charles Court

Queen Mary herself died two years before the first stone was laid, but her husband William III, commissioned Christopher Wren to carry out her wishes. It’s well known that Wren designed the hospital but, what’s perhaps not so well known, is that most of the work was done by Nicholas Hawksmoor, as Wren had his hands full re-building St. Paul’s Cathedral and the remains of what was left of the city of London after the Great Fire of 1666.

The buildings were used as a hospital and retirement home for seamen until falling numbers deemed it unviable and was eventually closed in 1869.

Within 4 years it was re-opened again – this time as the Royal Naval College for the education of officers, and in 1998 it became the ‘Old’ Royal Naval College when the Greenwich Foundation took it over.

Queen Anne Court
Queen Anne Court

The classical layout comprises of four courts – the King Charles, Queen Anne, King William and Queen Mary Courts.

The Queen Mary Court was completed in 1751 by Thomas Ripley, and although the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul was devastated by fire in 1779 it was replaced by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart’s fabulous neo-classical building and enhanced by Benjamin West’s large altarpiece. You won’t need to spend a huge amount of time in here, but see it you must.

Queen Mary Court
Queen Mary Court
The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul
The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul

In the King William Court opposite the Chapel is the Painted Hall, which has been described as the “Greatest piece of decorative painting in England”.

The Hall was originally intended to be a dining room for the navy pensioners of the Royal Hospital, but it became such a tourist attraction that the old sailors were forced to eat elsewhere.

King William Court
King William Court
The Painted Hall - Lower Hall
The Painted Hall - Lower Hall

The person responsible for this quite amazing allegory was a relatively unknown artist by the name of James Thornhill.

The task was completed in two stages between 1708 and 1727 with the Lower Hall being followed by the Upper Hall.

The paintings represent a range of subjects including religion, the monarchy and naval achievements – The Lower Hall ceiling depicts ‘Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny’, the West Wall shows ‘George I, his family and his virtues’, and the Upper Hall ceiling portrays ‘British Naval Achievements’.

Ceiling of the Lower Hall
Ceiling of the Lower Hall
Entrance to the Upper Hall
Entrance to the Upper Hall
The Upper Hall Ceiling
The Upper Hall Ceiling

Thornhill wouldn’t have realised it at the time of course, but one of the navy’s greatest achievements was still yet to happen.

On 21st October 1805, Vice Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, was fatally wounded at his moment of victory over the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar. His body was brought back to England and taken ashore at Greenwich where he lay in state for three days in the Painted Hall.

View from the Vestibule
View from the Vestibule
Memorial to Lord Nelson
Memorial to Lord Nelson

Crowds flocked here to pay homage to one of England’s greatest heroes of the day before a state barge took him up the Thames to the Admiralty in Whitehall. On the following day, 9th January 1806, some 10,000 soldiers took his body on a funeral procession to St Paul’s Cathedral for the state funeral. His coffin is placed inside a sarcophagus originally made for Cardinal Wolsey and can be seen in the cathedral’s crypt.

I said earlier, that you should leave the Old Brewery to last, but perhaps it’s more appropriate to pay your own homage to Lord Nelson at the Trafalgar Tavern, which is on the riverside near to the Queen Anne Court (now part of Greenwich University).

I think it’s fair to say that if you come here when it’s busy then you won’t enjoy it as much as when it’s not, but if you can find a table outside, next to the statue of Nelson, then it would seem a fitting place to finish off your visit to the architectural masterpiece next door that was originally built, not as a college for officers, but as a magnificent hospital fit for heroes.

The Trafalgar Tavern
The Trafalgar Tavern
Lord Nelson at the Trafalgar Tavern
Lord Nelson at the Trafalgar Tavern
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22 thoughts on “A Hospital Fit For Heroes

  1. toonsarah

    I totally agree – Greenwich is the perfect day out imho. But strangely I’ve never yet been in the Old Brewery, so that’s something to rectify on a future visit 😉

    Great info on the Painted Hall in particular. Did you know that, in addition to the allegorical themes you mentioned, it’s interesting too for the way Thornhill portrayed the royals? George I hadn’t generally been welcomed as king by the British public who saw him as a German interloper, so he was keen on a bit of positive PR! Thornhill therefore was asked to portray him as a warm family man, ‘one of the people’, identifying with their own love for their families. Meanwhile his predecessor Queen Anne is relegated to the ceiling where she appears rather remote from the people, as are King William and Queen Mary in the ‘Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny’ painting on the Upper Hall ceiling.

    But this ‘family love’ thing is rather ironic as in truth he was unfaithful to his wife (and later divorced her) and had a poor relationship with his son, who was to become George II. In the painting this is alluded too by their stance, looking away from each other. And did you know also that the figure bottom right, by the pillar and looking out at us, is a self-portrait of Thornhill?

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      I knew that George I wasn’t flavour of the month, but I didn’t realise that Thornhill was asked to put a different slant on things.Fascinating!, and the fact that he put himself in the frame, so to speak, only adds to the story. Thanks for a great bit of information that helps to understand the wonderful Painted Hall even more

      Reply
  2. Alli Templeton

    Thanks for your support again Mac, and for thinking of me. Incidentally, would you mind at some point having another bash at my contact page for me? ☺

    Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        That’d be great thanks Mac. I’m at Kenilworth Castle so may not be able to access emails until I get home later as they’re always dodgy on my phone. WordPress works well but not emails. 😊 So I’ll let you know if I receive your message this time.Many thanks, again. 😊

        Reply
            1. Alli Templeton

              …sorry, that was meant to be a full stop, not a question mark! Blasted small phone keypads… 😊

              Reply
  3. Stuart Templeton

    Another great review Malcolm – it certainly sounds a great place to send a day and those buildings are indeed magnificent, as are those amazing paintings.
    Both the Old Brewery and the Trafalgar Tavern look to be worth investigating… Although maybe not on the same day 😀

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks again Stuart. You could spend a whole day touring the Greenwich pubs and miss out the attractions altogether 🙂

      Reply
        1. Easymalc Post author

          I’d like to read that one, especially if you wrote about it at the same time. Hic! 🙂

          Reply
  4. Alli Templeton

    Thanks for this welcome introduction to Greenwich, Malc, a place I haven’t got to yet. It looks as though I’d better take Maddie there, as there’s so much maritime history. I’ve promised her I’ll take her to the Cutty Sark during the October half term (she has 2 weeks off, so it’ll be quieter in the first week) – is that in Greenwich too? Those buildings look stunning, and I reckon I’d get a crick in the neck admiring the beautiful painted ceilings, although it’d be well worth it! And because Maddie was so besotted with the HMS Victory when I took her there at Easter, I know she’d love to see where Nelson is buried, having learned about his fascinating life and stood on the spot where he fell. Your photos are, as ever, superb (I love the one of the statue of Nelson outside the Trafalgar tavern), and you certainly make a day out in the area sound a very enticing prospect. I can see why you’d think one day isn’t enough, though, especially if the Old Brewery features on the itinerary! Thanks again for giving me more inspiration for a grand day out. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks for your lovely comments again Alli. In my opinion Greenwich is the perfect day out in London, especially if you travel down by boat. The Cutty Sark is right where you get off the boat, and the National Maritime Museum is nearby. A perfect destination for Maddie I would say – and don’t forget the Royal Observatory. Nelson is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral by the way, just so that you’re not confused.

      Dare I ask how last Friday went?

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        Oh yes, so he is in St Pauls. I’ll still take her to all of it.
        Of course you can ask about Friday. I think it went alright, as far as I remember anyway. From the 3 hour blur I do recall the higher Latin translation was a lovely story about pirates which I told Madden straight away. The rest, only time will tell I guess. My mind has blocked out the trauma! 😊

        Reply
        1. Easymalc Post author

          That sounds promising.It’s probably best to forget about it until the results are due in – and then I’ll have to cross everything for you again 🙂

          Reply

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