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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of the Old Royal Naval College in London

What is the Old Royal Naval College?

The Old Royal Naval College is a 17th-century Baroque naval college at the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site in London. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren that includes the celebrated Painted Hall.

Old Royal Naval College

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Old Royal Naval College History

Greenwich, tucked into a bend of the river in southeast London, has a relationship with England and Britain’s Navy stretching back to its creation. On the site of the Royal Naval College once stood Greenwich Palace, the birthplace of King Henry VIII and one of his favoured residences. Henry inherited five warships from his father and set about building a fleet to match those of his European rivals. He established dockyards nearby at Woolwich and Deptford, where he could oversee his new shipbuilding projects. By the time Henry died in 1547, the Royal Navy had been expanded to comprise more than 40 ships. The infamous Tudor king had placed Greenwich firmly at the centre of naval affairs in Britain – and thus, in time, at the centre of the world.

Greenwich Palace was neglected during the British Civil Wars and the subsequently established English Republic and Protectorate. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Charles II found the palace in such a bad state that he ordered its demolition. Just before the turn of the century, Queen Mary II made plans to build in its place a charitable institution for the care of retired men who had served in the Royal Navy.

The magnificent building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the acclaimed English architect who redesigned St Paul’s Cathedral after it was ravaged by the Great Fire of London. However, due to Wren’s extensive architectural commitments – after the fire, he rebuilt or designed afresh more than 50 churches across London – the work was entrusted to his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor. Wren’s magnificent Baroque design was intended to convey Britain’s vast wealth and unchallenged maritime dominance. So grand and beautiful is the setting that’s it become a popular backdrop for filmmakers and television producers, recently featuring as the replacement for Buckingham Palace in Netflix show The Crown. In fact, in 2013 The Old Royal Naval College was hailed by Empire magazine as one of ‘the most popular filming location[s] in the world’.

The Painted Hall is one of the most famous parts of the College, a Baroque masterpiece known as ‘Britain’s Sistine Chapel’ that features spectacular ceiling and wall decorations designed and executed by Sir James Thornhill. The hall, which took 19 years to complete, depicts the ‘pivotal moment when the United Kingdom was created and became a dominant power in Europe’, and it features a mix of historical, mythological and allegorical figures. In fact, so complicated is the iconography that the artist produced an Explanation of it following its completion. Thornhill, who was paid £3 per square yard for the ceiling and £1 for the walls, used illusionistic techniques that were inspired by Italian Baroque painting. Wren intended it to be the hospital refectory, where officers and pensioners would take their meals. In 2019, following an £8.5 million restoration project, the Painted Hall was unveiled to the public and its vivid colours now look the best they have done since Thornhill put his paintbrush down.

When the hospital opened in 1705, 42 pensioners were admitted. By 1738 there were 1,000 residents, and by the turn of the century this number had doubled. During this period, several black mariners were admitted to the hospital as residents. One of these men was John Simmonds, the son of an enslaved woman and a plantation owner. He forged an impressive naval career, having fought in the Battle of Trafalgar and rising to the position of Quartermaster on the HMS Variable. His service was commended with the Trafalgar Medal. He contracted yellow fever and came to live in Greenwich in 1824, before marrying an English woman and moving to the countryside. In 1869, shortly after Simmonds died, the pensioners were moved on to new homes and the hospital became a naval college, training promising officers from Britain and beyond. In 1997, the Navy vacated the premises and a year later the Old Royal Naval College opened its doors as a visitor attraction.

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