Saturday, July 16, 2011

Greenwich II: Old Royal Naval College

The second place we visited in Greenwich was the Old Royal Naval College.  Our guide gave us a quick Greenwich history lesson as we started.  In the 15th C Duke Humphrey, brother of King Henry V, built a house in Greenwich which was later extended into a palace.  Henry VII then also built a palace in town after he won the War of the Roses.  Greenwich was the birthplace of Henry VIII and of both Elizabeth and Mary.  James I signed the deeds to enable North American colonization while in Greenwich.  Charles II pulled down the old palace and began building a new one, but didn’t finish it. William and Mary then used the building to house old sailors.  Sir Christopher Wren was hired as architect and built the current 4 buildings on the site.  He was required to alter his plans in order to make the new buildings match the King Charles hall and the Queen House.  Wren designed these buildings for free.  At it’s high point there were some 3,000 pensioners living on the site.  In 1869 the sailor’s home was closed and in 1873 the Royal Naval College was founded.  It was given a 150 year lease, and was to be used for officer training.  In 1998 the lease ran up and it was not renewed.  The government set up the location as a charity and opened it up to use by the public.

Under the current courtyard there are foundations for several of the past buildings.  Some have been excavated, some remain buried.  We were able to enter the Undercroft, which is a Jacobean construction.  It is a stone storage area built to underpin the timber banqueting hall located above it.  We also visited the Painted Hall and the St. Peter and St. Paul Chapel, located opposite each other, beneath the two domes.  The Painted Hall is the largest painted ceiling in Europe.  It was painted by James Thornhill, who was the first English painter to be knighted.  He is also responsible for the paintings in the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  In 1806 Admiral Nelson was laid in state in the Hall.  The paintings show the triumph of peace and liberty over tyranny, stressing William’s success over Louis of France.  The upper chamber shows the victory of Protestantism over Catholicism. 
the center of the ceiling

The Chapel to St. Peter and St. Paul was designed by Wren, but it was burned by fire in 1779.  James Stuart was the surveyor charged with rebuilding it.  He altered Wren’s design and gave the building a curved ceiling and added a wall at the front.  His alterations greatly improved the acoustics of the room.  The painting hanging on the “new wall” is by the American Benjamin West, it is his largest painting.  West designed the paintings of the saints which line the walls as well.

The final site that we visited was the skittles (bowling) alley in the basement.  Originally the room was used as a mortuary for the hospital and was considered haunted.  It was later used by the retired sailors as a smoke room.  They wanted some entertainment and so the two alleys were installed in 1860.  It was greatly enjoyed by the naval officers of the college, and the pins and balls are made from recycled ship materials.  We enjoyed seeing the room and the whole tour in general. 

After the tour many of us walked up to the Royal Observatory to see the Prime Meridian and stand in both hemispheres.  Unfortunately the place was completely mobbed so I decided to not wait around to see the line.  I had enjoyed the visit to Greenwich and didn’t want to ruin it.  I would have liked to see the Maritime Museum, but didn’t have time.  We had had a full day.  I wandered back down the hill and took the ferry back up to London.


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