Anne of Denmark was a woman of appetites and could more than hold her liquor alongside her husband, James I, who was himself a legendary imbiber. She adored the joys of court life and worshipped the theatre. On her arrival in London in 1603, she swiftly became instrumental in introducing the masque to the cosmopolitan court. The first such performance of The Masque of Blackness, organised for Twelfth Night 1605, was an intricate and lavish display, part drama, part tableau, combining classical allusion, gods and angels, acted out by players and courtiers in which the heavily pregnant Queen herself and her ladies-in-waiting wore dark make-up and took to the stage.
The royal performance was a very different drama to that found on the other shore of the Thames at William Shakespeare’s Globe, and the gulf between the two would widen through the following century. Whereas the masque was carefully calibrated to enhance the image of the Crown, that same year Shakespeare was penning his two great studies in the tragedy of power, Macbeth and King Lear. While Shakespeare’s players imagined the human drama that drove an ambitious man to murder or destroyed a great man through vanity, the court masque was an act of political conjuring. Through the ropes and pulleys of the theatrical arts, the well-orchestrated lyrics and the chaos of the revels, true power was articulated, with only one conclusion: the adoration of the sovereign. On one such occasion, the first performance of The Golden Age Restored at the Banqueting Hall in Westminster, the stage was placed at one end, facing the King’s throne, garlanded by a large canopy. One either side, stools were arranged for foreign ambassadors. In front of the stage, an orchestra of violins and wind instruments whirred in anticipation. At last the King arrived, flanked by his most favoured ambassadors, and the drama was allowed to begin.
The curtains were pulled back to reveal an arcadian vision. The stage was a devastated landscape but the audience’s eye was drawn to a figure hanging in the air. Pallas, the goddess of wisdom, stood upon her chariot and by some ingenious device was descending from the sky. Over the soft fuzz of music she delivered a message from her father, Jove, that the Sun, Astraea, had been commanded to return and bring to England an “Age of better metal”. Pallas then hid behind a cloud and watched as the Iron Age and a cohort of Evils conspired to make war and ruin the nation. They danced in dreadful delight until they were turned into statues by Pallas. The goddess then heralded the return of Astraea and the Golden Age, who appeared singing a song of rebirth. Yet they demanded a court and Pallas thus called forth “Chaucer, Gower, Lidgate, Spenser… to wait upon the Age that shall your names new nourish, Since Virtue press’d shall grow, and buried Arts shall Flourish”.
The New Age was once more celebrated with a dance that soon spilled from the stage into the hall itself. First the players danced with the ladies of the court and then, with “Galliards and Corantos”, the whole assembly joined the throng. The drama became life, and the restoration of the Golden Age was no longer an illusion. At her parting, Pallas reminded her audience who was responsible for the transformation, not even needing to point to the King amongst them: “To Jove, to Jove, be all the honour given, that thankful hearts can raise from earth to heaven.”
Since the first masque, the royal court had come to depend on the wonder of fantastical worlds formed in the imagination of the set designer, Inigo Jones, and the worlds of Shakespeare’s heir and rival, Ben Jonson. From his first adventures in the creation of theatrical wonders, crafting other worlds with pulleys and canvas, Inigo Jones proceeded to acquire the accolade of England’s first architect. Born the son of a cloth worker, he was raised in the parish of St Benet Paul’s within the London city walls. As with so many pioneers, his origins were mythic and self-serving, as he later recorded: “Being naturally inclined in my younger years to study the Arts of Designe, I passed into foreign parts to converse with the great masters thereof in Italy.”
Almost the first concrete fact of his life records that in 1601 he travelled to Italy, where he almost certainly visited Venice. Here he purchased a copy of Andrea Palladio’s I Quatro Libri dell’ Architecttura, a work that would change his life, and quite possibly he also met Palladio’s pupil, the leading designer Vincenzo Scamozzi, who guided the untutored Englishman in his first glorious encounters with the Italian Renaissance. This immersion in the ancient and the foreign would have a profound impact on the young Londoner, for, as Sir John Summerson later wrote, “he knew, probably, more about Italian design than any Englishman living. He had the whole thing at his fingertips.” In a later portrait by Anthony Van Dyck, when Jones was at the height of his fame, he is every inch the modern Renaissance man, a design for his latest invention held lightly in his left hand. This is the first painting of an English architect – the position did not even exist before Jones returned from Italy.
Jones came back transformed, his mind full of schemes as to how he would transform Britain; yet he had to bide his time and for the moment restrict his visions to working as the designer for Queen Anne’s lavish masques. As he continued with his curious devices, he was determined to develop his new-found belief that the painted world could be as potent as the written word. In Italy, he had been encouraged to consider that architecture could create, inflame and reorder as forcefully as the lines of a poet or the demagogue’s oratory. Design, he argued, could be used to express the many faces of modern power, just as the Medici had used the stones of Florence to consolidate their rule. His ambitions did not have to wait long and, in a note written in December 1606, the poet Edmund Bolton raised the hope that, through Jones, “sculpture, modelling, architecture, painting, theatre work and all that is praise-worthy in the elegant arts of the ancients, may some day insinuate themselves across the Alps into our England.”
This fascination with the visual world was enhanced by a second voyage to Italy. Following the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Frederick V, the Elector Palatine, in 1613, Jones accompanied the royal train back to their new home in Heidelberg. He then continued over the Alps to Italy, alongside Thomas Howard, the Earl of Arundel, a Catholic nobleman already recognised as one of the most learned of the age. Together, they would conduct what one historian called the most significant Grand Tour ever taken. On his return Jones would be offered the first chance to put his new-found philosophy into practice.
In July 1613, while hunting at Theobalds House in Hertfordshire, Queen Anne shot the King’s favourite hound, Jewel, and James I’s rage was of such proportions that within days he was forced to placate his wife with a £2,000 diamond and give her the royal Tudor palace at Greenwich and the surrounding parkland, on the southern outskirts of London. It was a considerable gift with a distinguished history, yet from this moment, a new saga would be written here: of royal power and pleasure, of the sea and the space, of the nature of kingship and the changing identity of Englishness, revolution and the birth of modern British architecture. This ground, caught between the city and the countryside, hugging the south bank of the Thames, would become the unlikely parchment upon which was written the script of the 17th century.
There had been a palace at Greenwich since the 15th century. The first manor was the home of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the youngest brother of Henry V, who tried to usurp the Crown in the 1420s. His house was the epitome of chivalric good taste, named Plesaunce or Bella Court, with a vast library that would later be the foundation of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. After the Wars of the Roses the manor became a royal residence for the new Tudor dynasty, and a favourite hunting ground of Henry VII, who demolished much of Humphrey’s designs and replaced them with Placentia, a sprawling range of brick houses set within walls. Great feasts and celebrations were planned but, as Henry’s moods became increasingly ill-disposed, the palace was passed over to his boisterous son, Henry.
It was here that Henry VIII held jousting tournaments as a young man, as well as feasting and hunting. It was also a place for the rituals of courtly love: at Christmas 1511, a mock castle was erected within the grounds and the vainglorious Henry and his gang stormed the battlements to win the six ladies who were hidden inside. Yet as Henry grew older he too lost interest in many of the pastimes of his youth, including Greenwich, which was passed over to his children. Elizabeth, in particular, grew fond of the old palace. It was from here that she sailed to Westminster Abbey on her coronation day, and she would spend most summers at Greenwich “for the delightfulness of the situation”.
It was also during the Elizabethan reign that Greenwich was closely tied to the aspirations of the Atlantic empire. It was from the palace that Elizabeth would observe the shipbuilding in nearby Deptford, while many of her seafaring courtiers often spent time in the grounds, which lay close by the port. It is often suggested that it was within the palace that the Queen first encountered Walter Raleigh, who famously laid his cloak across a puddle to save the royal foot from getting muddied. More certain is the fact that Elizabeth travelled from Greenwich to Tilbury in 1588 to deliver her speech in defiance of the Spanish Armada that was threatening the Channel.
In 1617, when Queen Anne first inquired of Inigo Jones for his plans, the palace was broken and old. Anne began by enhancing the grounds of the old site with a new garden, designed in the latest European styles, with an aviary, a grotto, a water maze and fountains with statues. The new scenery expressed an arcadian ideal in contrast to London, a place where the government of Nature and man were in balance, an allusion to a time of Eden before cities, politics and war. It was in this perfect setting that Anne wished to place her new palace and, as John Chamberlain wrote in a letter in July 1617: “The Queen is building somewhat at Greenwich, which must be finished this summer, it is said to be some curious device of Inigo Jones, and will cost above £4,000”.
Anne wanted a private pavilion away from the hubbub of the main palace, a world away from the nearby city, and, as Jones was considering designs for the Queen’s villa, he was determined to bring all of the lessons he had learned on the Continent to bear. What Jones would produce would be unlike anything seen in England before: the Queen’s House would be the first example of modern architecture north of the Channel; the villa would represent the shock of the new enclosed within an earthly paradise. Inigo Jones was called upon to deploy his great learning to the task to ensure that the retreat was the perfect expression of the philosophy of order, proportion and balance. He loosely based his designs on a villa built in the 1480s for Lorenzo de’ Medici at Poggio a Caiano, near Florence, an exercise in the Renaissance doctrine of dignified symmetry.
Unlike any English builder before him, Jones set out his ideas on paper before approaching the building site. On his designs there are often references to actual measurements in feet and inches and drew all his devices to scale so that they could be replicated exactly. But, more importantly, he also measured his work through a basic system of ratios, each part connected with and reflected by the other. His original plans are scored with the pockmarks of a pair of dividers. In his mind, the perfect form was the square and the cube, with the ration of 1:1 and 1:1:1 respectively; while the rectangle had a variety of rations: a square and a third, 3:4; a square and a half, 2:3; a square and two thirds, 3:5; as well as the double cube, 1:2. For Jones the unity of a building, and the skill of an architect, were to be found in the relationship between its various parts.
Jones also balanced this divine geometry with an appreciation of the classical laws of architecture, thus priding himself on being the best-read and most knowledgeable man in England. He had been the first to visit the ruins and sites of Italy, but he also developed an extensive library of books. He distilled the conventions of classical architecture that had been forged in ancient Rome and revived in the Renaissance and hoped to translate them to 17th century northern Europe. From Vitruvius, Alberti, Palladio and the other masters he learned the identity of the five orders – columns – that represented the basis of architecture. He also understood that the essential unit of measure for all ratios was the module, the diameter of the column. He absorbed the delicate rubric that characterised each order within a hierarchy of ornamentation, each style expressing the virtues of a particular type of building – villa, temple, baths, theatre.
At the very beginning, however, Jones also had to cope with an unusual circumstance: the Queen’s House at Greenwich was to be built over the London – Dover road. Reasons for this are obscure: the villa was to replace a gatehouse that opened out onto the road. Perhaps Jones felt that it would be better for the road to be hidden by the house rather than ruin the view and therefore devised an H-shaped villa raised upon two wings to the north and south of the road, connected by a floating bridge room. Both these wings on the first floor would be of rough stone – rusticated – and within, there would be cellars where rowdy drinking sessions were planned. The main rooms of the house would be accessed on the north side via an oval staircase leading up to a terrace. On the south side there would be a colonnaded balcony, a loggia, from which the Queen would be able to watch the hunt in the park beyond.
Little did Jones know in 1617, however, that he was beginning a project that would span a century or more, and become the weathervane for the pitching fortunes and personalities of the Stuart dynasty. From the outset things did not go to plan, for Queen Anne grew sick over the winter of 1619 and died on 2 March. At Greenwich, work stopped almost immediately; the builders had only completed the two wings on the south and north to the height of the first floor. There was as yet no masonry connecting the two halves of the building. James I was distraught at his loss and, after a final performance of rustic masque, The Shepherd’s Holiday, the royal arcadia was abandoned. A roof of thatch was laid across both ends of the building site and the court returned to Whitehall. Greenwich Palace was forgotten even before the villa had been completed.
Jones’ villa was the very first modern building in Britain, but now stood empty to the south end of Placentia, the crumbling Tudor hulk, along the river. Yet this plot would have many lives, and through the development of Greenwich one can chart the story of the tumultuous 17th century. Most clearly, it is the story of architecture, the introduction of the classical template into the English tradition. This radical modernity would begin with the completion of the villa in the following decade and later be joined by a series of grander plans that would replace the old palace with a new Baroque monument, growing out from the villa. The parkland that surrounded the Queen’s House would also be transformed from rough hunting grounds into a royal park, including an astronomical observatory, the most advanced scientific institution of the age. The scheme was never completed but the site was then passed over to create a people’s palace, a royal hospital for the care of old sailors. The final construction, Greenwich hospital, was far grander than any other royal project.
Yet how the arcadian retreat became first a prince’s pleasure palace and finally a hospital, a royal gift to the people, is bound up with the complex and perilous journey of the Stuart dynasty and the changing role of kingship. The Stuarts, as in the masques, saw themselves as divinely ordained monarchs; however, the reality was closer to the human dramas to be found at the Globe. Continual unrest rumbled into civil war over the question of the limitations of dynastic kingship and it was not until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that the written contract between Crown and subject was finally inked. This dangerous transition – from God’s lieutenant to the people’s sovereign – would also have an impact upon the buildings at Greenwich.
The transformations at Greenwich are also interlinked with the changing fortunes of London. The capital was at the heart of the tumults throughout the century, the crucible where the conflict between the Crown and the nation was most keenly felt. London was, in the words of the Earl of Clarendon, “the nursery of our present troubles”. It was also, in the aftermath of the Civil Wars and the horrors of the Great Fire, the first modern city. This intellectual revolution was expressed in the city’s buildings. It also found its way to Greenwich, which was not immune to these changes, especially as the main figures who rebuilt London out of the ashes of 1666 were also those who created some of the most enduring works of architecture here: Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh.
James I died in 1625 and was succeeded by his second son, Charles, a very different man to his father. James had won rather than inherited the crown, while Charles saw it as his God-given right to rule; where the father made treaties, found accommodation, judiciously exercised favours and threats, and manipulated the Church to bind the nation together, his son, by contrast, saw negotiation as compromise. Charles I’s reign heralded the second act in the drama of the Stuart dynasty: a period when dark clouds appeared to gather over the arcadian scene. For a second time also, Greenwich was converted into a stage set for the sophisticated theatre of power.
“French queens never brought any happiness to the English,” observed Lucy Hutchinson, a Puritan lady of the court; yet in 1625 Charles married the French princess Henrietta Maria, daughter of the notable Henri IV. It was foremost a political match but did little to bind the fissures that were beginning to appear inside Britain – which were made worse when it was clear that, despite marrying God’s Protestant lieutenant on earth, Henrietta Maria was to hold onto her Catholic faith. A papist chapel was built at Whitehall and a vast French retinue swarmed around the Queen at her official palace on the Strand. The marriage did not start well, yet, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the quarrel of Oberon and Tatiana was quelled by sympathy, the King and his queen finally fell in love; and, as the Earl of Carlisle observed, “at such a degree of kindness as he would imagine him a wooer again and her gladder to receive his caresses than he to make them.”
The revival works at Greenwich was an expression of the royal bond. The palace grounds were considered a vale of health and nurture, away from the pollution of the court, and here Charles and his queen hoped to reform their marriage and build a temple to their affection. Here, Protestant princes would be born to cement the royal union and to offer a beacon to the nation, a focus for the future happiness of the British polity. In 1629, Henrietta Maria was staying at the Tudor palace when she gave birth to her first child, Charles-James; unfortunately he was born ten weeks early and was too weak to survive more than a day. Despite the sad news, work began anew on the Queen’s House.
In a painting of 1632, A View of Greenwich Park by the Dutch masters Adriaen Van Stalbemt and Jan Van Belcamp, the royal party are seen surveying the ground from the hill above the palace. Charles, Henrietta Maria and the young princes, Charles, are placed at the centre of the scene; the King’s right arm is raised as if to indicate with a gesture his power over the scenery, if not Nature itself. Behind him, the Queen’s villa is still covered over with a temporary thatched roof, yet Inigo Jones is also here, to the side, dressed in a blue cape, an Italianate cap on his head, caught in conversation with the learned courtier, Endymion Porter. The portrait seems to be showing us the old palace on the cusp of renewal through the intercession of Charles, whose wishes are fulfilled by the genius design of Jones.
While Anne of Denmark’s villa had been designed as a place of retreat, the work on the new house transformed it into a sanctuary of royal love, a symbol of the perfect marriage, a commonwealth of mutual benefit. If Henrietta Maria’s villa were a play, the Queen intended her new house to revive the ancient story of Daphne and Apollo portrayed in a portrait Charles I had commissioned from the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst the previous year. In the picture, the Greek god of music is struck by Eros and falls for the mortal Daphne, who initially spurns his advances. In the heat of the pursuit, Daphne turns into a laurel tree and Apollo vows to venerate her for the rest of his life. In Ovid’s account of the tale in Metamorphoses, the story of escape becomes a narrative on the evergreen constancy of love. Thus Inigo Jones was once again called to work on the plot that had lain covered in thatch for ten years and his new designs would transform the painting of Apollo and Daphne into stone.
Since 1619, Inigo Jones had continued to refine his philosophy of building. That year he had started to work on the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall, the grandest theatre of Stuart power and the architect’s most adventurous exploration so far of classical conventions. From the outside, the building was raised on a basement of rusticated stone with two sets of windows, the lower level with simple Doric pediments holding up a range of more ornate Corinthian columns. Inside the main room was 34 meters long, 17 meters wide and 17 meters high – a double cube. It was opened on St George’s Day, 23 April 1621, and was so revolutionary in its foreign ‘newness’ that few knew how to interpret it; for some it was “too faire and nothing suitable to the rest of the house”, but Jones was placing a Roman basilica, inspired by his veneration of Andrea Palladio, in the centre of a medieval huddle. He would bring the lessons he learnt here to bear on the new work for the Queen’s House.
The thatch was stripped from the roof of the old villa and work began immediately on raising the house to the first floor. Meanwhile, Jones also developed a terrace on the north side of the building on the first floor and a curved pair of stairways leading up to it. This had an immediate effect on the interior spaces of the house, for as one approached the villa from the river and ascended the stairs the entrance led into the great hall. The hall itself would express everything that Jones had learned since 1619: the central room was a 12 meter cube, a perfect unity of space and light. The villa presented itself as a private space but with a very specific purpose: the personal affection between Charles I and his queen was also a projection of the love between the nation and its Crown.
By raising the house onto the second floor, still floating above the London-Dover road, Jones was able to link together the two sections with an ingenious bridge room. This allowed, with a deft Palladian touch, access from the great hall into an open loggia, an enclosed, pillared balcony that looked out southwards towards Greenwich Park. Jones even remarked, in his own copy of the Italian master, that such a feature was one of the greatest ornaments that a country house could have. Thus the Queen’s House was renamed the House of Delights.
Inside, the villa was resplendent. Chimneypieces were designed and built in France and shipped down the Thames, while the Tuscan artist Orazio Gentileschi devised the ceiling panels, which held a series of paintings expressing the blossoming of the arts within the royal union. There was also a commission for a portrait of a couple enacting the myth of Cupid and Psyche by Jacob Jordaens that was set, according to Apuleius, in a “worthy mansion for the powers of heaven”. This theme of eternal affection was acted out in a masque, The Temple of Love by Sir William Davenant, in 1635, with scenery by Jones. It was the last masque to be performed for Charles’ court.
In addition, the King filled the house with his latest collection, making the villa a retreat for a Renaissance leader. Charles considered himself something of a connoisseur, loved anything that was not British and was determined to accumulate a portfolio of artwork that signified his position as a modern European prince. He bought wisely and widely; Europe was in the grip of the Thirty Years’ War and many small principalities were looking for ways to fund their armies. In 1627 he purchased a cache of paintings from the Duke of Mantua that contained over 175 works by Peter Paul Rubens, who also made a handsome profit as a go-between on the deal, buttering up his customer by noting that Charles was “the greatest amateur of paintings among the princes of the world”. At the centre of the collection, placed within a niche in the great hall, was a bust of Charles by the Roman maestro Bernini.
The great arts of Europe found a home within the English court, bringing prestige to the Crown. In the process Inigo Jones was establishing what modern British architecture could be. Within these rules, Jones was also developing his own grammar of ornamentation. As one observer commented, he “hath so finished and furnished, that it surpasseth all other of that kind in England”. This was a worthy endorsement of the architect’s skill, but it was a dangerous compliment to pay a monarch in a time of adversity.
By the end of the 1630s, Charles royal performance was starting to look ragged and isolated. As Lucy Hutchinson so perceptively observed as she watched the royal masques, viewed from outside the Banqueting Hall, the masque could be seen to provide the monarchy with an impenetrable insulation against the attitudes of the governed. This vision was a perfectly accurate project of the way Charles saw his realm. At some point the royal drama lost its ability to command the adulation of the nation and the performance of sovereign power proved to be an illusion.
In January 1642 Charles and Henrietta Maria, along with their children, fled from Whitehall; London was not longer safe for the King or his family. They left in such haste that they arrived at the Palace of Hampton Court before their messenger and found that their beds had not been prepared. Within weeks they travelled to Greenwich, on the way to Dover, where Henrietta Maria took a boat to France carrying the royal jewels, hoping to sell them on the Continent in preparation for war. Husband and wife, the King and Queen, did not see London again together. After leaving his wife, Charles travelled north where, seven months later, he raised his Royal Standard and declared war on his subjects. Abandoned once more, Greenwich Palace was immediately seized as civil war swept the nation. In November 1642 Parliament commanded that the tools, arms and armour inside the palace – over £200 of weapons – be removed to the Tower. The royal site was neutralised and forgotten.
In contrast, Inigo Jones was swept up in the maelstrom of war and, before leaving London, he hid his fortune in a Lambeth marsh. In July he was asked by the King for a loan of £500 and the architect sent his nephew by marriage, John Webb, to deliver the money sewn into his jacket; it was a dangerous mission and one that would return to haunt the young courier. Jones was also called to assist the King on the battlefield and use his architectural knowledge in the preparation of fortifications. In October 1645 he was caught by the Parliamentary army at Basing House, Hampshire, and was forced to make accommodation with the ascendant power in the land. He was then allowed to retreat into obscurity while his royal master continued his increasingly hopeless fight.
After six years of relative peace, the Civil Wars eventually returned to Greenwich in the spring of 1648. The previous autumn Charles was captured and then allowed to escape. In a last throw of the dice he called for a desperate uprising against Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army. The Second Civil War was brief but bloody. In May, a local militia of 800 men marched to Greenwich and camped in the grounds of the royal park. Finding no weapons in the nearby houses, these royalists rebels raided the outlying ships, as well as seizing “carts, harrows and such like materials,” and prepared to face the enemy which they expected to advance from London. At dawn on the 28th, mist rising from the Thames, two regiments appeared from the west and “like the devil himself” scattered the ill-disciplined horde. It was a weak, impotent attempt to swing the tide of events that was running away from Charles and his supporters.
The Civil Wars came to an end on 30 January 1649, when Charles I was led to the Banqueting Hall, Inigo Jones’ perfect, symmetrical space that had been built thirty years earlier to symbolise the harmony of the Stuart dynasty. The geometric room was further emphasised by the ceiling paintings above the gathered huddle that now surrounded Charles. The paintings had been commissioned by Charles himself from Peter Paul Rubens and in the central panel stood a celestial James I, from whom the light and order of the nation emanated. Charles I was driven forward across the hall towards one of the windows which had been dismantled, and led out to a platform than run along the front of the building. He said his prayers, forgave the executioner, and addressed the throng that waited in anticipation. Laying his head upon the block, he spread his arms and was beheaded. The second act of the Stuart dynasty ended with the swing of an axe. For some it was a royal martyrdom; for the new regime it was just punishment for the King’s betrayal of his own people.
What is a palace without a king? The Crown was replaced by a Commonwealth, an uncomfortable balance between Oliver Cromwell’s army and an increasingly desperate series of parliamentary constitutional experiments. This was not a time for grand architectural gestures and the Puritan wind quickly reached Greenwich, where the Queen’s House was neglected, but not altogether lost. With Cromwell’s triumph the villa was unceremoniously stripped of the royal collection of art: “The noblest collection that any prince out of Italy could boast of,” noted one commentator, “but those barbarous rebels, whose quarrel was as much to politeness and the liberal arts, as to monarchy and prelacy, dissipated and destroyed the best part of it.” The villa was briefly passed over to the parliamentary lawyer Bulstrode Whitlock, while the old Tudor palace nearby was turned into a stables and then a prison for enemy sailors captured in the First Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-4.
Yet even in these years of neglect, the stage set of Greenwich was not completely abandoned. For the Stuarts the park and the palace had always been a place of royal pleasure; perhaps now it could be transformed for the benefit of the new regime and given a new power, one connected to the Lord Protector’s ambitions to make England overlord of the seas. Greenwich was the place where London met the world. It was often here that foreign dignitaries arrived on their trips to the metropolis (a word that was first used in the 1650s), docking at the palace steps and then, after a rest, travelling overload or by barge into London. Perhaps the palace could be converted from a palace of private pleasure into a centre of national pride.
In the 1650s Cromwell devised his first Navigation Act, which set out the rubric for the British Empire; by peculiar precedent Greenwich was already at the centre of these schemes. By some unlikely quirk of feudal tradition, all the grants for settlement in the New World were said to be “of the manor of East Greenwich”. Thus the charters for the lands of Virginia (1606), the Fellowship for the Discovery of the Northwest Passage (1607), Newfoundland (1610), Guiana (1613), Bermuda (1615), New England (1620) and Maine (1639) were all drawn up as within the manor lands of Greenwich park. In effect, the British Empire was nothing more than an extension of the palace grounds.
Cromwell began a systematic overhaul of the Navy to protect British ships as they uncovered new trade routes and settlements with a massive program of shipbuilding at the Deptford docks. Things swiftly led to war against the Dutch, who also coveted the treasures of far-off colonies. And war creates heroes. Because of the combination of its maritime connections and social distinction the Queen’s House was soon co-opted for the veneration of the new national leaders, a mausoleum for the fallen warriors who died in the service of the Commonwealth. In 1653 the body of General-at-Sea Richard Deane, who had died at the victorious Battle of the Gabbard, thus ending the First Anglo-Dutch War, was laid in state at the villa. From Greenwich, his coffin was ceremoniously carried up the river to Westminster Abbey, where he was buried in the Henry VII Chapel.
In 1657 the villa was used once again solemnly to record the death of Robert Blake, Deane’s fellow General-at-Sea, so brave and skilled that even Horatio Nelson would later be in awe of his victories as an admiral. Wounded in battle outside Cadiz, having captured over £200,000 in American bullion, Blake died within sight of Plymouth. He was given a full state funeral despite the fact that, while his body lay in state at Greenwich, all his internal organs remained in Plymouth.
The Commonwealth years proved that modern architecture was a fluid thing, that a royal building designed to project the glory of the Crown could be converted for a different kind of performance; that the stone that had once sung of the divine right of kings could be used to praise the valour of the whole nation. Yet, as Cromwell grew ill in 1658, the future of the republic seemed dark, and now one knew what was to come. Cromwell’s son, Richard, was named as his heir but he could not bend the interests of the Army and Parliament to his will. The Army, led by General Monck, then attempted a coup and marched from Scotland to London, inciting a parliamentary conspiracy. It was only after every other option was found lacking that a ship sailed to Holland, where Prince Charles was waiting in exile. He returned to London and claimed the crown but, despite his own desire, his kingship would be very different to that of his father, and this would be reflected once again in building at the Palace of Greenwich.
On the morning of 29 May 1660, the old Tudor palace still stood in a desperate state. Beyond, one could see the Queen’s House on the lea of the hill and the fields of Greenwich park beyond. The parkland, the popular hunting ground of James I and Charles I, rose dramatically up to Blackheath Common which ranged across the top of the mound. Here, Charles II was greeted by the Lord Mayor of London, who offered the returning King the ceremonial sword of the city. Also on the field were a troop of dancing girls, dressed in blue and white, who scattered flowers and herbs in front of the King’s horse. Charles then made his way into London, which he had not seen for over eighteen years, and towards his palace at Whitehall.
Charles II returned a king, but not a conquering hero. As he travelled through the city he was torn between the temptations of absolutism that he had witnessed in the rule of his cousin, Louis XIV, who had proclaimed “L’état, c’est moi”, and the prospect of being as powerless as a Venetian doge. With the definition of his role left unclear in the Restoration settlement Charles II desired to project himself as a Baroque prince; and if this could not be achieved by law, or swift victory on the battlefield, he hoped to do so through architecture. During his exile he had watched with envy as Paris was transformed into a modern capital, Louis XIV impressing his authority upon the nation through stone. As the playwright Corneille observed, “An entire city, built with Pomp, seems to have arisen miraculously from an old ditch.” Why should Charles II not do the same for London?
While in theory architecture could be used to project boundless power, it took money to turn paper projects into stone and Charles soon discovered that he could do little more than plaster over the cracks of a troubled inheritance. When he moved into Whitehall the King was perturbed by the years of neglect at the hands of the Lord Protector but was only able to afford a few new decorations and additions, allowing a visiting French courtier, Samuel Sorbière, to note that, beyond the elegance of Jones’ Banqueting Hall, which had survived intact, the rest of the palace was “nothing but a heap of houses erected at diverse times”.
Beyond the palace gates, Charles also had little control over the revival of the city. He could not afford grand monuments, and he was in no position to command change. He passionately desired to improve his new capital but could only do so by encouragement rather than patronage. Fortunately, he returned from the Continent with a number of courtiers who were more than able to afford new houses; where once the Strand was the aristocratic quarter, new grand hôtels built on French and Dutch designs began to rise on the green fields of Piccadilly. At nearby St James’, Henry Jermyn devised London’s first square, based on the Place des Vosges in Paris, a noble enclave of large houses around a garden plot in St James’ Square. Men such as John Evelyn, who had spent the Civil War years touring the sites of France and Italy, also began to debate the new identity of modern English architecture, taking Inigo Jones as the first master and combining his work with the latest marvels of the Baroque that hey had encountered abroad.
The same could not be said about the Queen’s House at Greenwich. With the Restoration, the villa was returned to Henrietta Maria, but rather than being a retreat for a glorious queen, the House of Delights became a dowager cottage, the permanent home for an elder noblewoman. Some improvements were made to the fabric of the building and John Webb, Inigo Jones’ kinsman and his architectural heir, worked on expanding the living space, devising two new salons either side of the bridge room. There was also a concerted effort to retrieve the art collection that had been stolen during the Commonwealth. The Queen arrived back in England in 1662 and stayed only briefly at Greenwich. In June 1665, in the midst of the truest indication of the failures of London, the Great Plague, which brought the city to its knees, Henrietta Maria left England for good, moaning about the cold, and returned to Paris. Among her retune was a young scientist, Christopher Wren.
The villa was then given by Charles to his new wife, Catherine of Braganza, but rarely used except by visiting ambassadors. In 1674 the Dutch minister visited and recorded how the house was a reminder of England’s recent history: “looking out on the floor and beautiful pictures of art and sciences; spacious rooms with marble chimneys, but the marble leaf-work mutilated; the noses of all the faces cut off from love of mischief, committed in the times of Cromwell.”
How, therefore, would Charles II prove his new kingship in stone? The answer lay with John Webb who, soon after the Restoration, presented Charles II with a brand-new plan for Whitehall. The new palace would rival El Escorial, Phillip II’s monumental residence outside Madrid, but for the moment Webb did not gain the prized commission – he was not in favour with the new court, who had spent many years abroad absorbing the latest styles while he had sat out the Commonwealth at home in England. Nevertheless, in 1663 he was offered another opportunity that far surpassed his hopes of Whitehall: the chance to build a palace for the Baroque prince in Greenwich.
Work had already begun on dismantling the old palace and Webb was allowed to dream of building an English Versailles to match Louis XIV’s lavish hunting lodge outside Paris. In his initial plans he devised a building that filled three sides of a square facing the river front: a range topped with a cupola connected two wings. John Evelyn visited the site and was concerned that it would lie too close to the river’s edge, but apart from that it was very uncontroversial. Except that, by using a conventional format for a Baroque hôtel, it did not take into account the building that already existed and the southern range had the unfortunate effect of blocking the view from the Queen’s villa towards the Thames. It was quickly made known that this was unacceptable. Thus, in the final drawings, the southern range was soon done away with and the palace would become a study in perspective, the two large wings running away from the river with the Queen’s House as the eye’s focal point. At the far end of the gaze, as the hill rose to a summit, Webb also devised a grotto.
The palace complex therefore dominated the whole of the park, a vast stage for the display of royal power and the interaction between architecture and Nature. For the approaching dignitary, arriving by barge to the broad stone steps at the river’s edge, the sight was impressive: the ornate, formal solidity of the King’s Palace dominated the eye; through the careful mathematical balance of space and perspective, the two wings receded and gave way to the refined elegance of the rustic Queen’s House in the mid-distance; beyond the garden rose finally to the fantastical ruin on the horizon.
The Baroque palace was intended as a thing of magnificence and power, an expressive mass of stone composed like frozen music, informed by the latest innovations in natural philosophy. The rigid codes of construction and classical correctness, as preached by Inigo Jones, were replaced by an overpowering determination to impress. As befitted such a grand scheme, the plan for the garden was an exploration in form and reason on a monumental scale. Often a house would stand at the centre of Nature and from this fulcrum ran, first, a series of intricate parterres, displaying the owner’s dominance over his land; beyond vast avenues divided the landscape, occasionally punctuated by statues, canals, fountains and rooms. The overall impression was of power and grace. By 1662, Charles had already broken up the old hunting ground, dug a series of giant steps into the hillside and planted regiments of trees; the following year he hired André Le Nôtre, the famed French designer who had laid out the parks at Versailles, to draft a scheme for Greenwich. Unfortunately, Le Nôtre never visited the site and when he produced his plans it was clear that his ideas had not included the dramatic gradient of the hill to the south. In the end work was never progressed on the cascade and Le Nôtre’s vision remained on paper.
On 4 March 1664 Samuel Pepys, diarist and member of the Navy Board, who often travelled through Greenwich on business, recorded that he “did observe the foundacion laying for a very great house for the King, which will cost a great deal of money”. Work began, but in recognition of the expense of building on such a scale, Webb was commanded to complete one wing before starting the second. Nonetheless, costs soon began to escalate and by 1665 the palace had racked up £75,000 as Webb continued doggedly on the west wing, later called the Charles II wing. Yet by the end of the 16602, Charles was forced to admit that his dreams of being the British Sun King were in tatters. Nearby, London had fallen victim to a disaster that would change its history for ever.
On the morning of 2 September 1666, a fire began in the house of Thomas Farriner, the King’s baker, on Pudding lane, to the north of the gatehouse of London Bridge. Over that night the flames began to spread along the street and into the surrounding neighbourhood; within three days the fire had devastated much of the city, burning an area of over 400 acres, making more than 130,000 Londoners homeless and reducing to ash many of the major institutions of the city including the ports, the Royal Exchange, the Guildhall, numerous parish churches and consecrated chapels as well as St Paul’s Cathedral. As John Evelyn noted in his diary that week: “London was, but is no more.”
The fire finally showed up Charles’ attempt to act the Baroque prince for what it was. In 1672 Webb’s work at Greenwich was brought to a sorry end, with only the western range completed. Webb retreated to Somerset and would never build in London again. But while work on the palace was ended, it did not mean that Charles had abandoned Greenwich for good; it would revive, in a new form, and in the hands of the next generation of planners, who sought to find a modern language in architecture.
At the time of the Great Fire, Christopher Wren was the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford University, the leading stargazer in England and one of the most renowned scientists in Europe. On the Restoration, Wren had been one of the New Philosophers, pioneers of the empirical scientific method, who had persuaded Charles to institute a club as a permanent chamber for their activities in London, the Royal Society, and meet weekly for the pursuit of experiments, demonstrations and debate.
The New Philosophy was also at the centre of architecture and the idea of what a city could be. Following the 1666 fire Wren had devised a fresh plan for the city that radically altered its street layout and rationalised the medieval huddle destroyed by the flames. Wren saw that architecture – the science of the building – was an essential expression of the social dimensions of the New Philosophy, while the determination to rebuild the city would herald its rebirth as a modern, rational capital. Wren’s plans were never put into practice, but the same spirit of reason informed the rebuilding of the city when, in 1667, Robert Hooke began to measure out the revised street plan for the capital.
That same year, Louis XIV had commissioned an astronomical observatory outside Paris, which was completed in 1671. The accurate charting of the stars by telescope was the space race of its day, at the heart of the early modern military-industrial complex, and Charles II was determined not to be left behind. The exploration of the heavens promised to bring glory to its royal patron and valuable knowledge to the market, improving navigation of the nation’s fleet and ensuring that it got into port safely and ahead of the competition. Louis’ observatoire was built by Claude Perrault, a noted architect and mathematician, one of the first members of the French Academy of Sciences, founded in 1666 in response to the Royal Society. Charles would similarly ask his own architect and geometer, Wren, to build one for England, to devise a building for “Rectifying the Tables of the Motions of the Heavens and the Places of the Fixed Stars, in order to find out the so much desired Longitude at Sea, for the perfecting the Art of Navigation.”
Thus at Greenwich, at the King’s command, Wren’s passions for science, architecture and stargazing combined in the creation of the Royal Observatory, the most ambitious project at the heart of Charles’ imperial ambitions. The Observatory would be the first purpose-built scientific research centre in England but, needless to say, as befitted the times, it was constructed on a shoestring budget. As most astronomical readings in those days were conducted in the open air, the building was intended as a basic structure to stand on the edge of the hill above the Queen’s House, far enough from the fug of the capital for a clear night sky. Wren devised a protected courtyard with plenty of waterproof storage for the instruments as well as a small house for the “observator”. He was also allowed to add “a little for pomp”, for this was a royal building that was to be visited by interested dignitaries and courtiers.
Costs were kept low and, rather than setting new foundations, Wren reused those of an old house which had once stood there. There were consequences, however; as the building did not face due north, every calculation would be thirteen degrees off, which had to be factored into each observation. Wren also made savings by recycling “bricks from Tilbury Fort… [and] some wood, iron and lead from a gatehouse demolished in the tower.” Progress, thankfully, was swift as John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, noted: “the work carried on so well that the roof was laid, and the building occupied by Christmas.”
The Observatory was a very subtle shift in the performance of power, and the role of Greenwich as a royal domain. The person of the King was no longer the sole object to be glorified through architecture; instead of a palace of pleasure, the site became a meeting place between royal patronage and national interest. The King was using his authority to promote then innovations of the New Philosophy in the service of merchants and tradesmen, as well as the Navy, who were at the time establishing Britain as the maritime superpower. Thus the power of the throne was expressed, not by magnificent stones or architectural awe, but in a new relationship between the king and his subjects: patronage, not absolutism, was the new order of kingship.
Charles never lost his hopes of building a palace for a Baroque prince, but it would not be in London. In the 1860s, as he was growing fearful of the political machinations of the Parliament, which was once again crying out for limitations upon his sovereignty, he decided to build a new royal house at Winchester, far from the capital. Wren was commissioned to develop new plans and work began with uncommon haste. The palace was never completed; in 1685, as Wren was rushing between Winchester and the metropolis, the King suffered an apoplectic fit and died four days later.
In the early hours of 21 May 1692, seven years after Charles II’s death, a messenger arrived at Whitehall Palace from Portsmouth with news of a great naval victory. The French fleet had been destroyed off La Hogue and the victorious Admiral Russell had returned to port with the injured. In her joy, Queen Mary, wife of William III, gathered together fifty surgeons from the various London hospitals and sent them to help the wounded. The following week the Queen also granted “of Greenwich as a hospital for Seamen”. The building would be a fitting symbol of a new era of kingship, an expression of the Crown’s thanks to those who had sacrificed so much for the nation. It was to be a place of rest after war, a magnificent shelter to show how the Crown bestowed charity upon the most needy. Greenwich Hospital would make solid the new understanding between the King and his people. But it was not to be just any hospital for, as the Spanish tourist Don Emanuel Alvarez Espriella sagely observed in the following century, “the English say that their palaces are like hospitals and their hospitals like palaces”.
Four years earlier, on 5 November 1688, William of Orange, the Dutch stadholder, had disembarked at Brixham, Devon, with a vast army and slowly made his way towards London. The last invasion of Britain was by no means bloodless, but it was swift. On 19 December William was welcomed into London by a crowd that called out “Welcome, welcome, God bless you, you come to redeeme our Religion, lawes, liberties and lives, God reward you.” Four days later Charles II’s brother, James II, who had only been on the throne for three years, fled to France and lost his crown for ever.
The Glorious Revolution redesigned the political theatre of England. Who was to be the succeeding monarch? What was the nature of this new kingship? In the ensuing debates it was agreed that not one but two crowns were needed and that William would reign with his wife, Mary. Secondly, on their coronation day, the “double bottom’d” king was presented with a Bill of Rights that outlined the ancient rights of the Crown so that sovereignty was defined within a written constitution. The new contract finally answered the problems that had haunted English power throughout the Stuart dynasty, and enshrined them in law: on what authority did the monarch reign? What were the limits of the throne? What were the bonds between the Crown and Parliament?
This public statement of royal power, however, needed a new symbol. Neither William nor Mary were interested in the grandiose Baroque gestures of their Stuart forebears; when they declared that they wished to move their court outside London as the metropolis’ smoky pollution affected the King’s asthma, they decided to rebuild Hampton Court to the west and to convert Kensington Palace as a quiet retreat away from the centre. William would almost instantly find glory on the battlefields of Europe to confirm Britain’s predominance abroad, and Queen Mary’s plans for a new hospital at Greenwich offered a very physical representation of the new reign. In October 1692, the Treasury drew up plans to finance the new project and within a year a Royal Warrant was issued. In addition, a commission of over 200 nobles and grandees was set up to oversee the building. Sir Christopher Wren was named architect and the treasurer was Wren’s old friend, John Evelyn.
In January 1694 Wren visited the site with a number of masons and his assistant, Nicholas Hawksmoor, to make a survey. He found that Webb’s wing, left in 1672, was now being used as a gunpowder store and £500 was made available to clear the rubbish and move the ordnance. Hawksmoor also noted the masons’ advice that the Charles II wing “was nothing but a heap of stones”, knowing that they got paid whether working on construction or demolition. Nonetheless, Mary demanded that the old building remain and, in addition, that any plans should not obstruct the view from the Queen’s House to the Thames. This posed a sticky design problem for Wren that tested his skills as both architect and geometer.
Yet all proposals were thrown into the air in December 1694 when Mary died of smallpox. Plans for the hospital could easily have stalled but William, having initially expressed concern about such expensive undertakings, pledged as a token of his heartfelt love for his wife the determination to see her project through. He promised £2,000 a year to ensure the memorial to his beloved was completed.
At that time, Wren was in his sixties and for the last twenty years had dedicated himself to the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Many of the fifty-one parish churches were now in hand; he had also finished the Monument, the Customs House and other royal institutions within the walls, yet he was still building his cathedral, St Paul’s, which was more than a decade away from completion. He was also working on reviving the Tudor palace at Hampton Court for William and Mary. As he began his first designs for Greenwich, Wren focused all his experience, learning and dreams in creating a magnificent new symbol for the monarchy.
Almost immediately he was forced to break the rules: traditionally, building around a central square, the two wings would connect with a central range that often contained a portico or cupola for dramatic effect. However, as Mary had stipulated that nothing would disrupt the view from the Queen’s House to the Thames, there was to be no central range at all. Like Webb before him, this challenged Wren’s inventiveness as he hoped to create a central domed chapel to compete with Les Invalides, Louis XIV’s hospital for old soldiers in Paris. Instead, viewed from the north, Wren was offered the puzzle of how to devise two parallel ranges running southwards from the river that were somehow balanced and gave the impression of being parts of a single building, combining with the Queen’s Villa in the distance. Despite such restrictions, Wren produced perhaps the most eye-catching design of his career.
Wren’s solution was to abandon attempts to compose a single building but instead design a complex collection of different forms and shapes in a landscape: at the river front two blocks run either side of a large quadrangle, each with a double portico facing out towards the Thames. Beyond, rather than a central range, he invented two further blocks in parallel, each with a cupola at the southern end high above a colonnaded pavilion, a loggia, that ran away from the river towards the south. This clever device gave an elevation to the centre of the design while also creating a vista that channelled the gaze towards the Queen’s House beyond. The effect was startling and seemed to bring the villa into relation with the new buildings, balancing the various parts of the site into a single whole.
Yet, as with all projects in the Stuart era, money was a problem. The hospital was fortunate in the integrity of the treasurer, John Evelyn, who never once took a salary (nor did Wren) or, as was common practice , siphoned off funds into his own profit. Like all great projects, the commission of nobles who were initially desperate to be attached to the scheme hardly ever met and when they did it was a costly affair: in 1697 a meeting of the fabric committee made its way through “four ribs of beef, a leg of mutton, six chickens, two loaves of bread, and ten half flasks of wine”. As a result Evelyn was forced to fundraise almost single-handedly. And fast: a year after the first stones were laid Evelyn calculated that he had raised £800 but had already spent over £5,000. Other possibilities were suggested, including a contribution of sixpence from every sailor; lotteries were held; all prizes gained from naval engagements were also press-ganged into service. Perhaps the unlikeliest donation came from the notorious pirate William Kidd, whose property was confiscated – £6,500 in all – and given to the fund. By 1702 Evelyn had spent £128,384 and racked up £19,000 in debts.
Building began with haste on all parts of the complex. A special model was constructed in wood to show how everything fitted together, and was clearly so useful that it was said in 1707 that it needed to be repaired by “gluing the parts that were unglued”. The Charles II wing originally built by John Webb in the 1660s was remodelled while work started on the Queen Anne wing opposite. To the south, the foundations were dug for the corresponding King William wing, to the west, and Queen Mary wing, to the east. The central space between the buildings was also transformed to give unity to the cluster of forms: a grand square was set at the Thames’ edge. The Charles II and Queen Anne blocks were then divided from the south ranges by a wide broad road. Beyond this the William and Mary buildings were raised and between them a broad set of stone stairs led up to a paved court, bringing the two wings together yet also allowing the visitor a clear view of the Queen’s House beyond. To complete the sense of visual unity, Wren added a colonnade on either side of the villa.
While Wren was the master planner of the project he placed his assistant, Nicholas Hawksmoor, in day-to-day charge on the ground; his choice of deputy was wise. Hawksmoor had started his career as a copyist within Wren’s office at St Paul’s and had worked alongside him on many of his undertakings. By 1700, Hawksmoor was also expressing his own architectural voice. Initially working as Wren’s “gentleman”, he devised country houses at Broadfield Hall and Easton Neston, where he refined his distinctive English Baroque style. In 1700 he joined up with John Vanbrugh, the playwright who had recently turned his hand to architecture. Together they designed Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, two of the greatest stately homes in England. Hawksmoor, like Wren, believed that good architecture had its foundation in geometry and reason: “strong reason and good fancy, joyn’d with experience and tryalls, so that we are assured of the good effect of it”. Like Jones, Webb and Wren before him, Hawksmoor took the essence of classical architecture and looked at it in a different way: they spoke the same language but with very different accents, all to be found at Greenwich.
After 1703 Hawksmoor was aided at Greenwich by Vanbrugh, who was named a commissioner at the hospital that year. Born in London in 1664, Vanbrugh had tried many careers before settling on architecture: he had travelled to Surat in Gujarat as an employee of the East India Company, joined the Army, been arrested in Paris for espionage, spending four years in the Bastille, written successful plays for the capital’s stage and run the Haymarket Theatre, as well as being a deft political manipulator and ardent Whig. As an architect, despite his lack of training, he brought society connections and an unerring flamboyance to Hawksmoor’s deep understanding of the necessities of design.
The work would continue through the reign of William III, who died in 1702, having stumbled on a molehill while riding. He was succeeded by Queen Anne, the second daughter of James II and the last of the Stuart monarchs. Despite the change of personalities, the role of kingship itself did not alter – political stability was ensured by the agreements established in 1689, following William III’s revolution. Queen Anne supported many of the architectural projects that she inherited; she was passionate about Wren’s work on St Paul’s and personally attended the celebrations held for victories abroad in the cathedral. Greenwich was also a project close to the Queen’s heart and it was during her reign that the hospital finally began to accept old sailors into its elegant halls.
In 1705, forty-two pensioners were allowed to take their lodges in the renovated Charles II wing. The following year this had increased to 300 and by 1738 there was a full completement of 1,000. The life of the new arrivals was to be heavily regulated: everyone wore a uniform with a grey coat and blue lining; there was daily chapel and strict rules against drinking and swearing. If caught drunk, the culprit was docked a day’s food; if found telling lies, he had to stand in the hall for three meals holding a broom; the punishment for whoring was bread and water for a week. Despite the threats the pensioners were well fed. Every man had a pound of beef or mutton every five days, and a double ration of cheese twice a week.
In time, the four wings were divided up into dormitories for the old sailors, as a visitor noted, each sailor being given his own small cabin, with “a little more room than he is like to enjoy in the Church-year”, but it was better than living in poverty on the streets, which was the common fate for many ex-Servicemen. Later, in 1786, the German tourist and writer Sophie von La Roche would be more complementary: “their dormitories are very pleasant: large light and lofty, with cubicles containing glass windows on the side, where each has his own bed, small table, tea and smoking outfit which he can lock up”. A teacher was hired in 1715 to instruct the pensioners, although a library was not made available until the 1820s.
The whole project came to a climax in the great Painted Hall. From the outset Wren and Hawksmoor were thinking about how to decorate the King William wing. At its southern end, they had projected a dome that would add symmetry and rhythm to the complex. Without the possibility of constructing a central range to link the two wings of the building, the cupolas on either side of the central space drew the whole together. In Hawksmoor’s exquisite hand, the two architects started to plan their dome for Greenwich. At the same time, Wren was devising his grander dome for St Paul’s Cathedral. The dome of the hospital was the first to be completed and, although far smaller, is perhaps even more elaborate than that of St Paul’s.
Under the dome, the magnificence continued, especially in the rich painting of the interior of the Great Hall. On 17 July 1707 the business minutes note that, “as soon as the scaffolding in the hall is ready Mr James Thornhill do proceed upon the painting thereof… and that he make such alterations in his designe, in inserting what more he can relating to maritime affairs”. Thornhill was a young historical painter who drew in the Italian Baroque style; he was commissioned to tell the maritime story of Britain and its conquest of the seas upon every surface of the hall. He worked on the project for the next seventeen years and in 1724 delivered a bill for “540 yards of history with figures etc. on the ceiling of the Hall at £3 a yard… 1341 yards of painting on the sides with trophies, fluting etc. at 26s a yard”. In total he would be paid more than £6,600.
In 1726 Thornhill also produced a guide to the paintings for interested visitors, An Explanation of the Paintings in the Royal Hospital at Greenwich, which gave a clear description of the mixture of allusion, history, allegory and myth that combined in his art. Just as, over a century before, Inigo Jones had claimed that “Picture is the invention of heaven: the most ancient and most akinne to Nature”, and that the artist can use his tools to manipulate the world as powerfully as the orator or the poet, now Thornhill was writing his new vision of the nation in paint. Where Jones had first set his masques with canvas and pulleys, Thornhill set out his theatre of power for posterity. At the centre of the Lower Hall ceiling sit William and Mary, who “present Peace and Liberty to Europe, and trample on Tyranny and Arbitrary power”. At the far end of the hall is the main image of a British man-of-war, filled with trophies taken from its enemies. The sip is sailing towards London up the Thames, while the other great rivers of England – the Severn, Humber, Isis and Tyne – are portrayed. The New Philosophy is also represented by the great astronomers, including the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. In the Upper Hall the nationalistic celebration continues; here, the world itself, even the four elements, pay obeisance to the British Crown.
Yet, even as Thornhill was working on his masterpiece, the stage of the Crown was once again in question. In 1714, Queen Anne died childless and as a result the hopes of the Stuart dynasty passed with her. By the terms of the Act of Settlement, her half-brother, Prince James, the Old Pretender, was denied the crown as punishment for his Catholicism. Instead, genealogists had to work their way through the Stuart family tree all the way back to James I’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who married the Elector Palatine in 1613. It was following this wedding that Inigo Jones had travelled to Italy for the second time with the royal party. Elizabeth’s daughter Sophia of Hanover was the closest Protestant relative, but on her death, just months before Anne’s, the inheritance of the throne of England was passed to her son George, who was named George I.
It was at Greenwich that the new King first stepped on English soil on 17 September 1744. One of his first acts was to knight the captain who brought him there and John Vanbrugh, who had campaigned for his coronation. In time, Thornhill was to weave a portrait of George into his fresco, as master of the seas and the munificent King of Britain.
Thus the stones at Greenwich tell the story of one dynasty as well as the first years of the next. Work on the hospital would continue for many decades. By 1713, Wren was rarely to be found at Greenwich; at over eighty years old he was still active, but the plan for the hospital had been established and the second phase of building, which began that year, could go ahead without the Surveyor General. He officially retired in 1716 and was replaced by Vanbrugh. It is often assumed that this change heralded an alteration in the plans for the project, Vanbrugh adding a hint of Baroque flamboyance to Wren’s rational design. This is not true at all; Hawksmoor later complained that Vanbrugh did not need the title of Surveyor as he had so little to add to the design. A new chapel was not completed until 1742 and then rebuilt in the 1780s by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart.
Unlike Westminster Abbey (a building whose function has been consistent but its architects several), Greenwich Hospital has always been Wren’s creation but has continued to change its purpose, offering itself as a stage set to successive generations. It remained a hospital until 1869, when it was converted to a naval college for the education of young officers, a use which continued until 1998. Since then it has served as the Main Campus of the University of Greenwich, and, from 2001, as home to Trinity College of music. It has often been used, with a nod to its former role as a stage set for the Stuart dynasty, as the mise en scene for around eighty films, including a recreation of London in the 18th century for The Dutchess, the 19th century in Sense and Sensibility and the late Victorian era in the thriller The Secret Agent, as a replacement for Buckingham Palace in Patriot Games as all as a Venetian palazzo in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. It is proof of the flexibility of architecture to change over time yet remain constant.
From The Stones of London, by Leo Hollis.