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The Royal Naval College

Greenwich SE10.
Open: Painted Hall and Chapel only from 14.30 daily

The College stands on the site of earlier palaces--the most famous of which being Placentia, where Henry VIII was born. With the English Civil War this original Tudor palace fell into disrepair and in 1664, John Webb, pupil of Inigo Jones, began a new building for King Charles. Only one side of the planned three-sided Palladian court was completed as the somewhat improvident Charles ran out of funds.

Two decades later, after the naval victory of La Hogue, William and Mary started rebuilding--not this time a palace, but a hospital for seamen. Of this Samuel Pepys wrote “...as an Invalides with us for the sea, suitable in some degree to that of Paris for the land” and by 1705 the first pensioners were housed. Wren, who for some twenty years gave his services free, assisted by Nicholas Hawkesmoor and John Vanbrugh, had realised one of the finest examples of English baroque--but hardly a practical building for aged and infirm ex-sailors. After a Royal Commission enquiry and closure in 1873 the Admiralty rented the buildings from the Hospital Estate at £100 per annum and formed a Naval College.

Today, the King William Block with the Great Hall, vestibule and cupola painted by James Thornhill (he laboured 19 years on the Great Hall at £3 a foot for the ceiling and £1 the walls) is particularly splendid. It was here that Nelson’s body lay in state in Jan 1806 after the battle of Trafalgar.

Across the courtyard is the College Chapel. Gutted by fire in 1779 it was rebuilt and decorated by James Stuart, the classical revivalist, to become a masterpiece of English Georgian craftsmanship. The altar painting of St Paul shipwrecked off Malta is by Benjamin West. Today the Chapel is often used as a concert hall. Beneath the Queen Anne Block is the Undercroft, where Wren’s unused carved keystones contrast with the fine Jacobian building.

The Chapel has a regular congregation even today and services are held every sunday at 11am to which all are very welcome. Find out more at the official Chapel website.


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