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Royal Hospital

Sir Christopher Wren's iconic Royal Hospital for Seamen (1694–1869)

Shortly before her death, Queen Mary II, who co-reigned with her husband King William III from 1689 until 1694, commissioned the construction of a new charitable institution for the care of retired men who had served in the Royal Navy.

Esteemed architect Sir Christopher Wren was appointed as surveyor in 1696. He offered his services free of charge. However, due to Wren’s extensive work commitments, rebuilding over 50 churches after the Great Fire of London, much of the work on the ground was carried out by his talented assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor.

The scale and magnificence of Wren’s outstanding Baroque complex, that still stands today, was intended to reflect the growing power and wealth of Britain as a dominant maritime nation.

West Dining Hall interior, Illustrated London News.

Who was Sir Christopher Wren?

Sir Christopher Wren (1632 – 1723) is Britain’s greatest architect. St Paul’s Cathedral in London, which took over 35 years to build, is his masterpiece. He was Surveyor-General to six English monarchs. His most famous buildings are often at the very centre of national life and ceremonials. They include Royal palaces, the Old Royal Naval College, the Royal Hospital, Chelsea and 52 churches built after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Wren entered Oxford University at 17 years of age in 1649/50 during the English Civil War. He was already well-known as an astronomer, mathematician and inventor before he took up architecture in his thirties. He taught himself architecture with the assistance of books.

Wren was a polymath and a practical intellectual. He is sometimes referred to as ‘the British Leonardo’. He excelled in many disciplines, including physiology, geometry, meteorology and drawing. As a child he made sundials; as a student he dissected human bodies; as an astronomer, he identified the rings of Saturn.

Wren’s legacy for us today is not only measured by the wonderful buildings he designed, but also as an extraordinary example of what a combined education in science and the humanities can offer.

Wren’s Vision for the Royal Hospital

Sir Christopher Wren needed all his experience and skill when he worked on the Royal Hospital for Seamen. Not only did he have to incorporate the existing King’s House into his own design, but he also had to meet Mary II’s request for a river view from the Queen’s House.

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© Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich, the river front, with a scale of feet. Engraving by H. Hulsbergh after C. Campbell, 1715. Wellcome Collection

Foundation of the Royal Hospital

Queen Mary, daughter of James II, had an interest – like her father – in the navy and particularly with the welfare of sailors. It was her idea to build an institution to house old and infirm sailors, in the same way as Chelsea Hospital did with soldiers.

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View of Greenwich Hospital by Colen Campbell, 1725

A retirement home for naval veterans

The Royal Hospital for Seamen was more akin to an almshouse or retirement home than a hospital.

Medical provision was limited and seamen suffering from serious ailments or requiring amputations were often sent to other London hospitals.

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Pensioners outside the chapel at Greenwich ('An Old Tar doing Penance for his devotion to Jolly Bacchus'), Henry James Pidding, 1844 © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

The Painted Hall

The Painted Hall boasts one of the most spectacular Baroque interiors in Europe. The incredible ceiling and wall decorations were conceived and executed by British artist Sir James Thornhill.

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Naval officers dining in the Painted Hall

History of the Chapel

The Chapel was built in the mid 1700s for the Greenwich pensioners living on the site. The original chapel was destroyed by fire in 1779 and was rebuilt.

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