Grand Architecture: Connecting One King Charles to Another
Thu 4 May 23
As we celebrate the Coronation of King Charles III and reflect on his love of historic architecture, it’s interesting to look back to his namesake, Charles II. Here at the Old Royal Naval College is one of the few buildings he commissioned for his personal use.
The King Charles building (now home to Trinity Laban Conservatoire and Admiral’s House) was commissioned by King Charles II soon after he was restored to the throne in 1660. The building dates from 1664 and was part of his plan to build an extensive palace to compete with Louis XIV’s magnificent Palace of Versailles. King’s House, as it was originally known, was built on the foundations of Greenwich Palace (birthplace of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I).
Charles II had a grandiose scheme. It left Queen’s House (a former royal residence built between 1616 and 1635), untouched but replaced what remained of the Tudor Palace with a great Baroque building. Plans included formal gardens stretching up to Queen’s House and connecting the new palace to Greenwich Park.
King’s House was designed by John Webb, nephew by marriage to Inigo Jones, who had designed the Queen’s House. Webb was appointed Architect of the new Palace, under the direction of the Surveyor-General, Sir John Denham. The large Corinthian columns and imposing pediment you see today reflect Webb’s interest in classical architecture.
1664 may have been a good year for the King and his subjects, but 1665 brought the horrors of the plague and 1666, the Great Fire of London. Plans for the expansion at Greenwich were shelved and work stopped altogether in 1672 when King Charles’s finances and interest in the project ran out. To this day the east-facing range remains much as Charles’s original design, however the west range was rebuilt during the reign of George III – another ancestor of our King Charles III.
By the time Charles II died in 1685, Greenwich Park had been laid out in the formal manner of the day.
The painting A View of the Queen’s House and Greenwich Palace from One Tree Hill by Hendrick Danckerts, (1625-1679) is thought to have been commissioned by Charles II and shows Queen’s House, and the first range of the King Charles Block. This painting currently hangs in Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire, which is in the care of the National Trust.
In 1692, Queen Mary II issued orders that the King’s House at Greenwich and the land surrounding it, be ‘converted and employed as a hospital for seamen’. King’s House became the north-west block of Greenwich Hospital and is now known as the King Charles Building of the Old Royal Naval College.
Our King Charles III (then Prince of Wales) would have been familiar with the building of his namesake during his period studying at the Royal Naval College as a young naval officer.
The image below shows King Charles entering the building around 1975, when he completed the Lieutenants’ Greenwich Course. This focused on professional naval knowledge, a broadening of outlook for officers and an understanding of the world’s armed forces.
King Charles III has always held strong views on architecture. He was prompted to comment in 1995 when it was announced that the Royal Naval College would close and a new use be found for the magnificent site. The then Prince of Wales visited the site with ministers at the time to meet with college officials. He reportedly wanted to, “…encourage a spirit and atmosphere where we can have creative and imaginative thinking for the future of the Royal Naval College’ and said he would… be keeping a very close interest in this”.
After many visits by the Queen, and her family, over the years, on 21 October 1998 it was His Majesty’s father (Prince Phillip) who presided over the farewell dinner that marked the closure of the College – prior to its conversion to the Old Royal Naval College of today.
Visitors to the Old Royal Naval College today can take a special tour that highlights the royal connections to the site over the last 500 years from the Tudors to Charles III. The tours will run twice a day over the Coronation Bank Holiday Weekend and features many portrayals of the members of the Royal Family filmed at the Old Royal Naval College, from The King’s Speech to The Crown. The Royal Tour also includes an exceptional opportunity to visit what was the King’s House, now the Admiral’s House, in the King Charles Building, usually reserved for VIPs and special occasions.
In addition to this, visitors can take part in the Old Royal Naval College’s Coronation Celebrations, which includes a host of royally themed events and activities throughout the weekend.