King James I’s London – 6. The Queen’s House, Greenwich

May 18, 2011

Long an admired landmark of Greenwich, the origins of the Queen’s House go back to the reign of King James I.

It was the Queen, Anne of Denmark, who commissioned the building of The Queen’s House in 1616 and gave it the name by which it is still known. Sadly, however, she died before it was completed.

King James I was said to have been a frequent visitor to the Tudor Palace of Greenwich (the building had earlier been known as the Palace of Placentia and was the birthplace of King Henry VIII in 1491).

King James  is traditionally said to have awarded the Manor of Greenwich to Queen Anne as an apology after he had publicly sworn at her when she had accidentally shot one of his favorite hunting dogs.

In 1616, Queen Anne decided to build a new property on the site as both a private retreat and a place where she could entertain and it was to the rising star Inigo Jones that she turned to for the design (in recognition of his growing status, he was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Works the following year).

The house was Jones’ most important job to date and the design he came up – based on a H with the two sides joined by a bridge over the Greenwich to Woolwich road – with is said to be the first Classical building in England.

Among the original features which survive to this day are the striking black and white geometrically patterned marble floor of the Great Hall (the room having been designed as a perfect cube), the painted ceiling of the Queen’s Presence Chamber and the iron balustrade the Tulip Stairs – said to be the first “geometric self-supporting spiral stair in Britain”.

Queen Anne became ill in 1618 and died the following year without seeing the end result of her commission. The work subsequently was shelved and only restarted (and completed in 1638) after King Charles I gave it to his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria.

She only had possession for a short time before Parliamentary forces seized it during the Civil War. After the Restoration, the Queen’s House was returned briefly to her by her son King Charles II (it was at this time that the original H-shape of the house was altered to a square) before part of it as later used as studio for painters and then as grace and favor apartments.

With the Old Royal Naval College now occupying the surrounding site, in 1805, King George III gave the property to the Royal Naval Asylum – a charity caring for the orphan children of seamen – and it later became part of the Royal Hospital School.

The National Maritime Museum took possession in 1934 and the building now houses the National Martime Museum’s collection of fine art. As an interesting aside, there have been several reported sightings of ghosts in the house, the latest as recently as 2002.

WHERE: The Queen’s House, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (nearest DLR station is Cutty Sark); WHEN: 10am to 5pm daily (check website for closures); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.nmm.ac.uk/places/queens-house

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