By Deborah Seymour, Painted Hall Ceiling Tour guide

05 September 2017

On the surface, a ceiling tour of the Painted Hall enables our visitors to experience the visual imagery of a political alliance at close quarters. However, should you scratch beneath that surface – not literally, it’s 300 years old and we are, after all, conserving it – a romantic tale unfolds.

In 1677 our royal founders, William III and Mary II, were united in a marriage arranged to ally the English and Dutch against their common enemy, France. 30 years later, with skilful brush strokes, Sir James Thornhill marked out a central oval on the Painted Hall ceiling depicting the political success of that union.At the top of this oval the winged figure of Fame, holding a laurel wreath aloft, trumpets in our illustrious royal couple. Look closely and you will see a banner displaying the intertwined initials of William and Mary picked out in gold.

The intertwined  William III and Mary II beneath the royal crown proclaims their alliance

The intertwined William III and Mary II beneath the royal crown proclaims their alliance

At the tender age of 15, and 6 feet tall, Mary was distraught at the prospect of marriage to her Dutch cousin, William of Orange, aged 27, and 5‘6”. She ‘wept all that afternoon and the following day’ but, with the public delighted at the prospect of a Protestant match, Mary did her duty and married William. Despite Mary’s initial reluctance and their difference in age, their joint devotion to the Protestant faith brought them close and the couple grew to love each other.

The royal couple looking comfortable together

The royal couple looking comfortable together

William, unlike most of his peers, took only one mistress, Mary’s Lady-in-Waiting, Elizabeth Villiers. Despite this indiscretion, Mary’s loyalty to her husband was so great that she refused to accept the throne of England without him at her side. In 1688 the couple deposed Mary’s Catholic father, James II and the following year were crowned England’s first and only joint monarchs. Thanks to Thornhill’s skill, intricate details of the royal regalia can be admired from the observation deck.

Intricate detail of royal regalia viewed from the observation deck

Intricate detail of royal regalia viewed from the observation deck

In 1694, aged 32, Mary contracted smallpox. When William realised Mary was going to die he said ‘From being the happiest, I am now the miserablest creature upon earth. I have never known a single fault in her!’  Despite Mary’s protestation that he should stay away, William took his camp bed to her bedroom and stayed by her side until the end. Devastated by her death, William dismissed his mistress and granted a charter for the foundation of The Royal Hospital for Seaman at Greenwich which had been the “darling object” of Mary’s life. In acknowledgement of Mary’s intentions, William insisted the charter be backdated to before her death and issued in both their names. Over 300 years on, William remains at Mary’s side, under the watchful eye of Thornhill’s Cupid.


Together forever

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