The classical buildings that make up the Old Royal Naval College today - including the iconic twin domes - were built for purpose as the Royal Hospital for Seamen, and date back to the 17th century.

An old view of Greenwich, showing the half-built complex of the Old Royal Naval College
A View of Greenwich and the Queen’s House from the South East, by Hendrick Dankerts, 1675

After his restoration to the throne in 1660, Charles II drew up ambitious plans for a new palace, to replace the old and poorly-maintained Greenwich Palace, which had become unused during the Civil War. Unfortunately for Charles, finances and enthusiasm soon waned, and only one new wing was actually built. In 1694 this wing (now the eastern range of the King Charles Court), along with the grounds in royal ownership, were granted by William III by Royal Warrant as the site for the Royal Hospital for Seamen, in accordance with the wishes of his late wife, Queen Mary II.

The project would be worked on by two giants of English Architecture, Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Sir Christopher Wren produced a series of designs for the new Greenwich Hospital, many of them taking inspiration from Chelsea Royal Hospital and the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris.

Wrens early proposal displaying a grand central domePerspective of Wren's proposal for a hospital with a central dome © Sir John Soane's Museum

Various designs came forward in the early stages of the project, several sporting a flamboyant central dome. However, it had been Mary’s wish that the view from the Queen’s House to the river remain unspoilt, so Wren’s final design saw the buildings laid out into two halves, with twin domes rather than a large central one.

Work commenced in 1696 on the four major buildings, or courts, which eventually were to accommodate over 2,000 veterans of the Royal Navy. Wren’s extensive work commitments elsewhere, however, which included rebuilding St Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London churches, as well as extending Hampton Court Palace, meant that most of the work was carried out by Nicholas Hawksmoor, Clerk of Works from 1698. It was Hawksmoor who drew many of the working designs for the project.

Today this historic landmark is open to the public and is the home of three unique visitor attractions; the Painted Hall, the Chapel, and the Visitor Centre.

Back to the Royal Hospital for Seamen

Back to the History homepage

Find out more