The site of the Old Royal Naval College has long been a place of worship. A Franciscan chapel occupied the site in the Middle Ages, later becoming the Chapel Royal where famous Tudor monarch Queen Elizabeth I heard choral music (learn more about the early history of the site here).

Sir Christopher Wren, who produced the original designs for the Royal Hospital of Seamen, designed the Chapel of St Peter and Paul with the rest of the Royal Hospital, and it was completed by his successor Thomas Ripley in 1751. We know that the original chapel had a flat ceiling, and was similar in décor to the Painted Hall; however, on 2 January 1779, a fire broke out in the adjacent tailor’s shop following rowdy New Years’ celebrations, gutting the Chapel. In the upper parts of the chapel tower, soot marks still line the walls.

The Chapel was rebuilt with a complete change of style, the famous neo-classical architect James “Athenian” Stuart carrying out the design. Delicate pastel colours and mouldings reminiscent of Wedgwood china replace the elaborate and ornate Baroque style of the Painted Hall, producing the airy, balanced, geometrical lightness of the “Age of Reason” – the Rococo style.

The organ was completed in 1798, choir stalls were added in 1882, and the pulpit has been moved, but otherwise the chapel looks much as it did when services resumed in 1789. Naval imagery is found throughout the Chapel, reflecting the building’s original purpose as a place of worship for the Greenwich pensioners. Notice the cable-like design of the marble floor, and the medallion in the centre, formed by a fouled anchor within a compass rose.

Benjamin West’s painting, The Preservation of St Paul after Shipreck at Malta, dominates the east end of the chapel. St Paul, shipwrecked on Malta following a storm, is attacked by a serpent around a makeshift fire. Miraculously, the snake cannot harm him, earning the respect of the islanders. The story of Paul’s delivery from the storm was entirely appropriate to a chapel attended every day by naval pensioners, many of which had also seen storms at sea and many of whom bore the terrible scars that 18th-century naval warfare could inflict.

Today, the Chapel continues to hold regular services throughout the week and on Sunday mornings, and musical concerts are held here including the BBC Proms in the Summer. You can find out more about the services and musical events taking place at the Chapel here.

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