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.

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.

A View of Greenwich and the Queen’s House from the South East, by Hendrick Dankerts, 1675. Showing the King Charles Court, with the remaining parts of the Tudor Greenwich Palace to the right © National Maritime Museum

Sir Christopher Wren produced designs for the new Greenwich Hospital and 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, overseen by Wren and assisted by John James. The final blocks were completed by Thomas Ripley between 1735 and 1751. Further minor additions, alterations and landscaping were carried out over the next century by the Surveyors of the Fabric: James Stuart, John Yenn, Joseph Kay and Philip Hardwick.

The Pensioner’s Story, by Thomas Davidson, 1883

Occupation by naval pensioners continued for over a century until reduced numbers finally forced the closure of the Hospital in 1869. The buildings were re-opened in 1873 as the Royal Naval College for the education of officers, with the Joint Services Defence College arriving in 1983. When the Navy left in 1997,an independent charity was established to conserve the site for present and future generations, and create enjoyment, learning and unique cultural experiences for everyone.

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

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