Greenwich: Royal history and stunning art
- Credit: Ben Gilbert
Elizabeth I – one of Britain’s greatest queens was born there. Today her portrait still hangs on public display as part of one of the nation’s greatest art collections. JAMES MARSTON visits Greenwich.
For as long as I can remember I have been interested in Elizabeth Tudor.
Her precarious early life, her fraught relations with her sister, her accession to the throne, her domination of the early modern political scene, her private life, her wit, her speeches, her intellect, her legacy are subjects of endless fascination.
Perhaps one thing we remember her for stands out – the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Sent by Philip II of Spain the armada was a huge invasion force aimed at overthrowing Elizabeth and the occupation of England. The armada failed with many of the Spanish ships being wrecked on the Irish west coast. Today it is remembered as a great victory – helped by bad weather – for the English and a pivotal moment in our history.
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Elizabeth had stood firm and faced down her enemies. To mark the victory the Armada Portrait was commissioned. There are in fact three Armada Portraits – one at Woburn Abbey, one at the National Portrait Gallery and one at the National Maritime Museums art collection on display at the Queen’s House in Greenwich.
It is a stunning painting which dominates the room and commands respect as well as offering an insight into a world of 430 years ago which continues, in so many ways, to shape our own.
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The Armada Portrait isn’t the only treasure at the Queens House. The building itself is a masterpiece of classical design of the 17th century.
Commissioned by Anne of Denmark – with of James I – the Queen’s House was completed in 1636 and is the first fully classical building in England. Inigo Jones’s original design features can still be seen in the Great Hall, which is a perfect cube in shape, and the Tulip Stairs, as well as the distinctive marble flooring with its black and white, geometric pattern. The proportions are elegant and the rooms overlook the former Royal Naval College and Royal Observatory.
Anne of Denmark never lived to see then house finished and died in 1619 with only the first floor completed.
It was not until 1629, when James’s son Charles I gave Greenwich to his wife Henrietta Maria, that work on it resumed.
The art inside is spectacular with works by major British and European artists including Turner, Canaletto, Stubbs and Lowry.
Not far from the Queen’s House is the Royal Observatory – the birthplace of the Greenwich Mean Time – as well as the former Royal Naval College built over the sire of the ancient Tudor palace.
The naval theme is strong in Greenwich with the famous Cutty Sark, a reminder of Britain’s trading history, and the National Maritime Museum with exhibits and displays charting the history of Britain’s sea faring heritage, all within walking distance.
After a good lunch at the well-known Trafalgar Inn overlooking the river and always mindful of any connections to East Anglia I popped into the parish church of Greenwich – St Alfege’s – for a look around.
Not only was Henry VIII baptised there but I discovered there is also a stained glass window depicting the marriage of his sister Princess Mary to her second husband Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk in 1515.
A former Queen of France, Mary Tudor fell out with her brother Henry VIII, as she didn’t get on with his second wife Anne Boleyn. Mary lived and eventually died in June 1533 in Suffolk.
She is buried in St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds.
The Queen’s House – Greenwich
-The royal villa was designed by Inigo Jones and is Britain’s first classical building and a pioneering masterpiece of 17th-century architecture.
-Charles II took an interest in Greenwich and the Queen’s House, extending the building, and renovating what became known as the Queen’s Presence Chamber.
-Queen Mary asked that the Royal Naval College not block the view from the Queen’s House to the Thames, a request taken into account by Sir Christopher Wren’s design for the building.
-The Queen’s House is famous today for its extraordinary art collection including works by Great Masters such as Gainsborough, Reynolds, Turner and Hogarth.
-It was used by members of the royal family until 1805, when George III granted the Queen’s House to a charity for the orphans of seamen, called the Royal Naval Asylum.
-This remained until 1933, when the school moved to Suffolk. It was taken over by the National Maritime Museum in 1934.
-The Queen’s House is free to visit with the exception of guided tours.