Royal institutions in Greenwich

The Royal Hospital for Seamen

After Charles II abandoned Greenwich Palace, it remained empty and the medieval buildings became derelict.

In 1694, Mary II realised the "darling object of her life" and, with her husband, William III, founded the Royal Hospital for Seamen on the site. The hospital would be a charity for sailors from the Royal Navy who were too old, sick or badly wounded to continue in its service.

Christopher Wren offered his services as architect of the hospital's new buildings free of charge. Although 55 years elapsed from the laying of the foundation stone in 1696 to the completion of the last great court in 1751, Wren's design has been described as "one of the most sublime sights English architecture affords". Inside, things were just as splendid, with the fabulous Painted Hall by James Thornhill and Stuart's restoration of the chapel providing two crowning glories.

Greenwich Pensioners

Equally colourful with their blue frock-coats and three-cornered hats were the Greenwich Pensioners. With places for over 2,000 men, the hospital provided a safe refuge for these ex-sailors who were, for the times, well-fed, clothed and housed.

The "listless idleness and mental vacuity" of a life on shore, however, meant that vacancies began to multiply. In addition, alternatives to the Hospital became available and advances in medicine left fewer sailors needing lifelong care. By 1860, 1,100 of the beds were empty.

The Hospital closed in 1869 and stood empty until the Royal Naval College arrived from Portsmouth in 1873. Students at the college included the present Dukes of Edinburgh and York. The College closed in 1997, and Wren’s superb complex is now a campus of the University of Greenwich.