What Is the History of The Old Royal Naval College?

Located on the banks of the River Thames in London, the Old Royal Naval College is an impressive landmark that is also home to a number of remarkable attractions. The classical structures that grace the site now were constructed between 1696 and 1751 as the Royal Hospital for Seamen. The structures, notably the lavish Painted Hall and the neoclassical Chapel, were designed by some of England‘s best architects, including Sir Christopher Wren, and are regarded as some of the finest in Europe. The Royal Hospital relocated in the 1860s, but the site’s historic nautical heritage remained, and from 1873 until 1997, the buildings housed the Royal Naval College, one of the most prestigious naval training institutions. In 1997, with the departure of the Naval College, an independent foundation was founded to preserve the beautiful baroque buildings and gardens for current and future generations and to create opportunities for broad audiences to appreciate and share its value.

Greenwich Palace

Built in 1443, the Greenwich Palace, often referred to as the Palace of Placentia, was the first structure to be located on the current site. Mary I and Elizabeth I were both born here, making it a popular choice for Tudor royalty. Former Queen Elizabeth II is claimed to have played under a tree in Greenwich Park called “Queen Elizabeth’s Oak.” In 1660, the Palace was demolished in order to build a new palace (the Greenwich Hospital), which was completed four decades later.

Greenwich Hospital

Queen Mary II, who was moved by the sight of injured sailors returning from the Battle of La Hogue in 1692, ordered the establishment of the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich. She ordered that the King Charles wing of the palace, which was originally constructed by architect John Webb for King Charles II in 1664, be transformed into a naval hospital to serve as a counterpart to the Chelsea Hospital for soldiers. Sir Christopher Wren and his associate Nicholas Hawksmoor provided their architectural expertise to the new Royal Hospital for free. Sir John Vanbrugh replaced Wren as architect and completed the structure in accordance with Wren’s original designs.

The Greenwich Hospital buildings featured an infirmary, designed by James Stuart and built in the 1760s, where pensioners were treated by qualified medical personnel (Sir John Liddell was for a time senior medical officer).

In 1869, Greenwich Hospital was closed down. It wasn’t until 1873, four years after the hospital had closed its doors, that the buildings were purchased by the Naval College in Portsmouth, which led to the formal establishment of the Royal Naval College.

Royal Naval College

Royal Naval College

Four years after the hospital closed, in 1873, the buildings were bought by the Naval College in Portsmouth. This was the official start of the Royal Naval College. The college became known as one of the best places in Europe to train naval officers, and as a result, more and more difficult courses were added. 

As the Navy transitioned from sail to steam power, the Royal Naval College delivered state-of-the-art instruction to over 27,000 potential officers from Britain and across the world. Women were eligible to join the newly founded Women’s Royal Naval Service and get training at the Royal Naval College with the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

The decision to combine the several branches of the military’s training was made by the government in 1983, and the Navy abandoned the grounds in 1997.

The Greenwich Foundation, an independent foundation that was created with the goal of preserving the site for both current and future generations, as well as providing everyone with opportunities for pleasure, education, and one-of-a-kind cultural experiences.

In 1998, the Old Royal Naval College became a tourist destination, giving the general public the opportunity to explore and appreciate this extraordinary location.

Old Royal Navy College

The Greenwich Foundation has been in charge of the site since 1998. Since then, the site has been given new life through a mix of new uses and activities and a revival of the historic old site. The structures have a Grade I listing status. The University of Greenwich signed a lease in 1999 to use some sections of the Queen Mary and King William buildings, as well as the whole of the Queen Anne and Dreadnought Buildings for a period of 150 years. In the year 2000, Trinity College of Music signed a lease for a significant portion of King Charles. This made a new and unique mix of education and culture.

In 2002, the Foundation reached its goal of letting visitors see the whole site. It made the Painted Hall, the Chapel, the grounds, and the Visitor Center open to the public every day for free and offered tours. The Old Royal Naval College opened to students and visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Trinity College often filled the air as the Old Royal Naval College opened its doors to students and tourists of all ages and ethnicities from all over the world.

The Old Royal Naval College and the World Heritage site “Maritime Greenwich” are becoming focal places for a variety of community events, and it has been a popular location for shooting television shows and movies.

Painted Hall

Every visit to the Old Royal Naval College is highlighted by the exquisite Painted Hall.

The Painted Hall has one of Europe’s most magnificent Baroque interiors. Sir James Thornhill made the Painted Hall at the beginning of the 18th century. It has walls and ceilings that cover 40,000 square feet. These surfaces are covered with 200 beautiful pictures, including kings, queens, and creatures from mythology.


Following a devastating fire that destroyed Sir Christopher Wren’s original design, James ‘Athenian’ Stuart reconstructed the stunning Chapel of St Peter & St Paul in 1779.

The Chapel at the Old Royal Naval College is thought to be one of the best interiors from the 18th century. It has a richly decorated ceiling, naval themes all over, and an amazing altarpiece painted by the Raphael of America, Benjamin West.

Nelson Room

The Old Royal Naval College’s 500 Years of History tour and a visit to the spectacular Painted Hall would be incomplete without learning the interesting account of Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s lying-in-state in the Nelson Room. This area was recently repaired and redesigned to highlight this exceptional occurrence.

This little room’s distinctive architecture has been meticulously preserved. It has been restored to its full splendor, including the massive roof lantern, colossal brickwork, and Swedish marble flooring. Sir Christopher Wren, the architect, was personally responsible for selecting the enormous marble flagstones known as Oland Stone.

Old Royal Naval College Today

For the last 25 years, The Greenwich Foundation has preserved the beautiful baroque buildings and gardens of the Old Royal Naval College for current and future generations, allowing a wide range of audiences to appreciate and share their importance and beauty. It has been an outstanding cultural attraction that serves as a source of inspiration for awe and amazement, as well as for learning and innovation.