'The darling object'
James II originally had the idea for a Royal Naval hospital, but it was his daughter, Queen Mary, who launched the project.
|Queen Mary II (1662-1694). © NMM|
Mary and her Dutch husband William took over the throne from her father after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. James was exiled and fled to France.
In 1692 the joint monarchs removed the threat of him invading and regaining the crown with a victory over the French fleet. However, their own ships returned to Portsmouth with heavy casualties.
|King William III (1650-1702). © NMM|
The Queen sent down 50 surgeons, £30,000 in bounty for the crews and requested that the Treasury make 'the grant of Greenwich as a hospital for Seamen, which is now depending before you'.
Her gesture backed a 1691 naval report, which recommended that the unfinished wing of Charles II's 1660s palace at Greenwich be converted from a gunpowder store into a hospital.
The Queen now made the idea 'the darling object of her life'. Sir Christopher Wren, the Surveyor-General, was called in. He offered to design the hospital without charge, as it was work 'too near akin to him to let it want any degree of furtherance he could give it'.
|Sir Christopher Wren. © NMM|
Wren first proposed demolition of the Charles II building and to remove the Queen's House, or at least block its view to the river. Mary refused, 'with as much Indignation as her excellent good Temper would suffer her'. She wanted both buildings to stay and for the House to retain its ‘visto’ of the Thames, which it had only gained when Charles cleared the old Tudor palace of Greenwich.
The Queen showed economic sense. Wren's final agreed plan of four 'courts', with room for 2044 Pensioners, was four times the size of Chelsea Hospital, which he had built for army veterans.
Death of the Queen
If Mary had not suddenly died from smallpox in December 1694, the project could still have foundered on its costs and the King's lack of interest. But the tragedy spurred William to appoint first a commission of 14, then one of 200, to carry her dream forward. The founding charter, backdated in both their names to 25 October 1694, stated the Hospital's purpose as:
|John Flamsteed. © NMM|
'the reliefe and support of Seamen serving on board the Ships and Vessells belonging to the Navy Royall... who by reason of Age, Wounds or other disabilities shall be uncapable of further service...and unable to maintain themselves.'
|Daniel Defoe. © NMM|
On 30 June 1696, Wren, the Hospital treasurer, John Evelyn, and eleven Commissioners dined at Greenwich.
'After dinner at 5 o'clock', wrote Evelyn, 'Mr [John] Flamsteed the King's Astronomical Professor observing the punctual time by instruments', they watched workmen lay the foundation stone of the 'base' building. This began the conversion of the existing 1660s block into what became King Charles's Court.
The bricks used were supplied by a Mr Foe, later to be known as Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe.