The Queen's House, Greenwich, was commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of James I (reigned 1603–25). James was often at the Tudor Palace of Greenwich, where the Old Royal Naval College now stands – it was as important a residence of the early Stuart dynasty as it had been for the Tudors. Traditionally he is said to have given the manor of Greenwich to Anne in apology for having sworn at her in public, after she accidentally shot one of his favourite dogs while hunting in 1614.
17th and 18th centuries
In 1616 Anne commissioned Inigo Jones (1573–1652), who had risen to fame as a designer of court entertainments and was appointed Surveyor of the King's Works the following year, to design a new pavilion for her at Greenwich. It was apparently a place of private retreat and hospitality and was also designed as a bridge over the Greenwich to Woolwich Road, between the palace gardens and the Royal Park.
Jones had recently spent three years in Italy studying Roman and Renaissance architecture. It was his first important commission and the first fully Classical building seen in England. Though generally called Palladian in style, its prime model was the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano, by Giuliano de Sangallo.
Work stopped on the House in April 1618 when Anne became ill: she died the following year. It was thatched over at first floor level and building only restarted when James's son Charles I gave Greenwich to his queen, Henrietta Maria (daughter of Henri IV of France), in 1629. It was structurally completed in 1635. Reflecting Renaissance ideas of mathematical, Classical proportion and harmony, the House's design was revolutionary in Britain at a time when even the best native building was still in red-brick, Tudor-derived style.
Leading European painters - including Jordaens and Orazio Gentileschi - were commissioned to provide decorative ceiling panels and other art works, and Classical sculpture was provided from the collection Charles had purchased en bloc from the Gonzaga dukes of Mantua. Of this original splendour all that survives in the House is the 'grotesque' style painted ceiling of the Queen's Presence Chamber, the ironwork of the 'tulip stairs' (the first centrally unsupported spiral stair in Britain), the much discoloured but original painted woodwork of the Hall, and its finely laid 1635 marble floor.
Gentileschi's ceiling panels, much altered, survive in Marlborough House, London, since Queen Anne allowed their removal in the early-18th century.
Henrietta Maria had little time to enjoy the House. The Civil War broke out in 1642 shattering the Stuart idyll. Always an object of suspicion because of her Catholicism, the Queen went into exile in France and Charles was beheaded in 1649, his property being seized and dispersed by the Commonwealth regime (1649–60). The House lost its treasures and became an official government residence. It however survived, while the Tudor palace on the riverside fell into decay.
After his restoration to the throne (1660), Henrietta Maria's son, Charles II, refitted the House for her temporary use in 1662 before she moved to Somerset House, though she died in Paris in 1669. His principal changes were the addition of two upper 'bridge' rooms to east and west over the road. This produced a square plan on the first floor, rather than the original 'H' of two separate blocks either side of the roadway only connected by a central first-floor bridge.
From 1673 studio space in the House was allocated to the Willem van de Veldes, father and son Dutch marine artists.
They came to England at the invitation of Charles and founded the English school of marine painting. Find out more about the van de Veldes in the Art of the van de Veldes gallery in the Queens' House.
The House continued to be used for various Royal 'grace-and-favour' residential purposes in the 18th century, when the replacement of most of its original windows with Georgian sashes gave it its modern external appearance.
19th century to present day
In 1805, George III granted the Queen's House to the Royal Naval Asylum - a charity caring for and educating the orphan children of seamen. This moved to Greenwich from Paddington the following year and eventually became part of the Royal Hospital School, which itself moved to Suffolk in 1933.
In 1807–12, to meet the need for dormitories, classrooms and other facilities, the architect Daniel Asher Alexander added the Colonnades and immediately flanking wings which still frame the House in its modern role as the 'jewel in the crown' of the National Maritime Museum which took over in 1934.
The House was first restored to something approaching its 1660s form and was fitted out to display the Museum's early collections in 1933–37. Further major restoration, including of all its services, was completed in 1990 with additional work in 1998–99.
The last included replacement of an unimportant 18th century service stairway with a new public stair and lift connecting basement, ground and first floor, augmenting the original 'tulip stairs' on the Hall (north) side.
From 1990 to 1998 the upper floor of the House was partly refitted as and furnished to give an impression of its use as a Royal residence of the 1670s, and to display the NMM's early art collection. It was also increasingly used as a place for appropriate events and corporate entertainment (analogous to some of its original courtly functions).
Since 2001 the House has been reorganised to showcase the Museum's fine-art collection, with an ongoing programme of displays and temporary exhibitions, including contemporary work. It has an active events and education programme and continues in its successful role as a place for corporate and private entertainment.
For further information about the Queen's House as a venue, please see Corporate and private hire.