31 Mar 2015

In our final Women's History Month post we look at the impact women have had on the history and very shape of Greenwich. Particularly the Queen's House and Palladian buildings that give the World Heritage Site it's international fame.

You might think of Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum as rather masculine sites. They are bound up with naval and scientific history, the training of boys for naval duties, navigation and astronomical endeavour. But Greenwich is also a royal site. Of course, that has a male angle too: Henry VIII was born here and had a tiltyard on the grounds that are now south of Romney Road; George I spent his first night in England here.

Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

Yet, the Queen’s House means that the royal history of the site is also distinctly female, which is what I focused on in my tour of the House for Women’s History Month at the beginning of March. Even among the Tudors, the female royals had important history here: Elizabeth I was born in Greenwich Palace, it was from here that she sent out the order for Mary Queen of Scots’ execution, and the legend of Walter Raleigh laying down his cloak for her to cross a puddle allegedly happened here. Anne Boleyn was arrested leaving Greenwich. But, it’s with Mary’s son James I that the Queen’s House comes into play.

Anne of Denmark

James gave Greenwich to his wife, Anne of Denmark, allegedly as an apology for bad behaviour in front of the court, and Anne commissioned Inigo Jones to design the Queen’s House for her. From this point it was vested in the queens, and Charles I’s queen Henrietta Maria turned it into her ‘house of delights’ completing Jones’s plans and filling the house with the most cutting-edge art and design of the day. One of the artists she employed was the Italian artist Artemesia Gentileschi (a rare known woman artist from this period), who worked with her father on the ceiling of the Great Hall. Henrietta Maria’s white and gold colours, fleur-de-lis symbol, and initials are everywhere present in the house’s original features.

Queen Henrietta Maria

Although the house was emptied during the Commonwealth, and most of its riches sold off, Charles II had it re-fitted for Henrietta Maria, his mother, and it continued to be the preserve of the queens. Under Mary II’s care in the 1690s, the house took on a role in shaping the future design of Greenwich. Mary gave the land that was now occupied by the ruins of the Tudor palace (between what is now Romney Road and the Thames) to be used for the creation of Greenwich Hospital, a hospital for seaman (now the Old Royal Naval College). She stipulated to architect Christopher Wren that the view of the river from the Queen’s House should remain unimpeded, which is why the ORNC has its distinctive design.

Queen Mary II. National Maritime Museum.

You might argue that the whole of Greenwich, and certainly the grand Palladian buildings that give the World Heritage Site it’s fame, is thanks to the Queen’s House and it's Queens.

The Queen's House, Royal Museums Greenwich