Everything you need to know about the Queen's House in just 240 seconds
Updated: Jan 14, 2019
The Queen's House at the northern edge of Greenwich Park was built in the seventeenth century as a venue for royal parties. But it, and all the buildings around it, stand on the site of the now vanished palace of King Henry VIII.
When Henry VIII’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, the palace was in a pretty sorry state and the throne passed to her cousin the king of Scotland, who came to England as King James I
He made great use of King Henry VIII’s palace at Greenwich, being so close to London and with such good hunting around it (the park in which you are currently standing was former hunting ground)
He also liked the seclusion of Greenwich. Unlike the King Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I who understood the value of being seen to be believed, and that spending money on spectacle had to entertain the people, King James I saw that his entertainments really only had to entertain him. He was especially fond of performances called masques.
These were highly stylised theatrical performances cum interactive ballets, in which set and palace, audience and performers all merged into one. They were lavishly expensive (costing as much a country house). The object of the masque was to demonstrate the virtue of the monarch and it was a way of showing the monarch’s knowledge of the ideals of the classical world. Classical themes from Greek myth would be chosen for the design of the set, performers would dance yet the audience would dance as well, and certain members of the audience would also perform set pieces. Think of it like an operatic version of the Real Housewives of Atlanta.
He had a difficult relationship with his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark. Her favourite pass-time was putting on a nice frock and dancing with pretty boys. The problem was that that was his favourite pass-time as well. However, he did his duty and got his wife pregnant at least nine times and did not like to see her unhappy. It is said that he gifted the palace at Greenwich to her to say sorry for losing his temper when she accidentally shot his favourite dog.
It was Queen Anne of Denmark who commissioned the architect Inigo Jones to build the Queen’s House for her, as a venue for masques and parties.
He was the foremost architect of his day and the first real architect England had known. He had never trained to be an architect indeed he had made his name designing the sets for the royals’ masques then after being impressed by his sketches a wealthy patron paid for his travels in Italy, from where he brought back new architectural ideas.
However he did not just borrow a fashion from Italy, he applied the principles he had learnt there and invented his own. The design of the Queen’s House was totally revolutionary when it appeared, as shocking as the appearance of the first skyscrapers.
The style is Palladian, which on a very basic level means "looking a bit like a Roman temple". This was at a time when everything else in England was still being built in derivatives of the medieval Gothic style.
In the photograph you can see a balcony. The house (and its balcony) perhaps served as a grandstand for the ladies of the court to watch the hunting in the park.
Inigo Jones had conceived the house as being a backdrop for masques, a palace of art. He did not conceive of it as a dwelling.
Queen Anne of Denmark however did not get to see her house, as she died in 1619 just three years into construction.
During the reign of their son King Charles I work then came to a standstill because of the desperate state of the royal finances. It was finally completed in 1639, and gifted to King Charles I’s wife Queen Henrietta Maria. Three years later the royal couple spent their last night together at Greenwich before she fled to the continent as the English Civil War began.
This was a war between King Charles I and Parliament over who would rule the country. It resulted in defeat for the king and his execution in 1649.
There then followed a ten-year period with no monarchy, during which the Queen’s House was used as stables.
However, things did not work out too well without a king. The Puritans took control and no fun was to be had whatsoever. Think of them as a Protestant version of the Taliban.
They banned the theatres, the pubs, dancing and even Christmas. They issued fines for swearing or going to the pub when people should have been in church. So on the basis of better the devil you know in 1660 the previous king’s son was invited to come back and retake the throne, King Charles II.
His mother Queen Henrietta Maria also returned and made Greenwich her principle base, being the only queen to ever actually live in the house. She later moved to Somerset House, closer to central London.
Over time the rest of the dilapidated palace of King Henry VIII that had stood here was demolished and replaced with the domed buildings closer to the river, which form part of a hospital for sailors built in the late seventeenth century.
The buildings on either side of the Queen’s House, linked by the colonnade, form part of the National Maritime Museum and the Queen’s House today houses the museum’s art collection.