On March 26 an attraction will be reopened which marks the occasion when two momentous parts of British history combined – and sparked a massive outpouring of public grief. The lying-in-state of Lord Nelson was the Princess Diana funeral of its day – crowds at Greenwich even had to be controlled by local militia. TOBY PORTER tells the story of how two of South London’s most famous names came together in 1805.
The queues when Lord Nelson lay in state in Greenwich from Christmas Eve 1805 went almost all the way back to what is now Trafalgar Square.
That occasion brought one of the country’s most gifted wartime leaders, then living close to Wimbledon, into a palace on the site of Henry VIII’s favourite home, in Greenwich.
After his death at the Battle of Trafalgar – which was also his greatest triumph – Nelson’s body was brought back to Britain on HMS Victory.
On Christmas Eve in 1805, Vice Admiral Lord Nelson’s body arrived in Greenwich.
Nelson’s body was preserved in a casket of spirits on the long trip, and his men brought him from the River Thames, where they had docked, to the Royal Hospital for Seamen, Greenwich – now known as the Old Royal Naval College.
He was due to be buried later in St Paul’s Cathedral – both buildings were designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
Nelson’s body lay in a room – later named the Nelson Room in his honour in 1846 – off the Painted Hall.
During this time, Greenwich became the centre for mourning for the loss of the nation’s hero, with carriages queuing back to central London.
The throng was so vast that the crowds had to be controlled by soldiers – the first police force was not created for another 24 years.
Nelson had made his name with victories at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and Copenhagen three years later.
By 1801, he had separated from his wife Fanny and wanted a home where he could entertain his friends – and live with his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton.
She bought Merton Place, close to what is now South Wimbledon Tube station, for £9,000 – 10 miles from where his body first came ashore at Greenwich four years later.
She lived there with her husband, Sir William – Nelson arrived on October 23, 1801.
Sir William died in April 1803.
Nelson lived in Merton until August 1805 before war flared again – and he put his affairs in order before leaving in mid-September.
He would not return – he was killed by the bullet of a French sharpshooter at the Battle of Trafalgar – his last words the memorably eccentric phrase addressed to his deputy: “Kiss me, Hardy”.
Greenwich was well chosen for his second-last resting place.
The site had been the location of a palace built by Henry VII – and his son, who would become Henry VIII, was born there in 1491.
It remained the principal royal palace for the next two centuries, though it went by several names, including Bella Court, Placentia and Greenwich Palace.
Henry VIII’s first surviving child, later Mary I, or Bloody Mary, was also born there in 1516.
After Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, his daughter, later Elizabeth I, was also born at the palace, then going by the name of Placentia – in 1533.
Henry also married his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves – whom he dubbed the “Flanders mare”– there in 1540.
The Palace fell into disrepair during the English Civil War, 1642-45.
From 1688 Queen Mary II, wife of William of Orange, ordered the creation of the Royal Hospital for Seamen on the site, which at its peak housed more than 2,700 injured and retired sailors.
These are the serene classical buildings visitors can see today, designed by Wren, and built between 1696 and 1751.
The rich maritime history of the site continued after the departure of the Royal Hospital in the 1860s.
From 1873-1997 the buildings housed the Royal Naval College, one of the world’s foremost naval training establishments, training officers for more than 100 years, including the first female members of the Royal Navy in the 1940s, known as the WRENs.
The Greenwich Foundation, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2022, now looks after the neo-classical buildings and grounds of the Old Royal Naval College Next week will see the relaunching the room where Nelson lay in state, the Nelson Room, after an extensive conservation project and reinterpretation.
Its unique architecture has been carefully restored, including its imposing roof lantern, monumental stonework and Swedish marble flooring.
The room was created by Nicholas Hawksmoor to the original master plan by Sir Christopher Wren.
A new audio-visual experience in the Nelson Room explores the admiral’s story – and looks at how people react when a much-loved celebrity dies.
A newly commissioned bronze sculpture by Antony Dufort, Trafalgar Day at Greenwich: Victory Breaks the Line, will pay tribute to the many sailors who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar and later became “Greenwich Pensioners” at the Royal Hospital for Seamen.
There is also an insight into the room’s history, restoration and artworks.
Entry to the Nelson Room with a multimedia guide is included in the Painted Hall ticket.
Nelson-themed workshops for school groups will be available.
A new lift provides wheelchair access to the Nelson Room and the Upper Hall for the first time.
Main Pic: The Old Royal Naval College
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