The Lost Palace of Whitehall

In the heart of Whitehall lies a small beautiful building called Banqueting House and behind it is the Ministry of Defence building which sits on top of an old Tudor Wine cellar. These are both the remains of Whitehall Palace the largest Palace in Europe until it burnt down in a fire in 1698. The Palace would stretch from where Trafalgar Square is today all the way down to where the Houses of Parliament now lie.

Originally Whitehall Place began as a small Town house for the Archbishops of York. It had been sold by the Dominican Friars to Walter Grey who was Archbishop of York in 1248. It was an ideal location due to it being near Westminster Palace, the Sovereigns principle seat of power, where the Houses of Parliament sit today. As it was the home to the Archbishops of York it would become one of the most influential and important houses in England. But it was not just Archbishops who would stay at York House, a number of monarchs stayed there too and their wives. Edward I stayed at least twice while Westminster Palace was being rebuilt in 1292. He actually had rooms built for his second wife on the site as there was none for a female as the Archbishop was celibate.

York Place was extended by Archbishop Neville around 1465 – 76. He had it rebuilt in red brick and became the largest and modern palaces in England at the time. York Place was doubled in size; a gatehouse was added along with a cloister. In 1514 it came into the hands of Cardinal Wolsey when he became Archbishop of York.  He also improved and enlarged York Place making it fit for a king! He added an armory, a new cloister and a gallery. The building works were completed in 1519. The deigns were so grand that it would rival the royal palaces of England at the time. He extended the Palace by purchasing the land around York Place and hired a master mason named Henry Redman to make the changes. In the 1460’s, it was one of the largest, most modern and desirable ‘palaces’ in England. It is Wolsey’s Wine cellar which still survives today under the MOD building. Wolsey’s York Place was, by 1529, undoubtedly one of the finest town houses in and around London, only rivaled by Lambeth Place across the river….Wolsey demonstrated very publicly the strategic importance of his house. Every day during the legal term he processed in semi regal state down King Street to Westminster to sit in Star Chamber and then returned in the evening with equal pomp.’ (Thurley, S (2008) p11)

When Wolsey fell from power in 1529 all his property reverted to the Crown and so Henry VIII took control of York Place and made it into a Palace. His own Palace of Westminster down the road was outdated and old, not to mention fire damaged. York Place was a ready made Palace, fit for a king and ready for the taking. It was from this point that is became known as Whitehall Palace although no one really knows why. Henry decided it was going to become his principal residence and although it was already magnificence he wanted to make it even more so and began to make change and more enlargements to Whitehall. But the designing of Whitehall was not down to Henry alone. He and his newest love interest, Anne Boleyn, began to make changes together. It was to be their project and the two shut themselves away to plan their new residence. They hired Thomas Heritage as their Surveyor of Works and Thomas Alvard as paymaster and the major development began around 1531.

Artist Impression of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn at York Place

The fact that there was no current accommodation fit for his Queen was a bonus for Henry was it meant that Catherine of Aragon, his wife was unable to stay there. He therefore could spend time with Anne Boleyn unhindered.

The development was made in two stages, the first was completed in 1536 and the second phases, which was much larger than the fit was completed in 1540. This included a new set of lodging on the waterfront, Kings Street gate (below). The existing York place was to be the basics of the main residential part of the palace with the privy gallery being the spine. The other side which was linked by two gatehouses was the recreational side known as Parkside. There were tennis courts, a bowling alley, tilt yard (where horseguards parade ground is today) and a cockpit.

It was the two gatehouses spanning the rod that were these show pieces of the palace. There was King Street Gate which was inspired by French designs. The other was the Holbein Gate. It stood near where the RUSI building stands today.  It had chequered flint and brickwork with battlemented parapets and rose portcullis badges. There were also terracotta roundels contacting busts of Roman emperors that embellished both sides. The busts intended no doubt to emphasise the imperial name of authenticity, it is believed that some of there roundels were moved to Hampton Court Palace (image below) when the gate was dismantles to make the road larger in 1750.

Terracotta Roundel at Hampton Court Palace. Could it have been one removed from Whitehall Palace?

By the time of its completion the Palace would stretch nearly half a mile and was more a collection of buildings linked by corridors, gardens and courtyards. It consisted of four elements – the residential area on the waterfront, the recreational centre, a hunting area and a seperate smaller palace for the Prince of Wales (St James Palace). The official entrance to the palace would have been from the north of King Street. It led to a courtyard on one side of which was the Great Hall. From the Great hall were reached the kings and queens out rooms and the chapel. Beyond these, all at 1st floor level lay the most extensive Privy Lodgings, at any of the king’s houses. However the most used entrance to Whitehall palace would have been by river and timber jetties.

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

While at Whitehall it would be in the Holbein gate (BELOW) in a secret ceremony that Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn. The two were married in a secret ceremony on 25th January 1533 as Anne was believed to be pregnant and Henry wanted her child, a hoped for son, to be legitimate. It was secret as his divorce from Catherine of Aragon had not been finalised. Henry was also staying at Whitehall Palace when the news of Anne’s Bolyen’s execution was announced in 1536. It is said that he then went down the Strand to where Jane Seymour was staying to visit her. The two would be married shortly after, also in Whitehall Palace.

Artists Impression of Holbein Gat

Tudor Whitehall was covered with turrets, battlements; externally it had chequered black and white patterns and red brick. Internally it was covered with gold and tapestries, everything was gold of silver gilted, had gold thread running through them of gold painted. It had linefold paneling; carved doors, rush mats and oak floorboards covered with concrete like plaster.

Drawing of a fireplace possibly designed for Whitehall Palace by Hans Holbein

One of the most striking features of Henry VIII’s Whitehall was the “new gallery” which, in continuation of the Tiltyard Gallery, led from the passage over the Holbein Gate along the northern side of the Privy Garden to the Privy Lodgings. From the gallery on either side doors led to some of the chief rooms in the Palace. All previous private areas in royal palaces had not only been much smaller, but had also been situated in a tower. This new and extensive collection of rooms led into one another and overlooked gardens made up of the first modern suite of royal loading in England and became the model for everything that came after.

Most famously in Henry’s Privy chamber he had painted the Whitehall Mural, which no longer exists but a copy survives at Hampton Court Palace (see image below). This was to illustrate the Tudor Dynasty and its power. It shows King Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour who had died at this point. She gave Henry is only legitimate male heir – the future Kind Edward VI. Accompanying the two are Henry’s parents, King Henry VII and Elizabeth Woodville. The two married and supposedly brought an end to the Cousin’s War or more commonly known as the Wars of the Roses. They were on opposite sides – the house of Lancaster – Henry Tudor, the red rose and Elizabeth Woodville being from the house of York, the white rose. When they married they united the country and started a new dynasty of the Tudors with the Tudor rose of red and white. Henry VIII had holdein paint this image life size in his privy chamber as a statement that the dynasty was there to stay. The image of Henry in the painting is the most iconic image of Henry today and what many artists copied from. Henry is standing proud in the portrait, staring out at us with a certain focus on his cod piece. He had a legitimate son and was able to continue his linage of the powerful Tudor dynasty. Or so he thought.

After another three marriages and no more children Henry died on 28th January 1547 at the age of 55 at Whitehall Palace.  His body remained undsiturbed in its chamber for two days, his death being kept secret until arrangements had been made for his successor, his son Edward by his third marriage to Jane Seymour. His body was eventually embalmed and encased in lead and laid in state in the presence chamber at Whitehall before it was moved to the chapel and eventually he was buried at St Georges Chapel, Windsor.

In Elizabeth’s Whitehall the exposed brickwork was painted with red ochre and the mortar joints picked out in red. The black and white themed timber framed buildings were painted with black and white grotesque work and the Holbein Gate, cockpit passage and tennis court decorated with a chequered pattern in flint squares and chalk. Internally those who saw it were amazed; the galleries were covered fresco, the ceilings patterned with gilded geometrical fretwork, the floors plastered and painted and the windows filled with stained glass.


The image below shows Henry VIII and his children, again with Jane Seymour. His two daughters stand a slight distance away from him. this image suppsidly is set within Whitehall Palace. you can see the Privy Gardens with heradlric beastes and poles, inside the decor is outlined with gold, there are Tudor roses on the ceiling and apatterned floor.

Not much else was done after Henry’s VIII death at Whitehall Palace. His children didn’t really extend or add much. Elizabeth added a temporary Banqueting House (her 3rd one) on roughly the site of today’s, which was half the size. She had it done for the visit of the Duke of Alecon who was entering into negotiations for her hand in marriage. (see Royal Romance at Whitehall Palace)

Elizabeth had no children and so her heir became her cousin James VI, King of Scots.  James was the great grandson of Henry VII. His father Henry Lord Darnley was descended from the Tudor family tree, his mother being the daughter of Margaret Tudor, King Henry VIII sister. James’ mother, the infamous Mary Queen of Scots, was also descended from the Tudor line; she was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor and King James V of Scots. Both James parents were cousins to one another and his claim to the Tudor throne in England was a strong one, although he was not the only surviving child with Tudor descent (that is a story for another post).

James made some developments to Whitehall Palace including having to adapt buildings to house his children; he was the first monarch in 66 years to have offspring. He also had a more permanent Banqueting House built which he was not happy with the design, and fortunately it burnt down. The story goes that after a masque performance one evening some work men were cleaning up and noticed a small fire had broke out in the hall. Rather than raise the alarm they quietly fled the scene and the first spread, fortunately only destroying the Banqueting house and not the whole Palace. It allowed James to start again. For more information on Banqueting House see my other blog page – the Banqueting House.

The new banqueting house which still exists today, was designed by Inigo Jones, and inspired by classical Rome. The lower levels would have been hung with tapestries like those at Hampton Court Palace. It was first of its design to be seen in England and would stand out clearly within Whitehall when compared with the other structures. Unlike today it had three different coloured stone on its exterior. Later the Banqueting House was used for Masques to be performed, however it was not the original intention. The original intention was for it to replace the Privy Chamber and to meet and entertain visiting foreign ambassadors. James wanted the painter Peter Paul Reuben’s to paint nine canvas images for the ceiling to illustrate his divine right, but due to his dilly dallying Reuben’s got commissioned elsewhere and the ceiling stayed empty.

After James death his son Charles  came to the throne and he actually had the Reuben’s paint the Canvas prints on the ceiling we see today. Charles and his father really believe in the Divine right of kings, unfortunately this was to be his downfall. He also converted the cockpit into a theater and this would become the centre for English drama. But he also had plans to redesign the whole of Whitehall. During his captivity at Carisbrooke castle he actually met with Inigo Jones and discussed his plans. It was all to be in the Palladian style that the Banqueting house was built in and would have been a spectacular modern palace if it had come to fruition.

During the Civil War much of the palace was ransacked and parts were used as barracks.  When Cromwell was offered the title of Lord Protector of the Common Realm he actually had Whitehall as his main residence when in London. But before that Whitehall Palace, or more specifically the Banqueting House which James I had built in 16.. Was to be the site of something never before seen in history – the execution of an anointed monarch – King Charles I.

 On the 31st January 1649 Charles was being held at St James Palace. He wore two shirts as it was a cold morning and he did not wish people to think he was scared rather than cold. On leaving St James’ he was brought through St James Park and up through the Holbein gate and into the Privy chamber. Here he was offered some food and drink before being taken through into the Banqueting hall, under the ceiling showing the divine right of kings.  He stepped out  through a door which had been made in the wall onto a platform and after giving a short speech which was custom to the crowd gathered around he was beheaded in one stroke.

When Charles II, the eldest son of the executed Charles I, was restored to his throne in 1660 Whitehall Palace had become a mismatch of buildings, described by someone as “Ill built and ugly”.  Externally it was a mess with various designs of buildings from different eras and alterations. Many of Charles mistresses had rooms within the Palace grounds along with his government as always, with Westminster being so near. He had plans for Whitehall Palace to be rebuilt. These designs drawn up by Christopher Wren. However, due to the great fire of 1666 plans were put on hold while the ruins of London were re built.

Surviving the Great fire of London in 1666 Whitehall Palace was destroyed by two fires, the second and final one in 1698.  The first fire broke out on 9th April 1691 and started in the Duke of Gloucester’s lodgings. All the buildings over the stone gallery to the water-side burnt, this included 150 houses and another 20 were blown up to create fire breaks to prevent the fire spreading. The fire of 1698 would be the final blow for Whitehall Palace. The fire started when a maid in the top floor lodging of Colonel Stanley, she was drying some sheet near a fire and left it unattended. These sheets caught alight and spread very quickly. Most of the structures at this time were still timber framed and so it was easier for the fire to spread. Many portraits and tapestries were recovered from the Palace in time to be saved from fire and smoke damage. Looters also swopped in trying to steal what they could from the burning palace. As a result of the looters and the residents of the palace trying to save their belongings it made it more difficult for water to be got near the fire. After 15 hours the fire died down only to restart again in the catholic chapel from some small embers and a breeze. The fire and destruction of Whitehall Palace was a massive blow to national pride.

By this point the monarch William III had made his main residence in Hampton Court Palace. He and his wife Mary, granddaughter of Charles I, found it too large and crowded and so moved to what became Kensington Palace. William however had not completely forgotten Whitehall after the fire he did have plans to rebuild the palace bigger and better than it was before with the assistance of Christopher Wren again but he died in 1702 and his plans with it.

Banqueting House was the only complete structure to survive the fire in 1698. There are many stories of how it was saved, and fortunately it was. Eventually buildings were built and developed around the area which once was Whitehall Palace, a lot of them linking some way to government, and a lot of them in similar style to that of Banqueting House which is why so many people miss it today.

Although gone there are still little glimpses of Whitehall Palace if you know where to look, such as the Tudor Wine cellar in the MOD building behind us, Queen Mays steps and Cockpit passage in Downing Street. Although the area has changed and is no longer recognisable to those who built it, Whitehall itself is still used for its original functions; like the magnificent events held here in the Banqueting Hall itself and where the Political seat of power still remains after 500 years.

Queen Marys Steps
Cockpit Passage, Downing Street

Anams, J. (1999) the Princely courts of Europe 1500-1750. Weidenfield and Nicolson. London

Beaumont, T (1990) the palaces of medieval England. Seaby. London.

Cruikshanks, E (Ed.) (2009) The Stuart Court. History Press. Gloucestershire.

Edwards, G. (2001) The Last Days of Charles I. Sutton publishing. Gloucester.

Oakley, J. (1972) Royal Palaces. Robert Hale. London.

Palme, Per (1975) Triumph of Peace – a Study of Banqueting House. Thames and Hudson. London

Souden, D, Dolman, B and Worsley, L (2008) The Royal Palacess of London. …:Merrell Publsihers.

Starkey, D (1996) the English Court (4th Impression) Longman. London.

Thurley, S (1993) The Royal Palaces of Tudor England, Yale University press. Singapore.

Thurley, Simon (2008) Whitehall Palace. Historic Royal Palaces, in association with Merrell. London.

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