Whitehall Palace – the remains

I love visiting the ruins of a castle or abbey. There is something hauntingly beautiful about them, small fragments of the past that have survived. Yes, there are sites like the Tower of London that survived the centuries through restoration and rebuilds, but ruins – they are the skeletons of these ancient buildings.

Readers of my blog will be aware of my love of Whitehall Palace, nothing of which remains today. Well, nearly nothing. Most of the Palace, which was a mismatch of buildings linked together, fell victim to two fires in the late 1600’s. The fire would destroy much of the Palace, once the largest in all of Europe. No complete building was left standing, and the remaining ruins were soon dismantled and removed to make way for new buildings.

Looking down on Horseguards Parade from the roof of the Banqueting House (Laura Adkins)

So what is the aim of this post? Well as many historians will know, if you keep looking you can often find what you are searching for. The same for Whitehall Palace. Although the structure is gone, what is represented is echoed in Whitehall itself today, even the name of the area stems from the days of the large Tudor Palace.

And some elements do survive; Banqueting House being one (see …) and St James Palace (see …). Other parts of the Palace survive, each representing a different era of Whitehall’s history and giving us a glimpse into this magnificent royal Palace.


To begin with, the oldest surviving part of Whitehall Palace harks from the time when it was known as York Place, the home of Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York. The structure was originally his wine cellar and would have been situated under his great hall.

Today the complete cellar still exists, hidden from the public eye and with restricted access. This is not because it is difficult to get too, but because it is situated underneath the MOD building and therefore not open to the public much. If you ever get the chance to see this structure then do, as it is an amazing room. To think it once belonged to Wolsey is incredible.

Around the Wine Cellar is metal encasing created in 1949. The wine cellar was in the way of the new development happening in Whitehall and the new MOD building. At the request of Queen Mary (the widow of King George V) it was saved. Dismantling it was not an option so instead workmen dug around the cellar. Once the work was complete, it was encased in steel and concrete and moved 9 feet West and 19 feet lower so it was no longer a disruption to the new building works. Inside there are information boards on the structure, which is sometimes used for MOD events.

Moving on the next remenat of Whitehall Palace in Whitehall itself is that of the Steps of Mary of Modena. Situated at the front of the MOD building these steps would have lead to the river Thames (before the embankment moved the river back). King James II’s wife would have had apartments looking onto the Thames and these steps would have led to a wooden barge where her boat would wait to take her wherever she wanted. The River at the time was a popular way to travel to those who could afford it. The steps were added in 1691 and designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The terrace they connected to would have stretched 70 feet into the river and across 280 feet. The curving steps we can see part of were built to connect the Royal Apartments to the State Barge. Excavations carried out in the area in 1939, for the development of new government buildings, would uncover the steps along with the river wall.

A little further down Whitehall, near the Banqueting House, lies Downing Street, the home to British politics and number 10. Within this now closed off-street lies a Tudor wall which used to be the passageway to the Tennis Courts of King Henry VIII – cockpit passage. The remeneat of the wall has somehow survived and it is great to see it. Again if you ever get the chance do go. I have only managed to glimpse it from the outside and I imagined Anne Boleyn would have walked this passage to watch Henry play real tennis on his courts not far from where horseguards parade is today.

Henry VIII built a tennis-court, a tiltyard, on the site of the Horse Guards–a bowling green and a cockpit. The exact site of the cockpit has long been a matter of uncertainty, but it is believed that the entrance was just where the present Treasury entrance is. Plasterwork found in the location of the galley between the Tennis play area indicate that the passage was plastered and originally painted white with a black dado or skirting. In addition, wooden batten found indicate that the walls were probably tapestries.

Horseguards parade is a popular tourist attraction where people stop to watch the changing of the guard and it  has very close links to Whitehall Palace. When restored to his throne in 1660, King Charles II would install his private guards who escorted him across the Thames opposite his private residence in Whitehall to keep them close by. It is why there is a base there for soldiers today and it still officially marks the processional entrance to St James Palace.

A lot of the furniture of Whitehall was destroyed in the fire but at Knole House in Kent you can find a number of items which had sat in the halls and rooms of the Palace. How did they come to be in Kent? Purley by circumstance?

Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset, was probably the person responsible for bringing a lot of the Whitehall furniture to Knole. This was through his time as Lord Chamberlain of the Household to William III between 1689-97. It was the Chamberlain’s right to take any of the furnishings in the royal palaces deemed to be worn out or dated.

We know of some of these items as they have the letters WP and a stitched-in crown on top. Items with links to Whitehall include The King’s bed, and this was most likely used by William III’s cousin, Prince Louis, during a state visit in January 1694 when it still stood in the former Queen Mary of Modena’s apartment at Whitehall. Other items include some Carved Walnut chairs, two Walnut armchairs and six stools, a Crimson silk damask, and my favourite, a Close Stool made from Crimson Velvet, possibly used by Charles or James II.

There are a huge number of paintings no longer in existence, which once graced the Palace walls. Many of these were sold off after the execution of King Charles I and eventually at least half were brought back when Charles II came to the throne. The list is too long to document here, please message me if you wanted to know more on these.

If you visit or live in the Somerset area then you are also close to a fragment of Whitehall Palace. In St Andrews Church, Burnham on Sea, there lies two beautiful statues of angels. These statues were carved by Grinling Gibbons, a famous sculptor of his time and designed by none other than Inigo Jones! They once stood as part of a magnificent altarpiece in the Chapel Royal. The Chapel Royal itself was built and designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1686. James II gave the commission for the later piece to Inigo. On completion, the statues stood about 12 metres tall. Complete, the piece would resemble the facade of a baroque church.

The alter would be dismantled after James fled the country and placed into storage at Hampton Court Palace until 1706 when it would be sited in front of the medieval alter at Westminster Abbey.

Removed again in 1820, the statues were offered to Walrwe King, Bishop of Rochester and vicar of St Andrews Church in Burnham on sea. Here the altarpiece was erected once more in full glory. Unfortunately, much of the altarpiece would be dismantled and parts discarded once more. All that remains are the angel statues at the church and ,randomly, two columns from the second tier, which now sit at Sledmere House, Humberside.

On a final note, I want to turn to Hampton Court Palace. To gain an understanding of what the Tudor design of Whitehall Palace would have been like, one only needs to visit. The tapestries in the great hall, the gilded ceiling in Wolsey’s apartments and the magnificent terracotta roundels on the courtyard entrance would have all been familiar sights to the courtiers visiting Whitehall. Even the small courtyard gardens with their heraldic beasts give a sense of Tudor Whitehall.

Also within Hampton Court lies a painting. It is a copy taken at the request of King Charles II. The original, painted directly on the walls of the Palace, was destroyed in the fire at Whitehall. The painting was a Hans Holbein Mural of King Henry VIII and his family. It is believed that the Holbein Mural (1537) was situated high up in the Privy Chamber wall with panelling below, similar to Wolsey’s closet at Hampton Court Palace. It was considered Holbein’s greatest achievement and includes the most well known depiction of Henry VIII, despite the fact that an accidental fire in Whitehall Palace destroyed the mural in 1698.

The Privy chamber was the most private place for King Henry VIII, all his important meetings would be held there and so Henry wanted a setting to overawe his visitors. Anyone of consequence would have seen the mural within Whitehall. The original mural survived intact in the Privy Chamber of the palace for 162 years, during which time prints were made of the painting, and in 1667, Remegius van Leemput painted a full copy of the piece, although at a much smaller scale than the mural which had been life-sized and depicted the four figures at their full height.

The Holbein mural is important as it defines Henry VIII. It immortalizes him. Holbein has used Henrys very large person and emphasizes it in his stand. Many portraits have since imitated this image of Henry by Holbein. Henry is depicted as powerful and commanding, a man in his prime and confident in his future.

I have discovered if we delve further into those building’s history, which have been lost in time to us, it can be brought back to life by what remains and the archaeology buried underneath the surface.

The remnants help us understand the structures and how these buildings looked and were lived in. By looking at the layout of the area where these palaces once stood, and looking at the names of streets, it allows the picture to be built up even more and eventually we get an idea of what these buildings stood for, and they are just as spectacular as those that still exist.



Foreman, Susan, (1995) From Palace to Power. The Alpha Press Ltd. London.

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

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

Strong, R. (1967) Holbein and Henry VIII. Paul Mellor foundation for British Art.

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

Anon (nd) Queen Mary’s Steps – Whitehall Palace, Embankment, London, UK Avalible from: http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMC8RV_Queen_Marys_Steps_Whitehall_Palace_Embankment_London_UK [Accessed 10/6/19]

Anon (nd) History of 1 Horseguards road. Avalible from: https://www.gov.uk/government/history/1-horse-guards-road [accessed 19/12/2015]

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