What’s Left of Whitehall Palace?

When you walk along Whitehall today it’s clearly an important thoroughfare, lined with large government offices and impressive monuments.

Whitehall | Look Up London

What’s not immediately clear is that you’re walking right through the middle of a former Royal residence, a massive, sprawling set of buildings which gives us the street name today.

It was destroyed in a fire In 1698, so what remains of Whitehall Palace that we can see today?

History of Whitehall Palace

Whitehall Palace begins as York Place, an impressive residence built in the mid 13th century for Walter de Grey, the Archbishop of York.

Under Thomas Wolsey’s ownership York Place became one of the grandest houses in London but when Wolsey was removed from power in 1530 it fell in to the hands of King Henry VIII.

The white stone used for the building gives us the name Whitehall which is first used in 1532.

Thanks to a fire at the Palace of Westminster in 1512 this new location would serve as the main Royal residence. Henry oversaw massive renovations including lots of sporting facilities (a tiltyard, bowling green, a real tennis court and a cock fighting pit) as well as ornamental gardens and lavish rooms.

The Old Palace of Whitehall by Hendrick Danckerts, c. 1675

Above is the palace viewed from St James’s Park around 1675, It’s such a jumble of buildings that it’s not immediately obvious that it’s all one palace but you can see Banqueting house on the left hand side behind the clock tower.

This plan dating from 1670 gives you an idea of the scale, I’ve crudely super imposed it over a modern day map which hopefully conveys its magnitude.

Plan of Whitehall Palace c.1670 superimposed on modern Westminster | Look Up London
Plan of Whitehall Palace c.1670 superimposed on modern Westminster

Effectively the palace covered both sides of today’s Whitehall, from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square.

Holbein Gate

Of all the Tudor elements, the structure that I wish still stood is the Holbein Gate. 

A towering gatehouse straddling the road, this survived the fire in 1698 but was sadly demolished in 1723.

You can appreciate the structure in this engraving (copying an earlier Hollar drawing) which shows the grand gatehouse with Banqueting House on the left.

It can be compared with the view of Whitehall today, the surviving Banqueting House is still on the left.

Image the presence that this wonderful Tudor relic would have in the centre of Whitehall?! It would be like the St Bart’s or St James’s gatehouses.

One can dream I suppose.

What’s Left of Whitehall Palace?

This leads me onto the best surviving structure of Whitehall Palace, Banqueting House.

Banqueting House | Look Up London

Banqueting House

There were two earlier Banqueting Houses before the current iteration. One was built by Queen Elizabeth I in 1581, a temporary structure intended to impress the King of France when he visited.

The second was built under King James I and stood from 1606 until 1619 when it burnt down. James who had been disappointed with the first version so was all too happy to commission Inigo Jones to create a grand new building.

Clearly he was proud of it because it is shown in the background of this portrait painted in 1622.

King James I by Paul van Somer (1622)

Contrary to our perception of banquets today, 16th and 17th century banquets were not lavish feasts but rather one element of the whole experience. 

Tudor and Jacobean banquets were like a dessert buffet after the main meal and often took place in a different, elaborately decorated venue. Dr Anne Daye describes the experience as ‘a wonderful visual display … your eyes were delighted and then all your senses’.

As well as spiced wines, sweet biscuits and marzipan sculptures you could expected a performance, the masque, which was a combination of dance, theatre and fancy dress ball.

In the lower levels James I planned more fun, this was his underground drinking den for his friends and favourite courtiers. It was decorated with shells to resemble a grotto. 

It’s still visible today but rather stripped of its lavish 17th century character.

Undercroft, Banqueting House | Look Up London

Banqueting House Ceiling 

One of the most impressive aspects of the Banqueting House today are the nine ceiling paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.

King James had approached the Flemish master previously but he died before anything was agreed. In 1629 James’ son, King Charles I commissioned Rubens to create scenes that celebrated the magnificence of his father and by extension the Stuart dynasty.

Rubens completed the paintings in 1634 and they were installed in Banqueting House in 1636. Rubens was paid with a gold chain and £3,000 (around £218,000 today).

The three central panels show three aspects of King James’ reign.

When James succeeded Queen Elizabeth I as King of England in 1603 he was already King of Scotland. His union of these two kingdoms is shown with the Goddess Minerva bringing two crowns to James who gracefully accepts.

In uniting the two countries James also hoped his reign would stand for peace and prosperity. In this panel he’s shown in the guise of King Solomon, sat on a biblical style throne with barely twist columns serving as a reminder of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

He turns his attention from the God of war holding a torch and instead gestures to the female embodiments of peace and prosperity intwined below him.

Details of Banqueting House Ceiling | Look Up London

At the very centre of the ceiling is the symbol of the King divinely anointed by God, crowned by cherubs who also bring him the orb and sceptre.

Ironically it’s this belief in his divine right to rule which is one of the major factors in the downfall of King Charles I.

To reinforce the fall from grace this ceiling would also be one of the last things he ever saw.

After the English Civil Wars in the 1640s King Charles I and the Royalists were defeated. Charles was put on trial in Westminster Hall and then sentenced to death.

The King was taken to Whitehall Palace and said tearful goodbyes to his children. On the cold morning of Tuesday 30 January in 1649 (putting on two shirts so he wouldn’t shiver) he made his way through the door into Banqueting House, under the grand ceiling by Rubens and out onto a specially designed scaffold on Whitehall.

The Execution of King Charles I after Unknown artist © National Portrait Gallery, London

His head was removed from his body by one swing of the axe and the thousands of people watching let out an almighty groan. 

The execution at 2pm is said to be the reason there is a black stain at the same time on the clock on Horseguards, visible from Banqueting House.

Here’s a close up of the black ‘stain’.

The Wine Cellars

On a more cheerful note, underneath the ministry of defence are some surviving 16th century wine cellars.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Built c.1530 they were incorporated from York Place into Whitehall Palace. In 1949, to better fit with the MoD plans, they incased it in metal and moved it 3m to the West and 6m lower!

Sadly the cellars are not typically open to the public.

Queen Mary’s Steps

In the gardens outside the Ministry of Defence are the steps down to the former river entrance to Whitehall Palace.

Built for Queen Mary II in 1691 the river is now quite a distance form the edge of the Thames thanks to Bazalgette’s Embankment built in the 1860s.

The Cockpit

One of the most bizarre survivors of Whitehall Palace is the former cockfighting pit which can today be found under Horseguards.

In 1629 the cockpit was redesigned as a private theatre by Inigo Jones and Samuel Pepys attended a few plays here.

Like Banqueting House, it survived the fire of 1698 and you can see the site of the cockpit on the John Rocque map of 1746 (circled in yellow).

It formed part of the Treasury building in the 18th century until they moved to a new site and then was used by the Privy Council.

I managed to see inside during a tour for Open House Weekend back in 2016 so got the following photo but as far as I know it’s not regularly open to the public.

So that’s what is left of Whitehall Palace, I throughly recommend a visit to Banqueting House. It’s not often open but HRP are currently running guided tours. I believe the current dates are sold out but you can read more about tours here.

Related Blog Post

There’s and equally historic, but very different, Whitehall in Cheam. It’s 500 years old and is now a museum with a fascinating story behind it. Read the blog here.

Whitehall Historic House | Look Up London

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