Whitehall Palace

Whitehall Palace

Sadly Whitehall Palace is no more and few have even heard of it. Whitehall Palace in its day was the largest palace in Europe. Even larger than the Vatican City. Anyone who has been to the Palace of Versailles which is smaller would appreciate it’s original size. And more surprising still is Whitehall Palace’s original location, near where the cenotaph in London now stands and in an area now occupied mostly ny Government Offices. Whitehall Palace was the main London residence of English Monarchs between 1530 and 1698 when the whole area was destroyed by fire. (Not incidentally the Great Fire of London). All that remained of the neighbourhood was the Banqueting House designed by Inigo Jones and  built in 1622.Whitehall Palace had over 1,500 rooms and its name has been preserved in the form of the area of London near 10 Downing Street and the Palace of Westminster now known as Whitehall. At its peak Whitehall Palace covered the whole area from Downing Street in the South up to Northumberland Avenue in the North. In the South it extended almost as far as Derby Gate. In the West, the complex stretched from where the present buildings facing onto Horse Guards Parade are located, and in the East over to the banks of the River Thames. Since Whitehall Palace burned down however the Victoria Embankment has consumed a total of 23 Acres of land from the Thames itself so the boundaries are slightly different

Whitehall Palace Origins

By the end of the 13th Century Westminster had assumed its role as the centre of English Government. In 1049 just before the Norman Conquest the then Palace of Westminster had become the London residence of the King. In 1240 the Archbishop of York Walter de Grey bought a house in what later became the Whitehall Palace area and called it York Place. Edward 1 stayed with the Archbishop whilst work was being done on Westminster. York Place was enlarged to accommodate the King and his hangers on and so commenced the development which would eventually, be known as Whitehall Palace. During the 15th Century Cardinal Wolsey got in on the act and expanded the premises so much that only Lambeth Palace itself was bigger. The structure not yet known as Whitehall Palace soon overtook even the King’s own residences in grandeur. But perhaps that was a bad move with King Henry 8th around. In 1530 when Henry removed Cardinal Wolsey from office the King acquired the putative Whitehall Palace as his own residence. In 1532 the property started being referred to as White Hall Palace and the title York Place fell into disuse.

The King and Anne Boleyn visited to see the treasures of Whitehall Palace and in 1533 it  was the venue for the couple’s wedding. It appears that the name White Hall Palace was taken from the appearance of the White stone. In due course it was shortened  Whitehall Palace. Henry 8th went on to redesign the complex and it expanded further during his lifetime. Features like an indoor tennis court, a bowling green and even a cockfighting ring (on the site of the present Cabinet Office) were installed into the Whitehall Palace development. The obligatory early Tudor tiltyard for jousting was also put in place in the locations now occupied by Horse Guards Parade. Total costs of £30,000 were incurred in the construction work. It’s difficult to make comparisons in today’s money because it’s not always easy to know what to compare it with. But in terms of a proportion of National Wealth the construction of Whitehall Palace came to at least £4 Billion Pounds not including the cost of what was already there when Henry 8th arrived. In terms of total costs the Whitehall Palace development throughout its life may have been more than half the amount spent of the 2012 London Olympics. And that’s on construction costs alone. Sadly Anne Boleyn didn’t last long and in 1536 after only three years of marriage (although the couple were together in all but name for some time before that), Anne was beheaded and Henry and to add insult to injury married Jane Seymour, in the same place he had married Anne. And it was at Whitehall Palace that Henry himself met his own final demise in 1547

Apart from its role as a venue for Henry’s love interests and sporting events Whitehall Palace became even more of a Palace of Varieties after his death. In 1611 Whitehall Palace was the venue for the first ever performance of William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. When Elizabeth 1st died childless the Scottish King James 1st (6th of Scotland), moved in and made his own changes to the premises. James arranged for Inigo Jones to design replacements for the previous Banqueting House which Elizabeth had commissioned. The new Jacobean decorations were completed by 1634 with the Reubens Ceiling having been commissioned by Charles 1st. In 1649 however and having provoked a revolution Charles was executed in front of the building itself outside what is now the Banqueting House.

By 1650 Whitehall Palace had become the largest complex of non religious buildings in England. But the layout of the buildings which had been assembled piecemeal left a lot to be desired. Whitehall Palace was more like a small town than a single building. The various parts were not consistent in size and architecture and the effect left the whole edifice looking very irregular. During Charles 2nd reign only minor improvements were made and Charles himself like his father died at Whitehall Palace, although not by execution. Charles 2nd died of a stroke. James 2nds short lived reign resulted in some further improvements with the Queen’s private Whitehall Palace apartments and lodgings being completed in 1688 and 1689 respectively.

Whitehall Palace Fires

But in 1691 disaster struck. By then Whitehall Palace had become the largest complex in Europe but on April 10th 1691 fire broke out in the apartment of the Duchess of Portsmouth. Although didn’t affect all of it, the fire damaged the underlying structure of Whitehall Palace. But it’s believed that the remaining edifice was a better coordinated set of buildings than what was previously in place. But it never rains but it pours. In 1698 a second Whitehall Palace fire destroyed most of what was left. John Evelyn, a diarist of the time, declared in true tabloid style, ‘Whitehall Burnt! nothing but the walls and ruins left’ .Many works of Art disappeared including the irreplaceable Portrait of Henry 8th by Holbein and Michaelangelo’s Cupid. Bernini’s portrait bust of Charles 1st was also lost. A few of the Whitehall Palace Buildings remained intact in the Scotland Yard area and the old Holbein Gate survived. Some attempts were made in subsequent decades to rebuild Whitehall Palace but costs were excessive and in the second half of the 18th Century the whole area was leased for the building of Town Houses. Holbein Gate was demolished in 1749. By now times had changed. Kings couldn’t force Parliament to provide money to build palaces and a more commercial environment had taken over. Reconstructing the old Whitehall Palace or indeed any type of palatial purpose built residence for self indulgent monarchs was out of the question. Kings and Queens had to make do with the ones they already had. Henry would have turned in his grave. There would be no new Whitehall Palace. Perhaps monarchs should consider fire insurance. But even our present Queen omitted to take out cover on Windsor Castle and that went up in flames leaving the taxpayer with the bill

Christopher Wren Proposals for New Whitehall Palace but never built

Whitehall Palace


Whitehall Palace Whitehall Palace Today

Whitehall Palace however remains but only as a sad shadow of its former self.. The Banqueting House is the main remnant and even that has been significantly modified. Various small fragments of the old Whitehall Place are still present in the existing structures of buildings. Some parts of the Whitehall Palace Tower and Tennis Courts dating back to Henry 8ths time are still present in the Old Treasury Building and Cabinet Office and any lucky visitors, were they allowed in would be able to see them. Nevertheless the fragments are distinguishable and well presented and some care has been taken to preserve what’s left. Following a partial redevelopment, the East side of Whitehall Palace is now the Ministry of Defence. And an undercroft dating back as far as Cardinal Wolsey when Whitehall Palace was still known as York Place also remains. The undercroft is however now referred to as Henry 8th’s Wine Cellar, perhaps to give it more historical interest. But it can be assumed that any wine Henry ever left there un-drank upon his death went up in the fires.