Whitehall Palace

Principal official residence of Henry VIII designed across a busy road in London, the palace covered much of the area that still bears its name.

The origins of Whitehall Palace lie in the London residence of the Archbishops of York – a large complex of buildings erected near Westminster Palace on the banks of the Thames. The last archbishop to live in the house was Cardinal Wolsey who had, in great style, enlarged and modernised it.

The old palace of Westminster was burnt by a terrible fire in 1512 leaving Henry VIII, who had come to the throne only three years before, without his principal official residence. When Wolsey fell from power in 1529 it was obvious that the king should simply take over the old archbishop’s residence.

In the autumn of 1529, Henry and his mistress, Anne Boleyn, took a barge down the Thames to pay a visit to York Place. Henry found it more magnificent than he had remembered, and Anne was no less impressed. That Christmas Anne and Henry shut themselves away in Greenwich to design themselves a new palace. James Needham, the King’s Master Carpenter, was summoned and was almost certainly responsible for designing the house to Henry and Anne’s specifications.

The idea was remarkable. The new palace was to be built in two sections, on either side of a busy road. To the west was to be the royal recreation centre an area of the palace set aside for playing tennis and bowls and for watching cock fights. On the other side of the road was to be the residential part incorporating Wolsey’s house and centred on a long gallery overlooking beautiful gardens on the south. The long gallery, known as the privy gallery was to contain all the king’s own privy (or private) rooms. The two parts were to be linked by a bridge going over the road concealed in a gatehouse called the Holbein gate.

From 1536 until the king’s death in 1547 the what became known as Whitehall was almost permanently a building site. Henry, and his subsequent wives, had to put up with heavy building in close proximity to their lodgings. Although work may have eased off during royal visits Henry never saw Whitehall free of scaffolding. In the end it was left to Queen Elizabeth I to complete the building that her mother had started fifteen years before.

At the same time that Henry purchased most of northern Westminster over which his new home was laid out, he bought a huge amount of land on the west side to form a chain of hunting parks. Today we call these St. James’s Park, Green Park, Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, but then they were royal hunting grounds.

The only significant building to be added to Whitehall before the Civil War was the stone Banqueting House of 1623 designed by Inigo Jones. This, in fact, was a replacement for an earlier banqueting house built for James I which, in itself, was a replacement for one built by Elizabeth I. The purpose of the building was to serve as the principal reception hall for English kings – a role it performed up until the civil war. It was because of this highly symbolic function that the Regicides decided to execute King Charles I outside the Banqueting House rather than at the Tower of London.

In 1660 Charles II and his brother James (later James II) returned to Whitehall but what they found on the banks of the Thames must have been profoundly depressing. Despite the improvements made by their father and grandfather, Whitehall was still the palace of Henry VIII. Charles II therefore decided to rebuild the place.

Sir Christopher Wren’s success in rebuilding the City and his increasing royal favour were to lead to his appointment in 1669 as Surveyor of the King’s Works and he was ordered, in this capacity, to rebuild Whitehall. Wren commissioned a comprehensive survey of the palace which, by then had over 1,500 rooms for lodging courtiers granted out to the 100 or so individuals. Whitehall was not just a building it was a teeming village of more than 1,000 inhabitants. Despite this survey, continued financial difficulties throughout the 1670s meant that it is unlikely that Wren even began the design work necessary for rebuilding Whitehall.

James II, who came to the throne in 1685, was more determined. Within only three months of Charles II’s death, plans for new queen’s apartments had been agreed. In essence what was built was a new queen’s apartment, with rooms above for her ladies and servants on the site of the old Privy Gallery. At the west end, by the Holbein Gate, was a new Roman Catholic chapel. It was this latter building that was to contribute to the downfall of James who left England forever from Whitehall in 1685.

William and Mary never really liked Whitehall. In the first weeks of their reign Sir Christopher Wren was ordered to build a new house at Kensington. In future William and Mary would reside here and travel the short distance across the park to Whitehall when required. For the first time since Henry VIII the link between residence at Whitehall and the government of the country was broken.

While William and Mary’s attention was focussed on Kensington and Hampton Court disaster struck at Whitehall. On 9 April 1691 a maid ignited a bunch of candles, the fire quickly gripped the oldest and most densely packed part of the palace reducing it to rubble. While the fire of 1691 was limited in its extent and consequences, a second conflagration on 4 January 1698 effectively destroyed the entire residential part of the palace.

Whitehall housed several important offices of state which required relocating if the work of government was to continue smoothly. Wren was ordered to quickly set up rooms in the old west side recreation centre for the Treasury, Council of Trade and as a council chamber. This temporary solution is still in use today as the cabinet Office and Prime Minister’s house nestle in the remains of Henry VIII’s tennis courts.

Queen Anne moved the official seat of the Crown from Whitehall to St. James’s, thus ending the history of Whitehall as a royal palace and giving birth to its modern meaning as the centre of government.

Today, only small parts of the palace remain, including the somewhat modified Banqueting House and parts now within the 19th century building at 70 Whitehall, adjacent to Downing Street, occupied by the Cabinet Office.