Updated: Jun 19, 2020
Whitehall was once a royal residence whose name now means more than meets the eye, and whose name evokes centuries of principles, precedents and history. The street, which links Charing Cross and Westminster doesn’t even have a street suffix. It’s just …Whitehall. In its heyday it was the largest palace in Europe, outshining even Versailles. The tale of Whitehall is very closely woven into the story of monarchy in Britain, even the twists and turns in their narratives are very similar.
Today, the palace is long gone, yet its name lives on as the name of the home of political power in Britain. Whitehall Palace used to be the official residence of the reigning monarch, and now it's home to the Prime Minister, Downing Street is just off Whitehall.
Humble Beginnings. Whitehall started its life as a residence for the Archbishop of York, entitled York Place originally dating back to 1240. The Archbishop needed a house close to Westminster, the seat of government, and this location suited him perfectly. First royal resident happened to be Edward I, at the end of the 13th century. The official royal palace of Westminster was damaged due to fire, and whilst it was being renovated, York Place had to do. In the beginning of the 16th century, Cardinal Wolsey came to be Archbishop of York, and decided to extend his new lodgings. Curious to note that among other buildings adjacent to York Place, Wolsey also added Scotland Yard, which is where the visiting kings of Scotland would reside.
The Tudor Crescendo. After Wolsey's fall from favour in late-1520's, the proverbial keys to this lavish accommodation were given to Henry VIII, who decided to make it into the official royal residence with all the trappings of regality, pomp and splendour. Much befitted as someone who, for the first time in English history, insisted to be addressed as ‘Your Majesty’, as opposed to just ‘Your Grace’. The palace, as most palaces at the time, would be a fine collection of many fine buildings. In case of Whitehall, they would be divided by the King’s Road (what the Whitehall street effectively is today), with the residential area on one side of it with a riverfront view, and the leisurely complex on the other, complete with a tilt yard and a cockfighting pit.
Henry, and his bride-to-be Anne Boleyn, spent a long time planning the new developments. Anne was only very happy to ensure no chambers were assigned to her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon. In fact, it was in the chapel inside Holbein Gate that Anne and Henry were married, in the early hours of 25th January 1533. It would be at Whitehall that Henry would die, 14 years later.
Henry spent an obscene amount of money and time on Whitehall, and he never saw it without scaffolding. His daughter Elizabeth added several banqueting houses, mainly in order to entertain the French suitors for her hand in marriage.
The Stuart Climax: The Divine Right of Kings & Regicide.
When James Stuart - the great grandson of Henry’s elder sister Margaret - came to the English throne, he added an important building to the mix - a new Banqueting House, having demolished some of its Tudor predecessors. He also needed a room big enough to entertain ambassadors discussing his heir’s dynastic prospects.
This building burnt down in 1619.
A new Banqueting House was erected in the place of the old one, and this one was to last. In 1636, the Rubens-painted ceiling is being installed, celebrating in its artwork the divine right of kings, with James I right in the middle. His son, Charles I, who saw the completion of Banqueting House, would fill it and the whole of Whitehall with innumerable words of art, making it one of the most prized collections in Europe. Charles was very good at collecting art. Unfortunately, he was not very good at being king. He believed in the aforementioned divine right (it means he is answerable only to God) too much, which led to civil war, which in turn led to his downfall. It would be through this very Banqueting House, that Charles found himself walking to his execution on the chilly morning of 30th January 1649. He was walking right under the paintings that portrayed his father ascending to the heavens and receiving his crown. The king stepped outside the windows, and found himself on the specially erected scaffold where the axe awaited.
Eleven years later, his son, the newly appointed king, Charles II would make a triumphant return to London, marching right down the street where they had executed his father. Charles thus set about restoring the monarchy and Whitehall as its seat. (This is the moment when Charles II's song from 'Horrible Histories' starts playing in my head. Listen here.)
In 1666 Whitehall survived the Great Fire of London unscathed.
The Stuart Diminuendo. The palace stood as a quiet witness to further drama that was and is the British monarchy, with Charles’s brother, James II being deposed for being Catholic, and James’s daughter and her husband being offered the crown underneath the dais in the Banqueting House.
The newly crowned William III and Mary II - the only regnant couple in our sceptred isle’s history - chose to not to have Whitehall as their residence, and instead spent a great deal of time at the newly renovated Hampton Court Palace (where they had most of Tudor parts knocked down) and the newly re-vamped Kensington Palace. New residences for the new monarchs.
Every time the parliament was bringing the monarchy back, they would hold the monarchy in a grip that only got tighter over time.
Untimely Finale. Unfortunately, this is where the story of Whitehall turns for the worst - most of the residential part of the palace burns down on the 4th January 1698. The palace itself ceases to exist as a palace, and instead becomes an idea, a concept. Several buildings are left standing, as well as some of the gatehouses across King’s Road. The buildings on the leisurely part of the complex are leased out, demolished or converted for other uses, the gatehouses are knocked down to allow for traffic some years later and one building is still standing exactly as it was before the calamitous events of 1698. This building is the Banqueting House, which you can visit and see all the glory of Rubens paintings for yourself. The windows, outside of which the scaffold was erected for Charles I, are still there as well. There are several more Whitehall remnants left in the area (e.g. Wolsey’s wine cellar), but most of them are regrettably not available to the public.
So there we have it.
The most luxurious and biggest palace this country has ever seen, is no more. Its rise as the seat of monarchy fell on the reign of Henry VIII, the king who laboured hard at raising the status of English kingship and who was famous for his autocracy. The next twist in Whitehall’s narrative comes with regicide, when the monarchy was abolished and despite its triumphant return, however, the concept of absolute monarchy stayed dead with Charles I. Forty-nine years later, the palace itself would perish, leaving behind an idea.
This is why, in a curious way, I personally see the history of Whitehall intimately connected to the history of kingship and its authority in England and later, Britain.
Holbein Gate (where Anne Boleyn & Henry got married and possibly not for the first time) was a bridge between the two complexes of the palace. It was situated approximately where the road crossing next to Banqueting House is now.
For some reason I love the fact that Henry VIII and Charles I - the two kings who added some of the most twisted turns of our national history - both died at Whitehall, though differently, of course. They also share a tomb - they both lie in a vault under the St. George Chapel at Windsor Castle. Other 'residents' of the vault include Henry's third wife Jane Seymour and Queen Anne.
It’s in this hall that some of Shakespeare’s plays were performed for the first time - most notably The Tempest in 1611.
The Banqueting House is only five hundred and thirty yards away from the location that literally defines where Central London is, i.e. the statue of Charles I at Trafalgar Square. I'm sorry, what was that, Oliver?
Banqueting House is managed by Historic Royal Palaces .
Address: Whitehall, Westminster, London SW1A 2ER
Entry: £7.50, or get a membership for £55 a year and you'll get into all six of Historic Royal Palaces sites, including the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace.
Public Transport Access: Charing Cross and Westminster tube stations nearby.