Wednesday, January 4, 2017
17th Century Whitehall, Part I by Katherine Pym
Whitehall Palace was a sprawling conglomerate of buildings that made no sense or order. Today, only the Banqueting House remains.
Part I, A quick history:
In the 13th century, Whitehall was called York Place. It was not a palace, but a mansion built by an archbishop between the cities of Westminster and London. It wasn’t too large then, but over the centuries, its owners added on to it which accommodated kings, queens, and their entourages when they visited York Place.
By the 16th century, in the reign of King Henry VIII, Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, lived in it. He had expanded it to such a degree that it rivaled most of the king’s palaces. Besides the fact Wolsey was Catholic, and Henry now rebuked Catholics, to have a minion with a larger house than his did not sit well. King Henry stripped Wolsey of all power, then moved into York Place and renamed it Whitehall.
King Henry made his own changes. He updated it until it encompassed 23 acres and was the largest palace in Europe. He erected merriment buildings that included a cockpit (turned into a theatre during the reign of King Charles II), tennis court, and a tiltyard. There was the King Street Gate and Holbein Gate that allowed the Court to traverse from Whitehall to St James’ Park without ever crossing a public road.
Each king or queen thereafter Henry VIII added to Whitehall until in 1660 when King Charles II took residence there, it had become a rambling jumble of chambers, passageways, and staircases connected by uneven floors that amounted to more than 1,500 rooms. It was also a montage of architectural designs.
During Queen Elizabeth I’s time, the first of the Banqueting Houses came into being. Elizabeth I had a large chamber built of timber and canvas to house entertainments. It occupied the site of the current Banqueting House, until James I commissioned Inigo Jones to build a solid structure, which replaced the aging, and dilapidated building. This new one was completed by the end of James’ reign. It was large with windows on all four sides, an interior balcony that hugged the walls, and an undercroft that took up the entire base of the building.
King Charles I commissioned Rubens to paint the Banqueting House ceiling. He was given £3,000 and a gold chain for the effort. Rubens painted the canvases and sent them to England for installation on the ceiling, which finished in 1635.
Rubens’ work effectively put the Banqueting House out of business. It was feared smoke from torches and candles would damage the splendor, so a new reception room was built. This was placed beside the Banqueting House where most of the ceremonial functions took place.
Charles I was executed on a platform outside the Banqueting House. After this, Whitehall Palace emptied out during the Civil Wars, but once Cromwell became the new sovereign, Whitehall filled up, again. After Cromwell’s death, what remained of the Rump Parliament tried to sell the palace.
Then, with the Restoration of King Charles II, Whitehall became alive again. As with his father and grandfather, Charles II wanted to make changes to the already sprawling palace. He hired Sir Christopher Wren to make it more like Versailles, but all that planning never came to fruition. He did, however, make new and sumptuous chambers for his favorite mistress, Barbara Villiers, 1st Duchess of Cleveland.
After Charles II died, King James II made changes in the forms of bettering his wife’s apartments, and adding a new chapel. By the time William III & Mary II took up residence in Whitehall, its importance was on the decline. King William suffered from asthma. The palace sat on the banks of the Thames, drafty and damp. He preferred Kensington Palace. By Queen Mary’s death in 1694, Whitehall was rarely used.
In 1698, the great rambling palace of Whitehall burned to the ground. The only structures that remained were the Banqueting House, the Holbein and Whitehall gates. Today, only the Banqueting House still stands.
Next time, Other Stuff about Whitehall.
Adrian Tinniswood. By Permission of Heaven, The true Story of the Great Fire of London. Riverhead Books, NY, 2003
John Evelyn. Fumifugium: Or, The Inconvenience of the AER, and SMOAKE of London Dissipated. Together With some Remedies humbly proposed by J.E. Esq; To His Sacred MAJESTIE, and To the Parliament now Assemble. Published by His Majesties Command. London 1661
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