It is a most stunning early spring morning, the kind of morning that gives you a youthful sprint and the deluded notion that everything is in fact alright in the world. I am strolling down Whitehall and I can see the tourists are out in their droves today, – outside the gates of 10 Downing Street they huddle like fans expecting a rock star to show their face any moment, whilst at Horse Guards the cavalry stand ever stalwart and unflinching to the drum-beat of cameras clicking. Across the road lies the imposing yet sombre MoD building where only the bravest venture. The CCTV eyes are everywhere, warning that you may look but not touch. For a place that seems over-saturated with tourists, one can so easily disregard this area as over-prescribed and ubiquitous to the point where the local Londoner forgets about its historical relevance and charm.
It is easy to ignore that the Queen’s Birthday Parade and the Trooping of the Colours originated from Queen Elizabeth I’s introduction of pageants in the Horse Guards Parade and that across the road (where the MoD now stands) was once the magnificent Whitehall Palace, foremost London residence of the English monarchy from 1529 to 1698. In front of the building I stare at the approximate location where the platform was erected for the execution of King Charles I. Stretching over 23 acres, Whitehall Palace had in excess of 1,500 rooms, 4 tennis courts, bowling greens, cock fighting pits and a jousting tiltyard. In its day it surpassed the size and extravagance of Hampton Court, the Vatican and even Versailles. It was where Henry VIII largely lived and died (1547) and where William Shakespeare first performed ‘The Tempest’ for the court of King James I in 1611. It luckily survived the 1666 Great Fire of London only to burn down in a fire in 1698. Today, the only visible remains of this great Palace are the Banqueting House, the Queen Mary Steps on the bank of the river and the Henry VIII Wine Cellars buried deep in the bowls of the MoD building.
Whitehall Palace was initially the property of the Church and went by the name of York Place. It was seized from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1529 when he failed to secure King Henry VIII’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII did not even wait for formal protocol and moved in just 2 days after Wolsey left. He greatly extended the grounds, turning them into a recreational area. He renamed the Palace ‘Whitehall’ not only for the colour of the stone walls but because a ‘white hall’ was regularly associated as a place for celebration, feasting and as a seat of power. As another example, the Palace of Westminster also had a ‘white hall’. Perhaps because of its prominent location, the name has stuck solely with this area and today has become a metonym for all things related with governmental administration in the U.K.
Henry VIII was an uncontrollable collector and filled his Palaces with many beautiful and costly things in a way that would dazzle and impress foreign dignitaries. The reputation of his magnificent court attracted many learned men and artists over the years. Food and entertainment were in constant flow so, understandably, in 1536 a wine cellar, measuring 70 by 30 feet, was constructed. 300 massive barrels were delivered each year via the Thames from Gascony in France. The first shipment was called the ‘vintage’ (wine of that year) and being a very young wine (matured for a mere 3 months) it tasted very acidic and sharp. As soon as a cask was opened, oxygen was introduced and would slowly turn the wine to vinegar. It was the cellarman’s job to make sure that the wine was fit for drinking and often thinned out the liquid with water or sweetened it with sugar and spices. The second shipment came in late spring when the wine had had a bit more time to mature. This wine was called ‘reck’ and was usually reserved for the King’s table. When Henry VIII died in 1547 it took commissioners 18 months to compose an inventory of all his moveable goods. His coffers lay empty, only later to be refilled by his more sober and astute daughter, Queen Elizabeth I. For a time, Whitehall ceased to be a venue of gaiety and more a place for shrewd and tactical ruling.
With no heir, Elizabeth I was the last of the house of Tudor, succeeded by James I from the House of Stuart. What emerged from this era was the development of the court of ‘masque’. Masque was a form of festive courtly entertainment that involved music, dance acting and poetry. The costumes and stage design were of the most elaborate ambition. James I commissioned a great banqueting room in 1619 in order to stage these masques and employed the talents of Inego Jones, a designer who had just returned from Italy and was greatly influenced by the classical style of Andrea Palladio. Incorporating classical arches, columns and pediments into the building it totally revolutionized British architecture, an anachronism standing far ahead of its time amongst the small brick and timber Elizabethan houses that surrounded it. King Charles I later assigned the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (luring him with the promise of a knighthood) to further the royalist and Stuart propoganda by glorifying the reign of his father, James I, in 9 awe-inspiring ceiling panels for the hall. The 3 main central paintings (The Union of the Crowns, The Apotheosis of James I, and The Peaceful Reign of James I) embraced the ideas of kingship, a governing body and ruling as a divine path. Ironically, it was beneath this very ceiling that Charles I made his last steps on his way to the scaffold for his execution in 1649.
Residency then fell into the hands of Oliver Cromwell then Charles II and lastly William III of Orange. Although William did not spend much time in the Palace, fate caught up with the palace on the 2nd of Janaury in 1698 when it finally burned to the ground. Michelangelo’s ‘Cupid’ and Hans Holbein the younger’s iconic ‘Portrait of Henry VIII’ were amongst the many great works of art that perished and were lost forever. The land was leased out and resplendent town houses were built until the lease ran out at the end of the 19th Century when it returned to being Crown Property. Since then, Whitehall has been remodelled with the great buildings of state that we are all familiar with today.
In the late 1930’s excavation began to renovate the area and it was only by the request of Queen Mary in 1938 that provisions be made in order to preserve and move the wine cellar. After WWII, rather than moving the room brick by brick, (as Tudor bricks are softer than the mortar between them and would have disintegrated) the whole cellar was encased in steel and concrete and hoisted onto scaffolding and slowly lowered 19 feet down and shifted 9 feet to the west. The operation was successful in the fact that the cellar was moved without any crucial damage, but sadly the building beneath which it rests now houses the MoD and is extremely difficult to be granted a viewing. Whilst other uncovered Tudor and Stuart artefacts are now in the trusty care of the Museum of London, the Rubens panels inside the banqueting house are open to the public and well worth a viewing.
© Crown Copyright 2011
On the streets outside, Big Ben is chiming, the guards are changing and the cameras are clicking in double time. A teenage boy’s posing next to the cavalry guard, pulling a face and trying to make the guard laugh. He’s not having any of it. No doubt he’ll look back at his snaps and believe he’s experienced the real Whitehall. I beg to differ and urge you all to dig a little bit deeper.