Sunday 13 January 2019

The Streets of Old Westminster: Precincts of the Palace of Whitehall

A visitor to London, exploring the City of Westminster, and having explored Parliament Square, can walk northwards, along Whitehall, to Trafalgar Square. Whitehall today is lined, as it has been since the Seventeenth Century, by government buildings (HM Treasury, The Ministry of Defence, The Scottish and Welsh Offices), and by statues of some of the leading figures in British military history. Downing Street, where the Prime Minister of the day resides, leads off from it, as does Scotland Yard, formerly the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police from 1829. Whitehall also forms part of one of the most important ceremonial routes in the life of the nation: Royal coronation, wedding, and funeral processions pass this way (replacing the Medieval and Early Modern processional route from the Tower of London through the City); and it is at the heart of the annual commemoration of British and Commonwealth War dead.

Whitehall in 1953, decorated for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Photo: Ben Brooksbank (licensed under CCA).

Whitehall today, looking south, with the Monument to the Women of World War II; and the Cenotaph in the background. Photo: Tbmurray (licensed under CCA). 

In the Thirteenth Century, the area lay outside the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. Most of the English bishops and archbishops kept palaces in London, allowing them to participate in the life of the Court, including the House of Lords. This was York Place, the London palace of the Archbishops of York. As such, it was occupied by Cardinal Wolsey, but was later seized from him by Henry VIII.

Sketch of the Palace of Whitehall, c 1544, including a water-gate (image is in the Public Domain).

During the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I, and James I, the two palaces (Westminster and Whitehall) functioned, in effect, as a single complex. Henry VIII added a bowling green and tennis court, and James I commissioned Inigo Jones to design what is now "The Banqueting House."

Inigo Jones's plan for a new Palace of Whitehall, c 1638 (image is in the Public Domain).

The "Banqueting House." Photo: ChrisO (licensed under GNU).

The ceiling of the "Banqueting House," painted by Peter Paul Rubens, and commissioned by Charles I as a memorial to his father, James I. Photo: The Wub (licensed under CCA).

In 1606, Shakespeare's Macbeth, with its dark themes of regicide and ensuing chaos, received its first performance in this building, in front of James I and his Queen, Anne of Denmark; yet just forty-three years later, the same building witnessed a true regicide, as their son, Charles I, stepped out from one of its windows onto the scaffold, witnessed by a young Samuel Pepys, who recalled a single Biblical verse: "The memory of the wicked shall rot."

The execution of Charles I, c 1649 (image is in the Public Domain).

Pepys had been taken to witness the execution by his father's cousin, the Republican, Sir Edward Montagu, and, during the Commonwealth era, the Palace of Whitehall was occupied by Montagu's patron, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. A few decades on, both Montagu and Pepys were Royal servants, playing key roles in the Navy of Charles II.  Pepys began his career as a Naval administrator living, effectively, as Montagu's servant, in his grace and favour apartment in Axe Yard; and later had his own home and offices nearby. There were bars and restaurants in New Palace Yard, where Pepys wined and dined his business contacts and his mistresses; and a theatre, where he enjoyed plays.

The Palace of Whitehall in 1680 (image is in the Public Domain.

New Palace Yard in 1647, by Wenceslas Hollar (image is in the Public Domain).

The old Palace of Whitehall, by Hendrick Danckaerts, c 1675, with the "Banqueting House" on the left (image is in the Public Domain).

Whitehall was re-modeled as a public street in the Eighteenth Century, and the elements of the former palace were gradually dismantled, leaving only the "Banqueting House" as a reminder of its former glories.

Whitehall in 1740, looking south, by John Maurer: the "Banqueting House" is on the left (image is in the Public Domain). The "Holbein Gate" at the centre was builtin 1532, and demolished in 1759.

The Horse Guards Building was designed by William Kent (better known for the interiors and gardens of stately homes), and built, after his death, between 1750 and 1759. Photo: Alistair Welkin (licensed under CCA). 

The modern layout of Whitehall (Ordnance Survey, image is in the Public Domain).

At the Northern end of Whitehall stood Charing Cross, built between 1291 and 1294 to commemorate the funeral procession of Eleanor of Castille, Edward I's Queen. This was destroyed as an "idolatrous" symbol during the era of Cromwell's Commonwealth (the copy that now stands outside Charing Cross Station in The Strand was built during the Nineteenth Century). An equestrian statue of Charles I was erected, in its place, in 1675, and has stood there ever since.

Charing Cross, from John Rocque's map of 1746 (image is in the Public Domain). Northumberland House was the London residence of the Percy family, Dukes of Northumberland. 

Charing Cross and Northumberland House, by Canaletto, 1752 (image is in the Public Domain).

The pillory at Charing Cross, by Thomas Rowlandson & Augustus Charles Pugin, 1809 (image is in the Public Domain).

Trafalgar Square as we know it today was laid out between 1842 and 1843, the present National Gallery standing on the site of a succession of royal stables, the earliest of which seems to have been built in the Thirteenth Century, to house the King's falcons, as well as his horses. Trafalgar Square is, in a very real sense, the symbolic heart of London, a venue for both public celebrations and political protests.

The Royal Stables at Charing Cross, designed by William Kent, and completed in 1793 (image is in the Public Domain).

Trafalgar Square before the building of Nelson's Column, by James Pollard, c 1839. Berger Collection, Denver, Colorado (image is in the Public Domain).

Trafalgar Square taken by Sir Norman Lockyer from a helium balloon, 1909 (image is in the Public Domain).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.