Palace of Whitehall

Palace of Whitehall

Main photo: Hendrick Danckerts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons By Hendrick Danckerts,

King Henry VIII wanted the biggest and the best – and he desired to have the most sumptuous royal dwellings in all Europe. He certainly set the standard with the fifteen-hundred-room Palace of Whitehall. Standing in the center of London, the original dwelling was known as York Place. Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, was the last of the Archbishops of York to occupy York Place. During his tenure at the dwelling, originally built to be close to the royal residence at Westminster, Wolsey greatly enhanced York Place. Visitors to the Archbishop’s home mentioned hundreds of rooms filled with velvet, silk and cloth of gold. Keep in mind that Cardinal Wolsey had more than eight hundred persons in his household.

A major shift in tenants, and palace name, came in 1530 when Henry VIII seized the property as Cardinal Wolsey fell into disgrace. Henry was also motivated by the fact that he had been living “temporarily” at Lambeth Palace since Westminster had been heavily damaged by fire eighteen years earlier. Whitehall Palace at the time of Henry VIII was an immense complex on the banks of the Thames just north of Westminster Palace. Here the luxurious apartments, intriguing “pleasure complex” and magnificently landscaped parklands provided the ambitious king with a residence worthy of his station.  It, like him, grew to be very large indeed.

It became known as the Palace of Whitehall, and was to be the principal residence of English monarchs for the next one hundred fifty years. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were married at the Palace of Whitehall in 1533, and he married Jane Seymour there in 1536.  Henry himself died at Whitehall in 1547, though he did not allow his wife, Kateryn Parr, to accompany him there in his final illness – she was sent to Greenwich and never saw her husband alive again. The original Banqueting House was built for the coronation of Elizabeth I in 1559; she enjoyed Whitehall and had a magnificent library there.  Famously, Charles I was executed on a scaffold in front of the palace’s new Banqueting House in 1649; he wore warm clothes so that the onlookers would not mistake his shivering for trembles of fear.

In Henry’s day, the magnificent Whitehall Palace was surrounded by twenty three acres of ornamental gardens and parklands. On one side of the road to Westminster, which bisected the property, sat plush royal apartments, a chapel and the Great Hall. Drawings of this part of the palace complex show dozens of stained glass windows among brightly-painted red bricks with white stonework. The soaring towers, tall windows and many gables of the Tudor style were evident in Henry’s renovation of the central London palace.

Because Henry VIII, and his son and daughters after him, always lived in comfort, the royal apartments would have been draped with fine tapestries and lavishly furnished. Meeting rooms such as the King’s Privy Chamber were filled with treasures presented to Henry by his loyal subjects and visiting heads of state.

What Henry built across the road, conveniently accessed through one of two covered galleries known as the Holbein and King’s Gates, reveals much about the King’s character. Henry VIII enjoyed sport of every kind, and so he built a tiltyard for jousting, a large viewing gallery, bowling greens, a cockpit and tennis courts. His daughter Elizabeth enjoyed cockfighting and bear baiting, too.

Although by 1691 The Palace had become the largest and most complex in Europe, it began a steady decline thereafter thourgh fires and demolition.  Today, only the Banqueting House remains mostly intact, though parts of the old Palace exist, folded, neatly and aptly, into the Whitehall government buildings.  A portion of the roof of Henry VIII’s wine cellar still lies, carefully preserved, the basement of the Whitehall complex. Toast him, or not, if you visit!