Sunday, 9 October 2011

What does 'Whitehall' mean?

My article below also appears on "On The Tudor Trail" here

Largely vanished now, Whitehall Palace, in the heart of London, was the largest and, in the age of Elizabeth 1st, the most dazzling Renaissance Court of Europe. Some of its foundations and fireplaces, still remain under the road. From these, from contemporary plans, descriptions and paintings, archeologists and historians of the Royal Palaces can now reconstruct it.

Queen Elizabeth 1st walked in its formal gardens in impressive dresses, danced La Volta here in the Presence Chamber or Great Chamber, watched plays at Twelfth Night, held elaborate court ceremonies in the Privy Garden, and received shields from her nobles at Whitehall.  This was also where The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the King's Men, Shakespeare’s acting troupe performed his plays, to visiting ambassadors, two Monarchs and to the nobility.

At Whitehall Palace, the Court and its support staff, lodged in over a thousand rooms, heated by fireplaces and blue ceramic stoves using sea-coal.  The building was Tudor in architecture, using local materials, in low Gothic style. Its key features were oriel windows and gatehouses.  Whitehall was not unlike Tudor parts of Hampton Court which has survived.

Home of Tudor and Stuart Monarchs
Heavily guarded in the first floor “Privy Gallery”, a line of monarchs, from
Henry VIII to Charles II, but excluding Mary Tudor, lived in the same suite of rooms above their Ministers on the ground floor.

For a short time,Anne Boleyn lived at Whitehall's core, York Place, with Henry VIII, sharing his rooms. The new Whitehall Palae, an extension of York Place,  was to be their joint “dream home" after they married, the outline of which they themselves sketched out on a sheet of parchment at Christmas 1529.

Henry VIII's wish-list comprised a large sports centre for himself, and to hold his nobles at Court away from plots. It duly had range of activities: a pheasant court, coney (rabbit) yard, various indoor and outdoor “royal tennis” courts and spectator galleries, bowls and a tiltyard for jousting, which he had particularly enjoyed until his serious accident. Anne Boleyn may have wished for wide gardens, orchards and open countryside as at Hever Castle, her childhood home in Kent. However, it was her daughter who would walk in her formal gardens in the evenings after having Dinner in her Privy Chamber, and would ride with Robert Dudley in the extensive private royal hunting grounds, now London's royal parks, open to the public.

Anne Boleyn never lived in the Queen’s Apartments at Whitehall which were completed after she was executed. After her death, Henry rarely stayed
at Whitehall, possibly due to guilt and its close connections with Anne. The Palace was still being built for most of Henry's reign and was only fully finished after he died. His body lay in state in the Great Hall at Whitehall.

His son Edward VI and daughter Elizabeth 1st inherited its sumptous interiors, a mixture of the National Portrait Gallery's Tudor section, the British Museum - "wonders of the world" such elephant tusks, unicorn's horns and maps - and the gothic Houses of Parliament with long corridors and windows overlooking the River Thames.

Henry VIII had sixty palaces, castles or fortified manor houses. He was also a keen builder of new palaces, such as Nonsuch and Greenwich. Whitehall Palace in the heart of London was designed to be his working palace, where he and his advisors' close living quarters created a kind of "machine of government".

Elizabeth 1st delighted in living at Whitehall, glad to have her hands on power. She enjoyed living within feet of her intellectual peers, spymaster Francis Walsingham and William Cecil, and also in her own father’s and mother’s joint "dream". She could look down from her “Cabinet Room”, in the Privy Gallery, where she kept her treasures in a low box (a Cabinet) while playing her organ, over Whitehall Gardens, to her mother's mature orchards.

There are reports that Elizabeth would wander in her nightdress, in the morning, along the Privy Gallery, with its state portraits designed to “uphold” the Tudor dynasty, some of which can now been seen in the National Portrait Gallery, to the Tiltyard Gallery, over The Holbein Gate, to look down on the Tiltyard, used for her Accession Day celebrations. This was where her nobles and knights presented verses to the "Faerie Queen". Later, she might make her way along the same route, crossing into her father’s sports centre (“Parkside”) to mount her horse, to ride through St James’s Park and the other parks then private hunting grounds, with “Robin”, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.

Royal life at Whitehall Palace continued in a similar pattern for 168 years,
from around 1530, until it was largely destroyed by a fire in 1698.

Whitehall's legacy
Fascinatingly, Anne Boleyn and her dramatic and tragic story, stands squarely behind the word “Whitehall”, used today to mean the “British Civil Service”. The term “Whitehall” is a metonymy, a figure of speech first used in 1562. One word is "borrowed" to represent another concept.  Other examples are:  the “sceptre” meaning “The Crown”, “the sword” meaning “Justice” and “Washington” meaning America’s administration.

The British Civil Service are the non-political administrators of modern government. Today, thousands of civil servants work in a series of classical 17th, 18th or 19th century buildings or in plain 1930s Soviet style blocks (Ministry of Defence) , on and around the site of the old Palace. In their midst, still standing, is Inigo Jones’s "Banqueting House" an innovative classical building built by James 1st on the site of the highly decorated wooden hall that Elizabeth 1st built for the Duke of Anjou's visit. Inigo Jones, its architect would be impressed by classical Whitehall today, which has none of the “low” Tudor buildings or its "narrow" obstructions, such as the two Tudor gatehouses, on King Street.

Nevertheless, there are some remnants of Whitehall Palace, inaccessible to visitors. There is a perfect brick Tudor corridor between two royal tennis courts, inside the secure Cabinet Office,.  There is a perfect (but also inaccessible) wine cellar from Wolsey’s original “York Place” moved a few feet and sunk on the orders of Queen Mary’s, wife of the present Queen’s grandfather, several metres under the road outside the modern Ministry of Defence.

“Whitehall” is also the modern name of King Street. It is the wide thoroughfare which is the processional route from Trafalgar Square to the Houses of Parliament, still alternatively titled “The Palace of Westminster,  the medieval Palace of Kings and Queens.

A Palace lost to historyPrince William and his bride, travelled by carriage into, and through old Whitehall Palace on their way to Westminster Abbey for their wedding. They passed into the old Palace of Whitehall at the site of its guardhouse, William Kent’s stately “Horseguards” which TV commentators speak about as “the entrance of Buckingham Palace”. 

Film-makers, the general public, and even leading historians of the Tudor period, have no clear grasp of Whitehall Palace where Queen Elizabeth and other monarchs lived. "Horseguards" is, in fact, Whitehall Palace’s guardhouse, opposite the main gate of Whitehall Palace built on Henry VIII’s “Tiltyard”. Its similar predecessor was strengthened by Charles II, fearful of being executed opposite it, in full public view, like his father, Charles 1st.

The royal couple's carriage then crossed the “Tiltyard” which still retains its name, where Henry VIII dreamt of jousting for Queen Anne, admiring his prowess from the “Tiltyard Gallery”. They, then turned into old “King Street”, modern “Whitehall”. 

The Holbein Gate
They then passed the site of the “Holbein Gate” where Princess Diana’s ancestor, Lady Castlemaine, Barbara Villiers, Charles II’s mistress, had the upstairs rooms. She would appear in Whitehall Chapel to dazzle famous diarist Samuel Pepys with her beauty. Henry VIII had used the same room to spy down on Londoners, passing through the Gate underneath to Westminster. 

Londoners did not want Henry VIII's narrow Tudor Gatehouse to be demolished in the 18th century to make way for traffic, and only allowed it on the understanding that it would be rebuilt in the Great Park of Windsor Castle. Sadly, it never was. Its bricks are probably now part of various buildings in the Great Park.  This wonderful old Gate is clearly delineated in Canaletto’s paintings of the site of Whitehall.

Origin of the Word "Whitehall"

We can wonder were the name “Whitehall”, or as Samuel Pepys writes it, “White Hall” originates? 

Henry VIII's ancestral medieval "Palace of Westminster" had largely burnt down during his early reign so Henry and Katharine of Aragon lived at his new Greenwich Palace. When he had to visit Westminster, he was often been obliged to lodge with the Archbishop of Canterbury, at Lambeth Palace. No doubt, he and his mistress Anne coveted Wolsey’s lavish seat, York Place, on its prime site on the river Thames, which offered stately and safe access by barge from the River and easy access to the open countryside, for hunting.   York Place became a hideaway for the lovers, away from the eyes of Queen Katharine and the Court at Greenwich, in which there were no separate apartments. In late summer 1528, Henry’s relationship with his "Prime Minister", Wolsey, broke down and in 1529, Wolsey was sent into exile. The King confiscated “York Place”. He and Anne soon got to work on redesigning and expanding it.

When the couple took over York Place, they used it to form the public core of Whitehall Palace and then added private apartments. Wolsey's chambers used in the new design included its wine cellar and rooms which became the Presence Chamber, the Great Chamber, The Chapel Royal and the Great Hall.  The exterior of Wolsey’s Great Hall was decorated by black and white squares, in a chessboard effect, using white ashlar stone, a pattern replicated on the rest of the exterior of the new Palace. The new Palace was adorned to represent “Arthur’s Seat” with medieval crenelations topped by mythical royal beasts. The white ashlar stone in the Great Hall's chessboard design could have suggested the name “White Hall”.

A further explanation sheds more intruiging light on the origin of "Whitehall".  “White” in Middle English meant “auspicious”. So “Whitehall” also meant “Auspicious Hall” in English.

What did it augur? Surely the full expectation of a male heir for Henry VIII, Anne’s firstborn, healthy son living in special royal quarters, in their “dream home”.  Was the expectation of this event was written into brick, into the name of the Palace itself?  We know that the healthy son was not born, and that Henry soon felt he had been subject to some kind of treachery.  Anne lost her head inspite of producing a strong Tudor heir, albeit of the wrong sex.

If this interpretation is true, then it is ironic that Whitehall deserves its name. It was indeed an "auspicious hall" since Whitehall Palace became the seat of Henry VIII's powerful and unifying heir, Elizabeth 1st, who established the Protestant nation of England and encouraged the colonisation of Protestant America.   This even makes one think that Anne herself, a keen Protestant, could have coined the name.

Interestingly, William Shakespeare in “Henry VIII” Act 4 Scene 1 mentions the rapidity of the change of name from York Place to Whitehall, following a complimentary description of Anne, at her Coronation:

   At length her grace (Anne) rose, and with modest paces
   Came to the altar; where she kneel'd, and saint-like
   Cast her fair eyes to heaven and pray'd devoutly.
   Then rose again and bow'd her to the people:
   When by the Archbishop of Canterbury
   She had all the royal makings of a queen;
   As holy oil, Edward Confessor's crown,
   The rod, and bird of peace, and all such emblems
   Laid nobly on her: which perform'd, the choir,
   With all the choicest music of the kingdom,
   Together sung 'Te Deum.' So she parted,
   And with the same full state paced back again
   To York-Place, where the feast is held.

First Gentleman
   Sir, you must no more call it York-Place, that's past;
   For, since the Cardinal fell, that title's lost:
   'Tis now the King's, and call'd Whitehall.

Third Gentleman
   I know it; but 'tis so lately alter'd, that the old name
   Is fresh about me.

Anne is described as humble in her bearing, fair, sweet and devout, the model of a Protestant Queen as befits the mother of Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant ideal Prince. However, his comment may suggest what a Jacobean audience would have widely understood, that the renaming of York Place as Whitehall or "Happy Hall", was too rapid, a sign of a self-deluding King, egotistically tempting Fate, out of touch with the reality of life. Was he also manipulated by the Protestant party's agenda?

For Shakespeare, a name change suggesting a male heir would have been an inauspicious sign, indeed. No wise King should live in a state of self-deception, tempt Fate, or subject himself to flattery.  This sinful state would lead to his spiritual ruin if not the rapid end of his grasp on power.  Though we owe Whitehall to Henry VIII, the royal builder, what he did here, and undid, destroyed his reputation as a man and King.

For further insights into the influence of Anne Boleyn, together with a clearer understanding of the layout of Whitehall Palace (and its remnants) illustrated by maps and paintings, please see:
Whitehall Palace Walking Tour (

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