Whitehall in the heart of London is steeped in 1,000 years of British history. That is why I called my book "Whitehall - The Street that Shaped A Nation". Behind the bland offices of the great departments of state that dominate the street today are stories of sex scandals, battles, and the beheading of a king. You can print the maps of Whitehall by clicking on the Maps tab at the top.
Tudor Whitehall - the real setting for the opening of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall - is still visible if you know where to look.
Let me guide you down Whitehall on Youtube. Click to See a Tour of Whitehall
AUDIO VERSION NOW AVAILABLE - Click on NEW BOOKS page
Start your walk in Whitehall at the Trafalgar Square end of the street.
It was here in the hamlet of Charing within sight of the Royal Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey Edward l ordered the last of the 12 crosses to the memory of his wife Eleanor to be laid after her body had been carried along the thoroughfare to her elegant tomb in the Abbey in 1290. A "modern" version of Charing Cross stands outside the station by the taxi rank. It’s well worth going to the Abbey at the end of this walk to see her beautiful effigy on her tomb, near the black box that contains the bones of Edward ‘Hammer of the Scots’, and another tomb carrying the striking effigy of Queen Elizabeth l.
Eleanor’s Cross became a famous London landmark – which is how Charing Cross got its name, and remained in place until 1643 – the year after the civil war broke out - when the Parliamentary forces who were to make Oliver Cromwell their Protector threw it down, because it represented the hated symbol of Monarchy.
Look across the road towards Admiralty Arch. In the foreground, you will see the equestrian statue of Charles 1 on a small traffic round-about. Charles l looks very jaunty, in the direction of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, where he was beheaded on a freezing 30 January 1649.
There are few places in London more dripping in blood than this spot. After the Restoration of the Monarchy, this was the place where the Monarchists took their revenge on Cromwell's supporters. This was the site of the gibbet where some of the Regicides who signed the death warrant for Charles 1 were hung drawn and quartered.
Pepys recorded on 13 October 1660 in his great diary:
“I went out to Charing cross to see Maj.-Gen Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered – which was done there – he looking as cheerfully as any man could do in that condition...”
The statue by the Huguenot Hubert le Sueur, was commissioned for £600 in 1630 and hidden during the Civil War. The Monarchists certainly had the last laugh. In 1676, they erected it on the spot where the Regicides were put to death.
Walk down Whitehall beyond the Trafalgar Studios (formerly the Whitehall Theatre, home of farce in the 1950s) to the gateway and the grey wall that conceals the old Admiralty building (1726), and, tucked away in the left hand corner of the courtyard, the later Admiralty House (1788), the grace and favour home of the First Lords of Admiralty from Lord Howe to Churchill and later Cabinet ministers including John Prescott when he was Tony Blair's Deputy Prime Minister. The Admiralty ran the might of British naval power across the globe for three centuries from the building in the centre. Inside is an historic gem -the Admiralty Board Room where the sea lords and their officials issued orders to the fleet.
NELSON AND THE ADMIRALTY
The Admiralty was built on land that was formerly the site of Wallingford House, the home of the vainglorious George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and Lord High Admiral. The site was chosen by Sir Christopher Wren, the King’s surveyor, making it the first purpose-built office in Britain and probably the world. The present building facing you from the street with the huge portico was designed by Thomas Ripley in 1726. Ripley had succeeded Grinling Gibbons as Master Carpenter and Sir John Vanbrugh as Comptroller of Works. He was well aware of Classical proportions but as the Navy expanded it needed more room, and he was ordered to stretch the columns of the portico to allow light into the top rooms. This breached Classical rules, and led to his building become a laughing stock. Vanbrugh said he ‘had like to beshit himself’ with laughing. To cover its blushes, the Navy ordered the screen by a young upcoming Scottish designer, Robert Adam, who became famous for his Classical brilliance. His screen was widely praised because it hid poor old Ripley’s monstrosity but it was broken with an ‘in and out’ entrance for the Duke of Clarence (after whom the pub is named). Check out the detail too – high on the wall (at eye level if you’re in a double decker bus), there’s an ancient sailing ship and to underline how our technology had advanced, a there’s a ‘modern’ warship with a gun run out of its port.
The Admiralty Board Room - note the wind clock on the mantlepiece. That was attached to a weather vane on the roof so that the Admiralty chiefs knew which way the wind was blowing!
The carving of all sorts of naval instruments surrounding the clock is probably by Grinling Gibbons and was rescued from the earlier building. The sextant is so detailed, it can be removed from the wall and articulated. There is also an all-seeing eye (a well known Masonic symbol) which may hint at Masonic influence at the heart of Government (Wren was a ‘brother’). The wind clock is connected to the weather vane on the roof. The arrow in the centre of the dial moved to show the sea lords which way the wind was blowing.
The sea lords were able to send messages to the fleet from the boardroom by a system of fixed semaphore points from the roof of the Admiralty down to Portsmouth in an astonishing 12 minutes. Churches which were part of the system still fly the Red Ensign.
A U was cut out of the table in front of the chair on the left to accommodate the stomach of the 24-stone George Ward Hunt, First Lord in 1874-7.
I was first shown behind the scenes when I was researching my biography of John Prescott, then Deputy Prime Minister, who occupied the range of offices stretching from the Cabinet Office to Admiralty Arch. Prezza had a grace a favour apartment in Admiralty House (not to be confused with the Admiralty building next door) where he hosted dinners between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in an attempt to get them to agree a deal for the hand-over of power amid rows that were known in Whitehall as the TB-GBsWhen Prezza first chaired a Cabinet committee at the table, he pointed to the table by his tummy and said to his ministers: ‘Don’t tell the press!’
ADMIRAL LORD NELSON came to Admiralty House for dinner at least twice, but they were two dramatically different occasions - one when he appeared to be devoted to his wife Fanny Nisbet, who cut up his food for him because he had lost his right arm; the second after the Battle of the Nile, when he was a hero, but treated his wife with utter contempt – so much so, she is said to have fled in tears to an ante room, which is still there. But by then, Nelson had fallen insanely in love with the wife of the ageing Ambassador to Naples, Emma Hamilton who was heavily pregnant with their daughter Horatia.
The dining room is decorated as it was in Nelson’s time, and it was the scene for Prezza’s Christmas Party when the now notorious photos were taken of Prezza holding up Tracey, his diary secretary in his arms. The dining room is available for parties but you have to be in the MOD or a VIP to book it. Prezza also used it for his leaving ‘do’ when he had a jazz band playing to keep the party hopping.
Sir Winston Churchill was also twice based here as First Lord of the Admiralty, once during the First World War, and again at the start of the Second World War. His wartime cinema is down a flight of steps just inside the entrance gate to the courtyard.
2 Henry Vlll’s Tudor Palace.
Stand by the Clarence pub and imagine looking down Whitehall towards Westminster around 1630 and this is pretty much the scene you would have seen. The thoroughfare where people are walking is Whitehall. Cross the road and stand outside Horse Guards. If you look across the road, you are facing the place where the gateway into White Hall once stood (the gateway in the wall on the left of this sketch). The sketch was engraved more than a century after Henry Vlll's death but had changed little, apart from the addition of the Banqueting House (the tall building on the left) in 1622 by Inigo Jones (on the left). The Holbein Gate is in the centre and the church-like building on the right is Henry's indoor tennis court where he played Real Tennis. The tiltyard was on the right behind the wall. The area marked off by small posts is 'the green', an important open space where declarations were made, that pre-dated the Tudor reign. Like most leading figures in London, Henry Vlll preferred to avoid the muddy, rutted track along Whitehall by travelling by the Thames in a private barge from his private river gate, like the Venetians.
This amazing sketch of the Tudor palace shows the river gate and the Holbein gate in the background spanning Whitehall. The curious ogtagonal building is the Cockpit (roughly where Downing Street stands today) and the building on the left like a church is Henry's great indoor tennis court or play on the site now occupied by the Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall. One of the towers with a chequered design in flint has survived almost intact and is preseerved inside the skin of the Cabinet Office which stands there today.
Henry arrived at the river gate (in the foreground of the sketch, opening onto the Thames) by barge in late 1529 with Anne Boleyn after he had seized the old ecclesiastical palace, York Place, from his Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey was stripped of his office and his possessions by the king for failing to procure his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. Henry and Anne were astonished at what they found - vast amounts of gold plate, silver and expensive textiles were laid out on tables in the long gallery Wolsey had built overlooking the Thames. If you stand outside the MOD building in the gardens on the Thames side you can imagine the river lapping up to the edge of the palace, and Wolsey's long gallery that stretched from about half-way along the MOD building nearly to Richmond Terrace. The later steps preserved in the gardens are close to where Wolsey's river gate would have stood.
Henry spent Christmas at Greenwich palace with Anne planning the expansion of York Place into a new royal palace sprawling over 23 acres and - for the first time - stretching across Whitehall, an ancient public right of way, to his entertainments complex by St James's Park. This included a cockpit, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, and a tiltyard where the lusty king could show his prowess at the tilt on horseback. His main living quarters were on the left or east side of the road now called Whitehall but even King Henry Vlll could not obliterate the public right of way. He resolved the problem of how to get across to his new entertainments and recreation complex on the east side of the road, by building a footbridge to cross the road. It was carried in an extravagant gateway across Whitehall in a long gallery that stretched from the privy chamber near the river. This would be the privy gallery were Henry would have his private bed chamber and meeting rooms. The gatehouse - a famous London landmark for over two centuries (from 1532 to its demolition in 1759) - became known as the Holbein Gate after the court painter, Hans Holbein (though it's not certain he had a role in its design). It extended to the Tiltyard Gallery over-looking the area where Henry would enjoy jousting with some of his closest friends (now Horse Guards Parade). Another gate was added later, known as the King Street Gate, near to the corner of Downing Street today, thus providing a powerful, gated entrance for the ancient processional route to the old centre of state and ecclesiastical power: the Abbey and the former Royal Palace at Westminster. That route is still in use today for the State Opening of Parliament by the Queen at the Palace of Westminster.
THE HOLBEIN GATE - the king's most private chambers were carried in a long gallery stretching through the buildings with the small chimneys to the gatehouse over the thoroughfare. It was completed in 1532 and demolished in 1759 for road widening - congestion in Whitehall is nothing new! This view, looking north from the Westminster side, shows that part of the privy gallery range on the right has already been demolished to allow traffic to pass round it. The 1622 Banqueting House is also on the right.
The entrance gate to Henry's palace was where the junction of Whitehall meets Horse Guards Avenue. The present Horse Guards building (directly across the road in this sketch) was not completed until about 1755. This gateway was taken down in 1765 and this shows the view from inside the court gate, looking towards Horse Guards around during the decade before.
Check out the accompanying map of Whitehall Past and you’ll see the yard as the white space beyond the red brick walls of Wolsey’s ecclesiastical hall. My book contains a lot of vivid descriptions of Wolsey's life at Whitehall by George Cavendish, Wolsey's gentleman usher who wrote a brilliant biography of Wolsey. The Cardinal was a Tudor equivalent of Peter Mandelson, gaining power behind the throne by his cunning statecraft and throwing parties for the young, lusty king, Henry Vlll. It was at one of those court extravaganzas that Henry met Anne Boleyn, sister of Mary, who he was already bedding. Wolsey’s banquets were fuelled with wine from his cellar, and amazingly the wine cellar - resembling the undercroft of a church - has survived. It was lowered for protection into the basement of the MOD main building, when it was being built in the late 1940s. It is now under tons of concrete in the basement of the MOD Main Building in Horse Guards Avenue, not far from its original location, under Wolsey’s Great Chamber and can be hired by MOD staff for parties.
The palace was not touched by the Great Fire of London of 1666 but after a series of smaller fires, the Tudor palace finally burnt down in 1698. One bit that survived intact, however, was James l’s Banqueting House. Before and after the war, archaeologists excavated the ground now covered by the MOD Main Building, mapping the entire site like a C4 Time Team dig.
Most of the footings for the old Royal Palace of Whitehall are buried under tons of concrete under the MOD Main Building. But some parts of Henry's Tudor recreation centre survived inside the Cabinet Office.
The Cabinet Office
It's bland, and boring - the perfect facade for faceless bureaucrats, such as Sir Humphry Appleby, the permanent secretary in the TV sit-com, Yes Minister, to hide behind while they run the country into the buffers. In fact, behind the stone facade are some amazing bits of Whitehall's - and Britain's - historical past. Inside that front door at 70 Whitehall, up a flight of 16 steps is the Cockpit Passage. This is the route Henry Vlll took to reach his indoor tennis court or the cockpit where he wagered vast sums with his courtiers on the outcome of the games.
Rich and warm Tudor brickwork runs the length of Cockpit Passage behind the scenes in the Cabinet Office, though in Henry's day it would have been covered in rich tapestries.
The passage is in daily use by the Cabinet Secretary because it links the Cabinet Office to the Prime Minister's office inside 10 Downing Street through a secret security door. This route is often used by people who won't want to be seen entering the front door of Number Ten. They have included Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein leaders, during the Northern Ireland peace talks with Tony Blair and more recently Alastair Campbell, when he's slipped in to offer Gordon Brown advice.
Cockpit Passage runs along a wall at the back of the Cabinet Office with windows that once overlooked his tennis courts.
Windows that once looked down onto Henry playing tennis, preserved in Downing Street.
Lobby journalists have a view of this wall when they queue up at a side door - the tradesmen's entrance - to play verbal shuttlecocks with the PM at his monthly press conference.
Royal beheading at the Banqueting House. The Banqueting House is a Palladian masterpiece designed by Inigo Jones for James 1, this was intended to show that the Stuart Age could match anything in Renaissance Europe, but in 1622 when it was completed, its Classical elegance may have shocked Londoners more used to the friendly warm chaos of Tudor brick, uneven roofscapes and black and white decoration. However, it was not quite as grey then as it is today. Most of the Portland facade we see today was added by Sir John Soane in 1829. It was previously like a wedding cake with rich soft Oxford stone for the ground level, Northamptonshire stone above that on the first floor, and Portland for the columns pilasters and balustrades in the top section.
It stands on the site of two earlier banqueting houses – one built for Elizabeth l to entertain her suitors from France – and quickly became a landmark in London. Today it is famous for another reason - it was outside the windows that the platform was set up for the beheading of Charles l, the only British monarch to be put to death by his people.
Drawings of the execution were banned in Britain but they were popular abroad and this one captures the scene, although the detail is inaccurate (Charles was forced to lie almost flat and the block was very low). The bust of Charles l on the wall above the door marks the spot where he walked out to meet his fate at the end of the executioner’s axe, at 2 pm on 30 January, 1649. The king had walked through St James’s Park up the rickety stair case at the back of the Tilt Yard Gallery through the Holbein Gate and the Privy Gallery to await his beheading. The young Sam Pepys, sagging off from school, was among the crowd who watched his head being cut off at 2pm. The clock on the top of Horse Guards has the ll blacked out to mark the King’s execution. Pepys was a Republican then, but like others whose fortune depended on watching which way the wind was blowing, he later changed sides to support Charles ll after the death of Oliver Cromwell, and was on board the ship that brought the king back to England for the Restoration in 1660. As an ambitious official to the new court, responsible for the Navy, Pepys lived for a time in the old palace near the King Street Gate and across the road in a house where the Foreign Office now stands in one of the little alleys called Axe Yard named after a pub, the Axe on the site.
It’s worth going inside the glittering Banqueting House to view the spectacular ceiling paintings - a celebration of the life of James l by Rubens which were commissioned by Charles l in 1629. It has been claimed the Banqueting House was chosen for Charles’s execution because the small enclosed space in front of the windows made it easier for Cromwell’s soldiers to keep order in the crowd, but it seems to me there was more to it than that. I speculate in the book it was because this building was such a jewel in the Stuart crown that Cromwell and the council ordered the execution to take place here. I believe it was a supremely political act to obliterate the Monarchy in front of the building which had come to symbolise the Stuart reign. Cromwell became monarch in all but name. Today, Republicans seem to forget that we have been down that road before. It was the only time Britain has been a republic, and lasted just 11 years before the people wanted the Monarchy restored to the Throne. That was not the end of the story however. After Charles ll, James ll – a Catholic – was deposed and replaced by the Protestant William lll who sailed like Charles ll from Holland on an easterly wind. During the crisis, James ll erected a weather vane on the Banqueting House to see which way the wind was blowing. Unfortunately for him it blew from the east, a ‘Protestant Wind’ bringing William and his army. A gold weather vane is still there today showing E and W though it replaced the original.
Established for King Charles 1 in 1641, amid growing civil unrest, the king’s Life Guard was intended to protect him against mobs rampaging down King Street to Whitehall before the Civil War. However, a month later, Charles fled to Oxford. The first guard house was built on the present site by Cromwell’s surveyor of works because of fears of more civil unrest – this time against Cromwell – after the king’s execution. The first guard house for cavalry was completed in 1664 on the Tiltyard, an ideal site because it provided dry ground for the horses (it was slightly higher than St James’s park which was very boggy). The Old Horse Guards building lasted 100 years but was replaced in 1753 with the Palladian building seen today. It was designed by William Kent, who was also commissioned to build the Treasury building – now the Cabinet Office – to enable the Treasury to move out of the ramshackle ‘ruinous’ offices at the Cockpit.
Before the establishment of the War Office or the MOD, the British Army was run from Horse Guards. Its commanders included towards the end of the 18th Century, the hapless Duke of York now famous as the butt of the nursery rhyme 'The Grand Old Duke of York' lampooning his indecision in a Dutch campaign, where a young Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, learned how not to fight battles. The Duke of York occupied the house next to Horse Guards, now called Dover House, and used the ground floor suite of rooms, opening onto the small garden on Horse Guards Parade. His coronet and baton were incorporated in a gilded freeze above a door.
John Prescott later occupied the offices when he was Deputy Prime Minister to Tony Blair.
its most famous commander-in-chief was the Duke of Wellington, victor of the Battle of Waterloo, whose private office was above the archway that leads through Horse Guards. Here he conducted the running of the army, and received petitions from war widows appealing for support for their children as in this famous old print.
Wellington's desk was valued on the BBC Antiques Roadshow as being worth at least £100,000. In 1828 Wellington was appointed as Prime Minister and he rode his old warhorse Copenhagen into Downing Street to show the smack of firm government. A natural authoritarian, whose feelings about his Cabinet were echoed lady by Lady Thatcher, the ex-soldier complained his ministers wanted to debate rather than obey his orders
‘What is the meaning of a party if they don’t follow their leaders? Damn ‘em!’
But like Wolsey and Thatcher, Wellington’s popularity as the hero who defeated Napoleon quickly turned to public scorn as he appeared out of step with the times when he opposed the Great Reform Act to extend the vote. The mob stoned his windows at Apsley House even while his wife lay on her death bed, and he had iron shutters fitted, which earned him the mocking title (once used by his soldiers) of the Iron Duke.
You can read more in my book: Scum of the Earth - What Happened to the Real Heroes of Waterloo? published by the History Press. Click on this link.