Vic Keegan’s Lost London 53: Cardinal Wolsey’s wine cellar

by Victor Keegan

The Tudor wine cellar of Cardinal Wolsey – later snatched by Henry VIII along with the rest of Wolsey’s York Palace when the cardinal failed to get the monarch a divorce – is one of London’s spectacular buried treasures. Sadly, very few people get to see it because it is below ground in the bowels of the Ministry of Defence on Horse Guards Avenue, to the right of the main entrance. Special permission is required to view it and tough security procedures must be gone through. 

The amazing thing is that it is there at all, having survived several serious fires over the centuries and, more critically, the 1940s plans for the new Ministry of Defence building which included its destruction. Only after protests by Queen Mary (widow of George V) was it saved. I hope they gave her a decent drink. The rescue involved encasing the cellar in steel and concrete and lowering it by six metres so it didn’t interfere with the contours of the new building. It is the last intact piece of Henry VIII’s Palace of Westminster, once bigger – though much uglier – than Louis XIV’s Versailles. It was the main palace of the admittedly peripatetic English monarchs for 200 years.

When visiting, what struck me after negotiating a series of stairways was not just the unexpectedly large size of the cellar itself but the way it is presented. It is done in museum style, with large reproductions of paintings and maps, and numerous boards explaining the historical background to it as you walk around the outside of the mausoleum-style structure that now encases it. This was an impressive bit of engineering for the time. It took 90 men 18 months, but provided the ministry with an extra 1,335 square feet of office space. The justification for doing this was that otherwise the cellar would have protruded 10 yards into Horse Guards Avenue. What would have been so wrong about that?

Stepping into the cellar is like entering a time capsule. In the depths of a building where battles are planned and nuclear tactics discussed are the intact remains of a piece of Tudor times. It is just as it was 600 years ago bar a few replacement stones, a lick of white paint on the walls and some more recent wine barrels installed at each end to recreate part of the atmosphere of a bygone age. There is a stark beauty to the columns and the vaulted ceiling made of sculptured bricks, which come together in “V” shapes. 

There has been speculation about what sort of wines were stored here to slate the Cardinal’s thirst. England – and London – were not short of vineyards in those days, but it is presumed that Tudor snobbery – sorry, taste – would have ensured that most of the wines came from France including, possibly, from the then white wine region of Champagne. A memorable experience.

There is also a bit of unfinished business. The wine cellar was very close to one of the halls of Wolsey’s Palace where, in later years, some of Shakespeare’s plays were produced. I read somewhere that part of the wall of that hall can still be seen. Does anyone know where it is? 

Find previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London here.

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