Vic Keegan’s Lost London 85: Queen Mary’s steps

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 85: Queen Mary’s steps

Whitehall Palace has effected one of the great disappearing acts of English history. It was built by Henry VIII, starting from 1530, by means of expanding York Place, which he confiscated from Cardinal Wolsey. It became the biggest – and ugliest – palace in Europe, with over 1500 rooms rampaging down Whitehall from today’s Trafalgar Square almost to Parliament Square. Henry married Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour there and, in 1547, died there too.

Today, nothing is left of it in public view except the steps shown in my photo above, with the accompanying river wall at the junction of Horse Guards Avenue and the Victoria Embankment. The steps were reconstructed by Christopher Wren to enable Queen Mary (she of William and Mary) to descend from her private quarters to her carriage on the river. The Thames in those days, before Joseph Bazalgette built the Embankment, was much wider. 

Surprisingly, the earlier and much more ancient original Palace of Westminster, an 11th century  royal dwelling which occupied the area around Westminster Abbey and where its successor of the same name hosts parliament today, still boasts two brilliantly preserved historic buildings: Westminster Hall, with the biggest hammer beam roof in the world, and the boutique Jewel Tower of Edward III. Henry abandoned that residence in 1512 after most of it was destroyed by a fire.  

There are remnants of Whitehall Palace off limits to the public, such as Cardinal Wolsey’s wine cellar and bits of its former “real tennis” courts and occasionally, if workmen dig deep when laying cables, you can see the remains of Tudor brickwork underneath. Otherwise, Britain’s largest ever palace has been erased from history. 

Read more of Vic Keegan’s Lost London stories here.

Categories: Culture, Lost London


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