I recently wrote a piece titled Left High & Dry on how the River Thames has been restricted over the years by the widening of its banks. Here is another reminder of the days when the river was a lot wider than it is today.
Whitehall Palace was begun by Henry VIII and by the end of the 1500s was the largest palace in Europe. It covered the area from todays Palace of Westminster to just before Trafalgar Square on both sides of the current Whitehall.
It was a jumble of buildings built around a maze of small courtyards. It also contained a bowling green, jousting yard, pits for cock fighting and four tennis courts (These were “Real” tennis courts not the Wimbledon variety) . From late Tudor times through to William & Mary it was the principle royal residence until it burned down in 1698. The only building to survive and is standing today is the Banqueting House, the site of Charles I execution in 1649.
Apart from the Banqueting House the only visible remains of the palace are next to the River Thames and were known as Queen Mary’s steps. They were designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built in 1691.These steps led from the terrace in front of her apartments, down to the edge of the Thames, so she could board the state barge with the minimum of fuss. As it turned out she didn’t get much use out of them as three years after they were finished she died of smallpox. The Banqueting House was used for her lying in state and this was the last major event to take place at the old palace before it burned down.
It appears that after the fire and subsequent redevelopment the steps were covered over and forgotten. That is until the 1930s when workmen constructing new Government buildings came across the steps and the foundations of Queen Mary’s apartments.