The terrible fire that destroyed one of Europe’s finest palaces
At the time of its fiery destruction in 1698, Whitehall Palace was probably the largest palace in Europe; the centre of English royal power for 168 years. The fabulous palace was created by Cardinal Wolsey as his central London residence. It was enlarged and extended massively by King Henry VIII after 1530.
Whitehall was at the centre of some of the most momentous events in English history, from the execution of Charles I in 1649 to the Glorious Revolution and succession to the throne of William III and Mary II in 1689-90. Banqueting House is all that remains of the once great Whitehall Palace after the devastating fire of 1698.
Whitehall Palace began life as York Place, the Westminster house of Cardinal Wolsey.
Henry VIII appropriated this desirable residence in 1530 on Wolsey’s fall from grace, and made it his own, turning it into the most magnificent palace in Britain.
Image: Reconstruction of York Place, Whitehall in 1530. This drawing shows York Place at its largest extent, on the eve of Wolsey's fall.
It began to be known as ‘Whitehall’ throughout Europe as the name of the palace of the kings and queens of England. This forged the link between Whitehall and the power of the state – a link which remains to this day.
Image: The Family of Henry VIII (detail) by an unknown painter, c1545 was possibly set within the splendid interior of Whitehall Palace.
This painting shows Whitehall Palace at its greatest, stretching along the banks of the Thames. Palace inhabitants enjoyed a fabulous view of river pageants such as this one.
Image: The Lord Mayor's Water-Procession on the Thames c1683, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017 (Detail version in header image)
On the afternoon of 4 January 1698 a Dutch maidservant was drying linen sheets on a charcoal brazier in a bed chamber at Whitehall Palace.
This was usual practice, but it was forbidden to leave braziers unattended. However, for some reason the maid left the room.
It only took a second for the sheets to ignite, then to set fire to the bed hangings, and then the whole lodging was ablaze.
Gunpowder was used to try to prevent the flames from spreading by blowing up buildings to create a firebreak.
Whitehall Palace was still a largely timber structure, and flames travelled rapidly quickly from building to building. Before long, flames were rising form the whole of the southern part of the palace.
Image: Reconstruction cross-section through Whitehall Palace in 1547, Crown Copyright Historic Royal Palaces
As soon as the alarm had been raised, palace staff were mobilised to fight the flames. Pumps and buckets were used to pour water on the burning palace, with little effect.
Massive explosions rocked the evening air as officials detonated gunpowder to create firebreaks, but this made things worse as chunks burning timber fell on other buildings and set them alight. All was chaos.
Image: A 17th-century firepump engine. Sadly the techonology of the day was not enough to douse the flames, © Getty Images
As news of the fire spread, so did the realisation that palace riches were vulnerable. This brought out the worst in some people during the disaster.
Servants who were desperately trying to remove the fabulous tapestries and works of art from the staterooms were shoved aside by looters who had climbed over the palace walls.
Palace inhabitants tried desperately to save their belongings, blocking the way of firefighters.
Among the casualties were a guard burned to death, a gardener blown up, and the Dutch maid who started the blaze.
We have William III’s presence of mind to thank for the survival of the Banqueting House that still stands in today’s Whitehall.
Back in January 1698, the fire raged for 15 hours and was extinguished only by the middle of the following day. But a breeze re-ignited the flames in a different part of the palace, near to the Banqueting House.
On William III’s express orders, huge efforts were made to save it. The building’s southern window was bricked up to prevent the flames from reaching the interior.
After the second day, when there was little left to burn, the fire died down, leaving the royal apartments of Europe’s finest palace as little more than a pile of rubble.
Image: William III by Wissing, 1685, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017