Running southward from Trafalgar Square towards the Houses of Parliament (the southern part of Whitehall is actually known as Parliament Street), Whitehall is lined with government buildings – everything from the Foreign Office to the Cabinet Office, from the Scotland and Wales Offices to the Ministry of Defence – and has become so identified with government that its very name is now used to mean just that. But where does the name come from?
Whitehall takes its name from the Palace of Whitehall which once stood on the site of the current street. The palace’s origins go back to the 14th century when a grand house known as York Place was built as the London residence of the Archbishops of York.
The building was gradually expanded over the years – work which continued when Thomas Wolsey was made Archbishop of York in 1513. When Cardinal Wolsey fell from favour in the late 1520s, however, King Henry VIII seized the house along with his other assests.
With the royal Palace of Westminster badly damaged in a fire in 1512, King Henry VIII had been staying at Lambeth Palace. He saw the newly acquired palace, renamed Whitehall, as a suitable new home and continued expansion works, constructing a series of recreationally-oriented buildings on the west side of what is now Whitehall including tennis courts, a cockfighting pit and a tiltyard for tournaments. By the time of Henry VIII’s death in 1547, the palace covered 23 acres and was the largest in Europe.
The palace continued to be used by subsequent monarchs until much of it was destroyed by fire in 1698. These days the only surviving part of the palace is the Banqueting House. Built by Inigo Jones for King James I, it was from a window on the first floor of this 1622 building that King Charles I stepped onto a scaffold where his head was cut off.
Apart from the Banqueting House, other significant sites in Whitehall including the Cenotaph, the focus of Remembrance Sunday commemorations. Downing Street, meanwhile, runs off the south-eastern end of Whitehall and behind gates which have blocked it off since 1989, stands the Prime Minister’s official residence.