Once part of the Palace of Whitehall, the Cockpit (also referred to as Cockpit-in-Court or the Royal Cockpit) was initially built as a pit in which to watch cockfighting as part of renovations carried out by King Henry VIII after he “acquired” Cardinal Wolsey’s former property of York Place and before transforming it into a royal palace.
It was one of a number of entertainment related buildings constructed by the king in the new palace precinct – others included a real tennis court, bowling alley and a tiltyard.
By Jacobean times, the use of the octagonal-shaped cockpit – located between today’s Downing Street and Horse Guards Parade – had changed into that of a private royal theatre and in 1629 Inigo Jones was given the task of redesigning it to accommodate King Charles I’s elaborate court masques (Jones had previously redesigned the Cockpit Theatre in Drury Lane).
Following the Restoration in 1660, the Cockpit again returned to its use as a theatre and King Charles II had new dressing rooms added and the decor given an overhaul (the ever-present diarist Samuel Pepys was among those who attended theatrical presentations during this period and Ben Jonson among those whose work was presented here).
The theatre building is believed to have been demolished around 1675 and the site subsequently used to house government officials including those of the Foreign Office (see our earlier post here) and Privy Council.
In the 1730s, William Kent designed the building (which although since expanded and modified) now stands on the site and is currently the home of the Cabinet Office.
While the Cockpit is long gone, its name lives on in ‘Cockpit Passage’ – a gallery inside the Cabinet Office from where one could once watch tennis being played.