There’s several places along Victoria Embankment where it’s possible to see where the River Thames bank stood before the massive mid-19th century project to reclaim land. Not the least of them is located in the downstairs foyer to Somerset House, where looking through the glass floor, you can see the pebbles of the original riverbank.
Another is York Watergate, once the river entrance to the Duke of Buckingham’s London mansion, and now stranded some distance from the water in Victoria Embankment Gardens.
The mansion, known as York House, was originally located on the southside of the Strand. Originally built in the 13th century, it was later acquired by King Henry VIII and granted to the Archbishop of York, Nicholas Heath, in 1556 (hence its name). The house became the home of George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham and somewhat sycophantic favorite of King James I, in the early 1620s.
When the duke was stabbed to death in 1628, the property passed to his son, the second Duke of Buckingham (also George), who later sold it to a land developer. It was apparently as a condition of the sale that the streets there now include the duke’s full name – hence George Court, Villiers Street, Duke Street, the slightly ludicrous Of Alley, and Buckingham Street.
The impressive Italianate watergate, which stands below the junction of Buckingham Street and Watergate Walk just a short walk into the gardens from Embankment tube station, was designed by the irrepressible Inigo Jones and built in 1626. Though weathered, it still bears the coat of arms of the Duke of Buckingham on the front.
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.