On 1 June 1533 Anne Boleyn was crowned queen at Westminster Abbey following three days of official rituals. Details of the ceremonies were recorded by contemporary writers. Because of these records we know that Anne processed from the Tower of London in a litter of white cloth of gold and wore fur trimmed purple robes on the day she finally became Henry VIII’s queen. In these accounts we also find one of the earliest uses of ‘Whitehall’. After her coronation feast at Westminster, Anne was recorded returning to “York Place, which is called Whit Hall”, “with great joy and solemnity”.
While many will associate Whitehall with the centre of government, the 16th century record refers to what had originally been Cardinal Wolsey’s townhouse, York Place. In 1533 York Place was well on its way to being transformed into a magnificent royal palace. Henry VIII had seized the mansion from the cardinal upon his downfall in 1529 and had ever since been expanding the residence with lodgings suitable for a king and eventually, a new queen.
According to the Spanish ambassador, the extensive construction work was driven by the need to “please the Lady who prefers that palace for the King’s residence to any other, owing to there being no apartments for the Queen there”. Wolsey’s bachelor house was the perfect home for the two lovers. The lack of queen’s apartments meant that Katherine of Aragon, whose marriage to Henry VIII was annulled only a few days before Anne’s coronation, was unable to stay there.
While far from complete, Whitehall Palace was chosen as the location for the celebrations that followed Anne’s coronation. The festivities on 2 June included balls, banquets and jousting in the newly built tiltyard. Rather anticlimactically, the jousts were a failure. There were “very few spears broken” as the horses refused to run, causing “great displeasure” to the contestants as the knights were unable to strike against each other.
It is tempting to interpret the failed jousts as an omen, a premonition of Anne Boleyn’s downfall only three years later. Nonetheless, Anne must have been in a joyous mood that day. She had just been crowned queen and was celebrating in a palace that was truly hers. Not only had she been closely involved in the development of the palace, but York Place had been the setting of the court pageant in which she had met Henry 11 years earlier. Furthermore, the couple had secretly married in the palace only a few months before the coronation.
Henry and Anne’s palace would eventually develop into the largest palace in Europe with over 1,500 rooms spreading across 23 acres. The halls and corridors of the palace would witness gunpowder plot revelations, performances of Shakespeare, gossip about royal mistresses and the execution of a monarch. A fateful fire in 1698 that left the palace uninhabitable brought an end to this royal history. However, the area from Charing Cross to Downing Street continues to be called Whitehall, a name that was mentioned in connection with a royal coronation that happened this very day, almost 500 years ago.
We are working on a new project that will bring Whitehall Palace to life again by digitally transforming Whitehall’s modern streets into the rooms, gardens, courtyards and passages of the once great Tudor and Stuart palace.
The Lost Palace will open as a new visitor experience at the Banqueting House in July 2016.