Over the past weeks, Whitehall – the heart of government – has yet again demonstrated its status as being the centre of political drama and seismic change in this country. This reputation goes farther back than most realise – to the history of Whitehall Palace, which once spanned from Trafalgar Square and past Downing Street. As the home of monarchs from Henry VIII to William III and Mary II, some of the most extraordinary events in British history happened within its walls and courtyards. Perhaps the most dramatic day in the history of Whitehall was 30 January 1649 – the day King Charles I was executed in front of the Banqueting House of Whitehall Palace.
Charles I was sentenced to death having lost the Civil War against the parliamentarians. The king’s death warrant called for his execution in the “open street before Whitehall”. Traditionally executions took place at Tower Hill but Whitehall proved more suitable for the killing of a king. The street outside of the Banqueting House was surrounded by palace buildings offering an enclosed space where crowds could be restricted. This reduced the risk of riots and meant that any defiant speech by the king would be heard by a smaller audience. As the scaffold was being built at Whitehall, Charles was taken to St James’s Palace to await his death.
On 30 January the king woke to a cold and frosty morning. He put on a second shirt to avoid shivering which he worried could be interpreted as fear by his opponents. At 10 am Charles began to walk towards Whitehall through St James’s Park between rows of soldiers, the procession advancing to the sound of beating drums.
Arriving at Whitehall the king was taken to a room overlooking the Privy Garden of the palace which had a clear view of Westminster Hall – the scene of his trial and sentencing. A meal had been prepared but Charles refused to eat until he was warned that an empty stomach could lead to him fainting on the scaffold. Reluctant of providing his opposition with reason to portray him as weak, Charles picked at some bread and sipped wine.
Meanwhile, a bill was being rushed through Parliament preventing anyone being declared monarch after Charles’s death. This caused a delay to the execution and it was after 1 pm that a knock was heard on the king’s door. The rooms of Whitehall Palace were lined with courtiers who prayed for the king as he was escorted towards the scaffold. The hall of the Banqueting House and its Rubens ceiling, which he had commissioned to commemorate his father, were amongst the last things that Charles would have seen.
The king stepped on to the scaffold from a passage that had been broken through a wall in the stair tower at the northern end of the Banqueting House. An eyewitness described how he “came out of the banqueting house on the scaffold, with the same unconcernedness and motion that he usually had when he entered into it on a masque-night”. Charles delivered his last words, “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be”, before laying his neck on the execution block. The executioner held up the axe and severed the king’s head from his body in one blow. According to a student in the crowd, there was “a groan by the thousands” – a king had been killed in Whitehall.
Charles I’s execution was but one remarkable event in the history of Whitehall Palace. The palace had already been the setting of magnificent Tudor jousts, gunpowder plot revelations and court premiers of Shakespeare’s plays. Following the death of Charles I, Whitehall became the home of Oliver Cromwell, until Charles II restored the monarchy and established his Restoration court there. The palace was destroyed in a fire in 1698 bringing an end to Whitehall’s history as a royal residence. However, the centre of power has remained there and the political pre-eminence of Whitehall can still be directly traced to this lost and forgotten palace.
The Lost Palace 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 opens as a new visitor experience at the Banqueting House on 21 July 2016.