The wine-fuelled destruction of Charles II’s sundial

The grand pyramidal and multiform dial set up in the Privy Garden at White Hall, July 24, 1669. © London Metropolitan Archives, City of London.

Hear, touch and feel the past in The Lost Palace, our interactive experience taking you on a journey through Whitehall’s modern streets to discover its hidden history. 11 July – 5 September.

While today Whitehall is bustling with buses, taxis and pedestrians, the area once contained a space of calm and serenity. Spanning from Banqueting House to Richmond Terrace stood the Privy Garden of Whitehall Palace, the largest palace in Europe built by Henry VIII. During the reign of Charles II this garden consisted of 16 grass plots decorated with marble statues.  The centrepiece of the garden was a magnificent sundial, built for Charles in 1669. The device was so cherished by the King that he hired a guard to stand by it at all times.

The dial was pyramidal in form and consisted of three tiers adorned with portraits of the Stuart royal family. Iron branches projected from the stages and supported glass bowls that told the time in different ways. One bowl was filled with water and decorated with lines demonstrating the hours. You could tell the time by placing your palm in front of the lines and waiting for the sunbeams to pass through the water. The line that burnt your hand represented the hour of the day.

Though magnificent in appearance, the dial’s glass composition made it impractical for its outdoor setting with snow and ice frequently threatening to deface it. The vast portion of the buildings and riches of Whitehall Palace were destroyed in fire in 1698. However, the extraordinary sundial had been lost decades earlier – in neither icy nor fiery conditions but at the hands of a drunken courtier named John Wilmot.

1670 map of Whitehall Palace showing the Privy Garden of Whitehall Palace. Crown Copyright: Historic Royal Palaces.

Wilmot, or the 2nd Earl of Rochester, was a Restoration poet, rogue and libertine. As a close friend of Charles II, he was often excused for behaviour that others would be severely punished. He abducted a lady of the court who had refused his marriage proposal, punched a gentleman in front of the King, and wrote libellous poetry about Charles and his mistresses. Regardless of his actions, Rochester was almost always forgiven as the King found entertainment in the rake’s witty tricks and jokes. Following Rochester’s assault of another courtier, the diarist Samuel Pepys condemned how

“the King did publicly walk up and down, and Rochester I saw with him as free as ever, to the King’s everlasting shame, to have so idle a rogue his companion.”

The Earl blamed his behaviour on wine, which he confessed “led him to say and do many wild and unaccountable things.” To his own detriment, the target of Rochester’s wildest alcohol-fuelled antics would be the King’s precious sundial. On the evening of 25 June 1675 Rochester dined at Whitehall Palace with the King and his friends. After the feast, Rochester, accompanied by the Lords Sackville and Sheppard, drunkenly wandered into the Privy Garden where he came across the sundial so adored by the King. Unlike sensible men, who would admire the object from afar, Rochester launched at the dial and set about destroying it. He was heard shouting “Kings & Kingdoms are overturned & so shalt thou”.

After the Earl was finished with his work, the sundial lay in ruins in the garden and Rochester’s friends had run away. When Charles heard the news of his sundial’s fate, he left court immediately in an attempt to calm his anger. This time Rochester had gone too far and he fled Whitehall to escape the monarch’s fury.

Historic Royal Palaces is bringing 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.

Explore the largest palace in Europe, 300 years after it was destroyed in The Lost Palace, 11 July – 5 September.

Anni Mantyniemi, Curatorial Assistant

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