Digging up the bad taste bath house

Whitehall Palace
November 30, 2001

In 1993, Simon Thurley published The Royal Palaces of Tudor England . That book analysed the palaces built and extended by the first two Tudor monarchs, and related their architecture to court life. It charted the elaborate demands of the crown for magnificence and display, and the basic functional requirements of a great household: feeding and sanitation. Thurley's work has proved an invaluable contribution to the fashionable field of court studies.

Whitehall Palace is in many ways the companion volume to the earlier text. It too is produced by Yale University Press with the same generous use of illustration and handsome format. And it is an architectural history that constantly interrelates form and function, using the full range of archaeological, architectural and historical evidence to present the reader with an understanding of the experience of living in the royal buildings.

But there the resemblances stop, for this is a book about one palace: a long historical narrative about its medieval origins as an episcopal residence; its dramatic development under Henry VIII; its complex expansion under the Stuarts and its final death by fire in the 1690s. From time to time it is also the history of an unbuilt palace: that rival to the Louvre of which Inigo Jones, Charles I and Christopher Wren dreamt.

Finally, the text is what Thurley calls an "exercise in the archaeology of archaeology". There has never been a full or wholly satisfactory investigation of the remains of the palace, on whose foundations rest a number of major government buildings.

However, between 1937 and 1967 rebuilding for new offices allowed for basic archaeological surveys of important parts of the site. The archives connected with these episodic excavations were thought lost in the 1970s, only to be tracked down by the author at the end of the 1980s.

The desire to make available a full record of the findings of the archaeologists is, therefore, the major occasion for this new volume. In many ways, the desire to combine a detailed survey of field discoveries with the rest of the historical record is laudable, but sections of the text headed "the excavated structures" do not make easy reading for the non-specialist, and often seem to add little to the rich vein of evidence about this most public of royal buildings available from other sources.

It is only intermittently that archaeology and building history are excitingly related, as in the discovery of armorial stove tiles in the 1939 excavation, seemingly proving the existence of a ceramic stove in the Tudor royal bath house.

It is also a bath house that provides the most delicious of these conjunctions. Catherine of Braganza, Charles II's queen, had a bathing house near the River Thames, described as containing a feather bed, marble bath tub and hangings of white taffeta and mohair interspersed with large mirrors. This exercise in bad taste perished with the rest of the palace, but the archaeologists located the elaborate system for the intake of water for a tub in precisely the correct location under the queen's lodgings.

Such examples apart, the reader may be tempted to set aside much of the archaeology and concentrate instead on Thurley's masterly unravelling of the development of a building that was both a domestic residence and government offices: that housed the council chamber and rooms for the monarch's chief officers, as well as being home to the monarch and court.

The magnificent long gallery, built alongside the Thames by Wolsey before he surrendered York Place to Henry at his disgrace, became in the most literal sense a corridor of power, with the council chamber on one side, and close access to the privy chamber on the other.

In a later period, the privy gallery range came to perform the same function. Royal power of another kind was expressed through the conversion of the original privy garden of the palace into a preaching place, where court sermons could be preached in the presence of a wide range of courtiers and Londoners and official approval (or disapproval) of current doctrinal positions could be expressed. The most famous incident on the preaching ground, strangely not used in the book, involved Elizabeth I's imperious silencing of Dean Nowell when he spoke too zealously against images in 1565.

But representations of royal authority in Whitehall are, above all, associated with the banqueting hall, Inigo Jones's masterpiece with the magnificent Rubens ceiling. It is characteristic of this intriguing book that the author manages to offer a distinctive reading of this much-studied building, arguing that the monarchy conceived it, not merely as a centre for masquing and shows, but as a powerful presence chamber "for the ceremonials of the British court".

Felicity Heal is a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford.

Whitehall Palace: An Architectural History of the Royal Apartments, 1240-1690

Author - Simon Thurley
ISBN - 0 300 17639 8
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £60.00
Pages - 185

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