Weekdays: Ambulance technician. Weekends: Phil’s often a Tudor gentleman
- Credit: Archant
This palace was more ‘bling’ than Versailles. So why don’t we all know about it?
If we could pop Philip Roberts in a Tardis and send him back in time, he’d like to materialise at the Holbein Gate in Whitehall, London. A kind of tower, it let King Henry VIII move unseen from his private apartment on one side of the road to his leisure grounds on the other side, which included a tiltyard for jousting.
“A gallery went through it, but there was also an upper chamber, and it was in this upper chamber that Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn.” On January 25, 1533.
“It was a quiet wedding, not many witnesses or so-called friends, and I would like to have eavesdropped on that wedding and been there.”
Thinking about the past definitely gives Philip a tingle. There was the time he was down in London, visiting the Cabinet Office. Within this seat of government is a little-known walkway called Cockpit Passage. Henry VIII would stroll down it, on his way to play real tennis or – more horribly – watch cock-fighting or bear-baiting.
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“I was standing by a window and thinking that Anne Boleyn probably stood here, watching Henry VIII play. That gives me a buzz.”
What the Holbein Gate and Cockpit Passage have in common is being part of the Palace of Whitehall in the 1500s, an extravagant royal complex near the Thames that was the largest palace in Europe.
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Stretching across 23 acres, and boasting more than 2,000 rooms, it eclipsed Versailles, the Vatican and Hampton Court, says Philip.
It escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666, but was reduced to rubble by a ferocious blaze three decades later. Today, fragments live on, but few of us know very much about something Philip reckons is England’s most important and significant lost building.
Being showy and grand wasn’t the most important thing. The palace was the main London residence and seat of government for the English monarchy from 1529 to 1698, he points out.
“It is this link between Whitehall, Parliament and the power of the state that remains with us to this very day. Today, Whitehall is the thoroughfare that houses the workings of the modern British government.
“It has been at the heart of important and life-changing events in English history, from monarchs marrying and dying in the palace, to a royal coronation and even an execution of a king.”
Philip hopes to put it back in the public consciousness. He’s written a little softback book about it, 70-odd pages in a publisher’s History In a Nutshell Series that aims to give readers a basic grounding in a subject.
It’s come about by chance, really. A friend, a fellow history buff, arranged for him to see some of the remains of Whitehall Palace – the old wine cellar under the Ministry of Defence building. “That blew me away,” he admits. The experience made Philip realise he didn’t know much about this grand but lost palace. So he did lots of research and compiled a journal about it.
A woman he knew through a Facebook group read his account. Her husband helped people keen to see their writing in print and thought it a neat fit with the “nutshell” series. Now it’s rolled off the presses. “Before I researched it, I didn’t think much had happened there. I thought it was ‘just another place’,” Philip admits.
Here are some of the reasons why the Palace of Whitehall ought to have greater prominence in our knowledge of English history.
* The story really begins in 1245, when a property north of Westminster became the official London residence of the Archbishop of York. It was called York Place
* With York Place close to the royal seat of power, several archbishops became trusted advisers to the king. One, George Neville, improved and extended it, making it ‘one of the largest, most modern and desirable palaces in England’, says Philip
* The rise of Ipswich-born Thomas Wolsey, who became Archbishop of York and the king’s principal minister and fixer, saw the palace transformed into something so large ‘that it outdid anything that Henry VIII owned at the time’. It was opulent
* After Wolsey fell from grace, Henry seized York Place in 1529. He designed a new palace – either side of the busy street! Henry banned the name York Place. Now, it was Whitehall. He made it the official seat of the monarchy, though building work was still going on when the king died
* His daughter, Elizabeth I, made Whitehall Palace her main home for 44 years. Later, under James I, a new banqueting house – finished in 1622 – became the ‘grandest and biggest building England had ever seen’
* Having lost the civil war, King Charles I was beheaded at Whitehall in 1649 – the only reigning English monarch to be tried and executed
* Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, later moved into Whitehall Palace and made it the nerve-centre of his government. He died there in 1658, the palace growing shabby and almost put up for sale by Parliament. Charles II helped restore some of its grandeur. He died there in 1685
* His brother, James II, spent more than £30,000 on improvements and redesigns. The king, who wanted to restore England as a Catholic country, fled to France in late 1688 after Whitehall was surrounded by troops of the Protestant Dutch Prince of Orange, William
* William and wife Mary found Whitehall Palace too big and damp for their liking, moving to Hampton Court and then ordering Sir Christopher Wren to build a new palace at Kensington. Philip Roberts says ‘the link between residence at Whitehall and the government of the country was broken’
* On January 4, 1698, a laundress lit charcoal on a fire to dry some linen. The cloth caught fire and flames spread through the palace, raging through the night, stopping, and then reigniting, ‘making the second day’s blaze more ferocious than the first’. The palace was reduced to rubble and ashes. ‘It would be as if Buckingham Palace and “Big Ben” were to burn down today’
* The King Street Gate and Holbein Gate survived for a while, until they were demolished in 1723 and 1759
* By the early 19th Century, buildings in the neighbourhood were being put to use as government offices. ‘The area of Whitehall was transformed once again into the seat of the British government, as it remains today.’
Bearing all that in mind, it’s perhaps a mystery why most of us know precious little about the place. Philip, however, reckons there’s a very simple explanation.
“The reason why Whitehall Palace isn’t popularly known is because it’s not there. We can’t see it.”
Whitehall Palace in a Nutshell is available from online retailers and likely to cost about £4.99
It started on his honeymoon...
So when did the history bug bite? At school? No, although he does remember trips to Kentwell Hall at Long Melford. The reality’s a bit surprising.
“I got married in 1994, to my first wife, and I remember it was our honeymoon, basically,” Philip explains. “We stayed at The Swan in Lavenham. Earlier, while we were courting, we’d stayed there as well. So I was familiar with it.
“It was just the architecture of Lavenham itself. It snowballed. I did research, going to libraries and researching the architecture of Tudor buildings – the hammerbeam oak roofs, and the medieval church buildings.”
He got involved with the re-enactments at Kentwell Hall, spending a couple of weeks there for each of three summers or so. “I was part of the gentry; a member of the family,” he smiles, buying his own costume (not cheap) and sword and dagger.
Re-enactors immersed themselves in the past, speaking in authentic language. “And the costume had to be hand-sown – no machine stitches in there at all. As soon as you get there, really, you’re in role. It’s good fun.”
Does he know why the Tudors have such a grip on his imagination? “Apart from the architecture, I think it’s also the costumes. There was a difference in the way people dressed over that period from 1485 to 1603. The rich dressed elaborately and it is very appealing.
“And it was an age of discovery; of science. The Renaissance kicked off, really” – the cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history.
A couple of Saturdays ago he dressed up at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire. “Made the front page of the Gloucestershire Echo!” It was Katherine Parr Day (often spelled Catherine). The last of Henry VIII’s six wives died at the castle.
After the king expired in 1547, she had a shortlived marriage to Thomas Seymour, “and I was Thomas Seymour. Hence the beard”, says Philip. “I’ve trimmed it down now, but it was a lot fuller. I grew it just for Sudeley. I might keep it, actually!”
Many members of the public came up and said I know who you are. You’re Henry the Eighth. “Not quite…” Maybe a new role for the future, though.
Hatch: the Tudor dog who went to sea
Philip is also involved with the Mary Rose Trust that’s responsible for Henry VIII’s warship and her unique artefacts. She had 34 years as the king’s flagship before sinking in 1545.
Philip remembers watching coverage – possibly on Blue Peter – of the vessel being raised from the seabed in 1982. He’s a long-time member of the Mary Rose Trust information group team, trying to bring the story to life for the public, and has just written a little “nutshell” book about the warship.
He’s particularly fascinated by the objects. More than 19,000 were found. “Some of them looked as if they were made yesterday. It really is awe-inspiring.” He gives talks around the country about the ship and Tudor life. “We’ve learned so much from the objects. We didn’t know some had existed at that point, until they were found on the ship.”
Such as? Such as a musical instrument called a shawm, a forerunner of the oboe.
No-one had known what it looked like. “These little facts just get me excited! I could go on telling you about the Mary Rose!”
I’ll let you have one more…
“I think it has to be the skeleton we found of a rat. And a skeleton of a dog, too, which has been called Hatch – because that’s one of the factors why she sank: they didn’t close the gunports and the water came in.”
Experts expected to find many skeletons of rats, but there was just the one. Either they left a sinking ship pretty promptly or Hatch had done a good job catching them.
Surely it was a job for a cat? Well, the Mary Rose Trust says that, contrary to popular belief, cats aren’t that good at it. Many rats were big enough to fight back! Dogs such as terriers were thought much better at keeping the numbers down.
Also, cats still had a bad press, then. Pope Innocent VIII had in 1484 declared them unholy, and the companions of witches, so most people gave them a wide berth.
Facts about Phil
Born Ipswich, 1967
Went to Chantry High School
Joined the RAF
Spent five years in RAF catering
Based mostly at RAF Wattisham in Suffolk
Had a number of jobs after leaving the military
Has been with the East of England Ambulance Service for nearly 20 years
Works alongside paramedics, as an ambulance technician
Lives in Ipswich
Has a teenage son and daughter