Today (January 4) in London History – the finest palace in Europe up in flames

Whitehall Palace was destroyed by fire on January 4, 1698. Said catastrophe is the subject of the Today (January 4) in London History podcast.


London Calling.

Fire! Fire!

No, not that fire.

The Great Fire in 1666 destroyed 80 per cent of London.

This one destroyed 80 per cent of the most magnificent palace in Britain.

Whitehall Palace. The largest palace in Europe. The finest palace in Europe. The centre of English royal power for 168 years.

It’s the afternoon of January 4, 1698.

A Dutch maidservant is drying linen sheets on a charcoal brazier in a palace bedchamber. That was how it was done – but it was a disaster waiting to happen if you left those braziers unattended. She did. She did what was forbidden. She cut a corner. She left the bedchamber for ten seconds or so. 

Where did she go? Had she left a duster in the last room she’d cleaned? Was she worried about the fire in the brazier in that room? Had she forgotten to close a window? Had another maid summoned her? Had she left her cellphone on a bedside table? We don’t know. The poor girl. Leaving that brazier unattended for just a few seconds, stepping out of that bedchamber for a moment cost her her life. And cost Whitehall Palace its life. 

The sheets caught fire. And then the bed hangings. And then the whole lodging. And then the building. And then the neighbouring buildings. And then the entire complex – with the exception of the Whitehall crown jewel, the Banqueting House. And that was about it, except for one other extraordinary survivor that made it because it kept its head down – Henry VIII’s wine cellar.

The fire raged for fifteen hours. Whitehall Palace was mostly wood buildings – so much firewood for the conflagration.

It was a scene of desperation and mayhem. Inhabitants tried to save their belongings. Servants tried to remove precious tapestries and works of art. Looters got in on the act. All those comings and goings made it difficult for firefighters to get at the flames. Officials detonated gunpowder in an attempt to make firebreaks. The explosions had the opposite of the intended effect. They spread the fire, hurling chunks of burning timbers onto the roofs of buildings not in the main line of the fire. And, yes, there was also a human cost. In addition to the Dutch maid whose carelessness started the blaze, there were two other victims that we know about for sure:a gardener was blown up and a guard burned to death.

If there was any consolation at all, it was that Inigo Jones’s Banqueting Hall – the finest building in the Whitehall palace complex – was spared. We have Christopher Wren to thank for that. He ordered that it be protected at all costs. And rightly so, because the Banqueting House was the building that changed English architecture forevermore. It was to London’s Tudor architecture what the Gherkin was to its modern skyline. A perfect double cube – 110 feet long, 55 feet high, 55 feet wide – its like had never been seen before on these shores. What’s more, it was the building that pioneered the great London building stone: Portland Stone. With that magical property of washing itself clean when it rains. And thus staying a luminous, a bridal white, compared to which other buildings come to resemble, in time, dirty rags.

For that too, generations of Londoners and London visitors have been and are eternally indebted to Inigo Jones. 

And on that happy note…

Good night from London.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *