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Fire in Whitehall ends an age of palaces

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On the night of April 10th, 1691, a sudden and terrible fire broke out in the palace and burnt down all the buildings over the Stone Gallery at Whitehall to the water-side, beginning at the apartment of the late Duchess of Portsmouth, which had been pulled down and rebuilt no less than three times to please her.

This fire must evidently have damaged the palace considerably, but none of the state rooms seem to have suffered. Apparently little or nothing was done towards repairing this damage. William disliked Whitehall, and when in London preferred Kensington Palace, which he had built from Wren's designs.

In 1694 Mary the Second died there of smallpox, on the 28th of December, and on the 24th of the following January lay in state at Whitehall, but she was not finally buried at Westminster until the 5th of March.

That sad spectacle seems to have been the last that the old Palace of Whitehall witnessed, for the Thames was not much longer to reflect on its waters those ancient walls and roofs. When it perished, of all the series of palaces which had adorned the river banks none remained but Hampton Court and Windsor.

Evelyn's description unfortunately gives us no details, simply under the date of January 2nd, 1698, "Whitehall burnt! nothing but walls and ruins left." Only Inigo Jones's proud banqueting house, the fragment of a design which would have made Whitehall the finest palace of Europe, still stands to remind us of what might have been.

Some buildings in Scotland Yard and some on the opposite side of the street on the Park side, with the Holbein Gate, were the only portions of the old Palace of Whitehall which escaped the fire.

Fisher's plan of the Palace, dated 1680 on Vertue's engraving of it, but probably earlier, shows us a complicated nest of buildings most irregularly placed round small courtyards and areas. No wonder the fire made such havoc in so short a time.

After this disaster, in which so many beautiful works of art and so much costly furniture perished, the Court of our Kings was removed to St. James' Palace, and the riverside was almost deserted by them. Greenwich, the Tower, Somerset House, Whitehall, Westminster, and Richmond, all ceased to exist as palaces.

Kew, Hampton Court, and Windsor alone remain, and of these the first two have ceased to be the actual residences of our sovereigns.

The site of the burnt palace was let out on leases to various members of the aristocracy, and Whitehall Gardens, Whitehall Place, Fife House, Carrington House, Scotland Yard, Buccleugh House, Richmond Terrace, and, more recently, Whitehall Court and Whitehall Avenue, now cover the site of this once famous pile.

Next page: The reign of Anne




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