The woodcut map, produced about 1561 and attributed to Ralph Agas, shows remarkable detail for the location of Whitehall Palace. The map view looks down on the palace with the southern end of what is now the street called Whitehall just off the bottom of the map. The northern continuation would lead to Charing Cross (now the site of Trafalgar Square). To the west of the palace is the early form of today’s St James’s Park. The eastern side of the palace extends to River Thames.
At the southern end of Whitehall Palace is the Holbein Gate which stands across the roadway now known as Whitehall. The large Privy Garden has large oblongs which almost certainly represent ornamental gardens, lined with box-hedges which was the Tudor style. In the centre of the garden, we see the representation of a water fountain. The water was probably pumped by a treadmill operated by a man – possibly one of the gardeners – who walked inside the wheel and caused the water to flow if the royalty were strolling in the gardens.
We can see that many buildings lay along the riverside of the palace. Shown in some detail is the ‘Preuy bridge’ (Privy Bridge) which is also seen in the drawing by Wyngaerde. Level with the Privy Bridge is the northern gateway into the palace precinct called, as the map shows ‘The courte gate’ (Court Gate). A large part of the land near the river was also part of the extended palace property. Just inland from where the mapmaker has written ‘The Court’ is the large roof of the Great Hall that was built by Wolsey. On its eastern side is shown the Chapel (similar style but much narrower).
Returning to the name on the map of ‘The Court’, remember that Henry VIII had acquired the premises in 1529 and that the map was made about 30 years later. The mapmaker might have been aware that the site had been known as York Place in earlier times and, not wishing to offend anyone, he diplomatically wrote ‘The Court’, using a title that always applied to a building where the monarch resided. Of course, we cannot know this for certain.
On the western side of the palace (near the park) we see the unmistakable shape of the tilt-yard. This goes back to ‘the days of old when knights were bold’ and tilted at each other, dressed in armour, while on horseback. This was not a sport for the faint-hearted. Every royal residence had a tilt-yard and the art of jousting was a great sport enjoyed by everyone – from the monarch downwards – on specially appointed days of the year.
Coming south of the tilt-yard are several buildings where other sports were enacted. The large building (looking rather like a chapel) was, in fact, a covered tennis court. On its immediate west side was a Cock Pit enjoyed (if that is the right word!) by the royalty where two fighting cocks fought to the death. Wagers were laid on which bird would survive.
If you are looking around the woodcut for the Banqueting House, you should be aware that it was not built until 1619-22, which was over 50 years after this map was completed.
The map is remarkable not only for its detail but also for its accuracy. If, when you were in primary school, you ever had to cut pieces out of a potato to make a pattern for printing onto a sheet of paper, you will have some small idea of the task of making this map. After finding a large, very flat piece of wood, all the lines on the map are formed by printing from that block and cutting out all the gaps between the narrow lines. It was a highly skilled job and, needless to say, one that needed great concentration. You could not make a mistake because it could not be rectified at a later stage.