Above: Excerpt from the Agas map (c1561) showing the places where those who lived at Whitehall Palace enjoyed themselves within its precinct.
In the case of Henry VIII, we seem to be obsessed with the details of his six wives. While that is, in the main, a tragic feature there were other sides to Henry’s life which can easily be overlooked. He was responsible for the founding of the Royal Naval Dockyard at Deptford and also for establishing Trinity House – an organisation responsible for lighthouses. They are just two examples to show that Henry had other matters on his mind as well as his matrimonial affairs.
The Tudors also enjoyed sport – whether taking part or as observers – and the buildings at Whitehall Palace have examples of both. We shall use the Agas map, published about 1561, to gain a glimpse of what went on there.
Privy Garden • The large garden was enjoyed by the royalty just to walk around. Those invited to the palace were also able to walk in the ornamental gardens which had a splendid fountain at its centre.
Privy Bridge • This was a large landing stage, accessed by a covered walkway. Above the walkway was a balustraded upper level from where the royalty could watch river pageants on the Thames. These displays of splendour only took place on special occasions but they were another form of entertainment.
Great Hall • Banqueting was one of the great events of Tudor life. The old hall shown on the map had been built by Wolsey (not to be confused with the later Banqueting House that still stands in the road called Whitehall today). On special occasions, it was the scene of Masque Balls. These were times when everyone wore fancy dress and generally enjoyed themselves at carefully themed events. The hall would have been lavishly decorated to match the theme of the evening. Performances of plays were also enacted in the hall. During the winter of 1600-01 – towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth I – eleven plays are documented. The first Court performances of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello and also of King Lear, took place at Whitehall Palace.
On the western side of Whitehall Palace, there was what might be described today as the sports complex. Some of it was designed for sports participation while one part was more of a spectator sport.
Tilt-yard • Every royal palace had a tilt-yard. Originally, the Palace of Westminster had one. A narrow lane near Eltham Palace is named Tilt Yard Approach from a tilt-yard being on the site in medieval times. It is assumed that the tilt-yard at Whitehall was built when Henry VIII had acquired the property. The yard itself is clearly shown – with the fence in the middle where two knights, in full armour, would charge at each other on horseback. Jousting events took place several times each year. The tilt-yard at Whitehall was the site of the Accession Day tilts in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.
Tennis Court • Tennis in Tudor times was a sport to be played in a covered court with high walls and roof. The brick building is shown on the Agas map. It was not until the 16th century that rackets came into use and the game began to be called ‘tennis’ – a word derived from French meaning ‘to hold’.
Bowling Alley • A sport enjoyed by many in Tudor times was bowling. It is still enjoyed today in various forms.
Cock Pit • Most grizzly of all was the grim sport of cock-fighting. Although the palace had a private one, there were others for the public nearby. Cockpit Steps off Birdcage Walk was on one site. Cockspur Street, near today’s Trafalgar Square, is said to be another site. The Cock Pit at Whitehall was later converted into a theatre.