Above: Looking south at Queen Mary’s Steps. The stonework to the right is the east wall of the Ministry of Defence.
When a fire broke out at Whitehall Palace, in 1698, there were plenty of buildings still constructed from timber and it must have been a terrible sight as the flames engulfed the structures. Being more modern and built of stone, the Banqueting House withstood the conflagration. The palace was not rebuilt because St James’s Palace was not far away and it was not really being used so the Court moved there.
Although the site at Whitehall was cleared and the land was sold off in plots on which to build townhouses, not everything was cleared away. Incorporated into the structure of the Treasury building are some of the old Tudor walls and other walls remain standing in Downing Street. Unfortunately, the public cannot gain access to any of this evidence.
The Banqueting House stands beside Whitehall and is an impressive reminder of what Whitehall Palace might have looked like if other buildings had been rebuilt on the old site. However, the Banqueting House is not Tudor and there are no other buildings from the time of the rebuilding in Tudor times left standing. Deep in the ground, below the Ministry of Defence, is a Tudor wine cellar. Until the 1970s it used to be open on Saturday afternoons for the public to make a booked visit. Sadly, the room is no longer open for public viewing. Private functions are sometimes held in that cellar which has restricted access from the Banqueting House.
One piece of masonry that remains from the days of Whitehall Palace stands on the eastern side of the Ministry of Defence. It is part of a landing stage that remains in the lawn of the Victoria Embankment. Known as Queen Mary’s Steps, the stonework was designed by Sir Christopher Wren for Mary II as a terrace overlooking the Thames in front of the old river wall of Whitehall Palace. The terrace, projecting about 700 feet into the bed of the river, was about 280 feet long. At either end were a curving flight of stairs to provide access from the Royal Apartments to the State Barge. The remaining piece of the terrace was discovered during excavations in 1939 for the Ministry of Defence which, due to the onset of the Second World War, was not completed until 1957.