4 January 1698: the Palace of Whitehall is destroyed by fire

On this day in 1698, a basket of linen caught fire burning to the ground one of Europe's most complex and beautiful royal residences – the Palace of Whitehall.

With all its modifications over the centuries, by the late 17th century the Palace of Whitehall was a mishmash of architectural styles. From Tudor towers to the Palladian Banqueting House designed by Inigo Jones in 1619, it was described as one of the largest, most complex and beautiful palaces in Europe – or most ugly if you agreed with the French Duc de Saint-Simon.

Disaster struck at four in the afternoon on 4 January 1698, when a basket of linen left out to dry besides a charcoal fire set alight. It wasn't the first accident to befall the palace: just seven years earlier, a similar mishap in the Duchess of Portsmouth's lodgings almost claimed the royal residence. But this time, the destruction was all but complete.

Efforts to save the palace were chaotic. Servants ran around frantically trying to save the furnishings, but were impeded in their efforts by the courtiers, who had bolted their doors against looters, thus getting in the way of workmen who were desperately trying to blow up the buildings in advance of the encroaching flames. It was all mostly in vain.A marble bust of Charles I by the great Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini and a Michelangelo are among the treasures believed lost in the fire.

Banqueting House and the beautifully ornate Tudor Holbein Gate survived, although an unsentimental London demolished the gate in 1759 to make way for a road. But there were those who mourned the still smouldering ruins. The reigning William III declared valiantly that "if God would give him leave, he would rebuild them much finer than before". He even fetched Sir Christopher Wren to set to it.

But God wasn't the problem the Treasury was, in that it was empty. Queen Anne, who followed William in 1702, promised to put aside £100,000 for six years to fund the rebuilding of Whitehall Palace. Her endeavours, too, came to nothing. So the wreckage was swept away, and the politicians later moved in. Perhaps it's not for nothing that the Cabinet Office today sits on the site of the old cockfighting pit.

Recommended

1 April 1999: The minimum wage is introduced in Britain
This day in history

1 April 1999: The minimum wage is introduced in Britain

On this day in 1999, the national minimum wage was introduced in Britain, bringing an instant pay rise to 1.9 million low-paid workers.
1 Apr 2021
27 February 1900: The launch of the Labour Party
This day in history

27 February 1900: The launch of the Labour Party

Responding to the need for a single political party to represent the trade unions, the Labour Party was formed on this day in 1900.
27 Feb 2021
24 February 1981: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announce their engagement
This day in history

24 February 1981: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announce their engagement

On this day in 1981, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer made their engagement official in front of the world's press at Buckingham Palace.
24 Feb 2021
24 February 1809: Drury Lane theatre burns down
This day in history

24 February 1809: Drury Lane theatre burns down

On this day in 1809, celebrated playwright Richard Sheridan was effectively ruined when the Drury Lane theatre went up in smoke.
24 Feb 2021

Most Popular

The bitcoin bubble will burst: here’s how to play it
Bitcoin

The bitcoin bubble will burst: here’s how to play it

The cryptocurrency’s price has soared far beyond its fundamentals, says Matthew Partridge. Here, he looks at how to short bitcoin.
12 Apr 2021
What does the Coinbase listing mean for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies?
Bitcoin

What does the Coinbase listing mean for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies?

As the bitcoin price hit new highs, the world's biggest cryptocurrency exchange, Coinbase, listed on the stockmarket. John Stepek looks at what that m…
15 Apr 2021
Lab-grown meat: the new agricultural revolution
Soft commodities

Lab-grown meat: the new agricultural revolution

Vegan alternatives are taking off, but the future of food technology lies in lab-grown meat – cultivating steaks and burgers from animal cells, says A…
16 Apr 2021