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A Somerset Church’s links with Whitehall Palace

A fourteenth-century Anglican Church in the district of Sedgemoor in the Somerset parish of Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge is not perhaps the place where you might expect to find several remnants from the main London residence of England’s monarchs until 1698, when a second fire destroyed all but the most parts of the Royal Palace of Whitehall, with the exception of Inigo Jones’s neo-classical Palladian-style Banqueting House and the historic Wine Cellar.

The diarist John Evelyn wrote in his diary, “Whitehall burnt! nothing but walls and ruins left“. In 1702, following Whitehall’s destruction, St. James’s Palace became the main London residence of the monarch and remained so until 1837 when the monarchy’s chief address became Buckingham Palace at the accession of Queen Victoria. How did these pieces from Whitehall Palace finish up in an English parish church?

The Palace of Whitehall is of course, inextricably linked with the Stuart monarchy – the Banqueting House was built for the first Stuart monarch James I; his son and successor, Charles I was executed on a scaffold erected outside the Banqueting House in 1649, having first walked beneath the great Rubens painting the Apotheosis of James I, which he commissioned to glorify his father, James I and which also alluded to his own birth.

It is no small irony that on Restoration Day 1660, Charles II ended his procession through the streets of London at Whitehall, as if to emphasise the fact that the Stuart line simply joined up again at the site of his father’s execution and thereby closed the gap of his exile during the years of the Commonwealth, to continue as it had begun. The chapel at Whitehall was built for James II, who was the last of the Stuart monarchs to actually occupy the palace and after the fire in 1698, the Banqueting Hall with its Rubens ceiling took over this function instead, to replace the earlier one. It continued to be used as a chapel until 1893, when Queen Victoria gave it to the Royal United Services Institute – services are still held in the Banqueting Hall annually on 30 January, the anniversary of the execution of Charles I. The Society of King Charles the Martyr acknowledges the use of the Banqueting Hall as such and on this day, a sung Mass is performed, together with a veneration of several ‘relics’.


St Andrew’s Church, Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset (Ken Grainger [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)


The chapel built by James II at Whitehall was important, known as the Roman Catholic Chapel, to distinguish it from that other Whitehall royal peculiar, the Chapel Royal. During the time that James II occupied Whitehall, he would as a Catholic, of course used the Roman Catholic Chapel, although Whitehall’s Chapel Royal continued to be used by his daughter, the future Queen Anne who, as a Protestant, was permitted the right to carry on worshipping there. Following the fire of 1698 (which lasted some seventeen hours) the Chapel Royal, which had been repaired ten years earlier at Anne’s request, was virtually destroyed – its ruins were used, somewhat sacrilegiously, as a venue for archery instead.

The Roman Catholic Chapel at Whitehall was built in the north-west corner of the Privy Garden as part of the extension of the Privy Gallery. It was eighty feet long and built of brick and dressed with Portland stone. The renowned Italian painter Antonio Verrio – who was engaged in the decorations of both Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace – painted the ceilings of the Chapel as well as the walls. The Chapel was used on Christmas Day 1686 and the great diarist John Evelyn records having attended service there.

Following the first fire at Whitehall Palace in 1691, there was a plan to change the Roman Catholic Chapel into a library but this seems not to have been done. By 1698 the Chapel was destroyed by the second fire and the exiled James II was living at the royal chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in France, Louis XIV having made peace with William III in England the previous year. According to the entry in the 1930 Survey of London for Westminster, it is thought possible that in addition to the altar-piece and organ having survived, that the pulpit may also exist in some church, as yet unknown. The Grinling Gibbons pulpit was given in 1696 to the Danish church in Wellclose Square, at that time still under construction – but the Danish church was demolished in 1869 and its fittings dispersed by means of an auction held that same year. It was rumoured to have ended up in a church randomly described as being in the “south of England”, although, to date, the pulpit has not been successfully traced. Of the two organs in the Chapel, one was given by Queen Mary II to St. James’s Church in Piccadilly.


George Vertue’s retrospective plan of Whitehall Palace as it had been in 1680 (Thomas Murray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


A new marble altarpiece had also been commissioned for James II’s Chapel, to contain white pillars and columns of ‘purple ranee’, which would be decorated with statues and sculptures to a design by Sir Christopher Wren. It apparently cost the princely sum of £1875.1s 8d. The plan for this had been given to Grinling Gibbons and Arnold Quellan (Artus Quellinus III) as early as 1685, the year of James II’s coronation. According to the Survey of London, this altarpiece was then later dismantled and sent down the river by barges in its various pieces, to Hampton Court Palace, where it remained until the reign of the Protestant Queen Anne, who in 1706 allowed the by then somewhat modified altarpiece from her father’s Chapel, to be erected in Westminster Abbey. On a black tablet were engraved the words in gold “Glory To God In The Highest, On Earth, Peace, Goodwill Towards Men.” The altarpiece was placed in an area of the Abbey which had access to the Chapel of Edward the Confessor. The altarpiece remained in situ at Westminster Abbey until the beginning of the reign of George IV, at which time a new altarpiece was built. This means that the old James II altarpiece must have been taken down sometime in 1820 in anticipation of George IV’s coronation the following year. It was presented to Walter King, the Bishop of Rochester, who also occupied the post of Canon of Westminster as well as of Vicar of Burnham. Thus, the altarpiece from the foremost English London royal residence until the end of the 17th century ended up at the church of Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. King published a pamphlet about the altarpiece’s history in 1826. Due to the size of the altarpiece, it was reduced into smaller components yet again, with four panels at the east wall of the church and two angels from the altarpiece on either side of the west door – lost fragments from the altarpiece even turned up in the lumber room of the local vicarage (The Parish Church of S. Andrew, Burnham, by G. L. Porcher). Historic England’s listing for St. Andrew’s Church, together with Pevsner’s Buildings of England: South and West Somerset, (1958) refers to it as the ‘Whitehall Altar’ and states that three cherubs, in fact, ended up on the north aisle. When originally installed, it had blocked the church’s east window because it had been placed behind the high altar.

St. Andrew’s Church refers to the remnants of the altarpiece now as simply, ‘The Angels’ – perhaps not without a note of affection, the church states that the angels have moved around their church quite literally, most recently in 2010, so they could be displayed in the area of the chancel. The three cherubs came from the Abbey but may be part of Wren’s modification of the altarpiece. These have been placed on the north wall, as previously stated but had at some point, been stored in an attic because that is where St. Andrew’s says they were found unless this is the vicarage lumber room referred to earlier.

An extraordinary story – in the words of St. Andrew’s Church, “From the Palace of Whitehall to the church of Burnham-on-Sea via Westminster Abbey.”




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