SUPPORT OUR JOURNALISM: Please consider donating to keep our website running and free for all - thank you!


A Somerset church and the lost Palace of Whitehall

A fourteenth-century Anglican church 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 lost Palace of Whitehall, the main London residence of England’s monarchs until 1698. A second fire destroyed most of Whitehall, with the exception of Inigo Jones’s magnificent neo-classical Palladian-style Banqueting House and the historic wine cellar. The diarist John Evelyn memorably 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 monarchy and remained so until 1837 when the monarchy’s chief address became Buckingham Palace at the accession of Queen Victoria. So, how did these pieces from the Palace of Whitehall finish up in an English parish church?

Whitehall Palace 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 which he had commissioned to glorify his father, James I and which also alluded to his 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. It was almost righting a ‘divine’ wrong through palatial architecture.

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’.

The chapel built by James II at Whitehall Palace was important, known as the Roman Catholic Chapel, to distinguish it from its other Whitehall royal peculiar, the chapel royal. A reconstructed plan of Whitehall Palace c. 1669-70 shows the first floor of Whitehall during the earlier reign of Charles II, where the King’s oratory was known as the ‘Little Chapel’, lying to the west of the Whitehall ‘Chapel’. During the time that James II occupied Whitehall, he would have used the Roman Catholic Chapel being Catholic, although Whitehall’s chapel royal continued to be used by his daughter Princess 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 found secular use 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, built of brick and dressed with Portland stone. The renowned Italian painter Antonio Verrio, 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 which seems not to have been executed. In 1698, the chapel was destroyed by the second fire and the exiled James II was living ‘over the water’ 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 was thought possible that in addition to the altar-piece and organ having survived, the pulpit may also have been then existing 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. The Danish church was demolished in 1869 and its fittings dispersed by means of an auction held that same year. Rumoured to have ended up in a church randomly described as being in the “south of England”, the pulpit has not been successfully traced. Of the two organs in the chapel, one was given by James II’s daughter Queen Mary II, to St James’s Church in Piccadilly.

A new marble altarpiece had been commissioned for James II’s Chapel, to contain white pillars and columns of ‘purple ranee’, 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). According to the Survey of London, this altarpiece was 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 Catholic 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 monumentally expensive coronation the following year. It was presented to Walter King, 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 seventeenth 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. 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.

These altarpiece remnants are in a way, a poignant symbol of James II. The Catholic faith that eventually caused England to assert itself in favour of Protestant monarchy caused James II to be overthrown in what became known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’. That cry against a royal Catholicism meant that England eventually had to look to Germany to satisfy its dying Stuarts, the last of which was Queen Anne. Thus, the Hanoverian dynasty was born with Britain’s first German King George, who was descended from James I via his mother, Sophia of the Palatinate, Hanover’s formidable Electress, who could nearly have become Queen of England herself. Many closer Catholic candidates were discounted on this vital point of faith, showing just how far England was prepared to look, so long as it wasn’t to Rome.

All of this might be told through this altarpiece, which came, in the words of St Andrew’s Church, “from the Palace of Whitehall to the church of Burnham-on-Sea via Westminster Abbey.” As a symbol of the religious questions that divided a nation, these Catholic remnants have ended up in none other than an Anglican church.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.