Claes Visscher's 1616 panorama of London featuring London bridge

Claes Visscher’s 1616 panorama of London featuring London bridge. Whitehall is 2 miles west (left) of the bridge, around the curve to the south, in Westminster. Note the spire & bell of St. Paul’s is missing. Lightning struck and it melted!

Ever try to get a mouse through Whitehall Palace in 1616? To do it with any reasonably accurate, descriptive detail is a daunting challenge, even with the wondrous resources of today’s internet.

First of all, it’s Whitehall Palace in 1616 ~ not what was created to become Whitehall in the 1530s by Henry VIII, and not quite what eventually resulted as the mind-boggling complex of Charles II in 1680 (there’s actually a diagram available for that one). Reconnoitering a careful lay of the land is necessary, time consuming, and easily gets confusing. Thankfully, maps of jolly old London Town explain that curve in the Thames that puts the palace on the west side of the river. The Thames runs generally east and west, so land should be north or south, right? Not with that south-bending curve. So, St. James Park (of which there are paintings) lies on the west and the Thames on the east.

Whitehall about 1675 from the west in St. James Park

Whitehall about 1675 from the west in St. James Park

Now, how does that rider approach Whitehall? Can he ride right through the park? Can he deliver a packet of mail there to be carried through ~ what galleries? The tiltyard? How did that packet cross the street that ran through the palace? Did it go through Henry VIII’s Holbein Gate? How? Who was allowed to carry it? What buildings and galleries and rooms and chapels, etc., were there in 1616 (not 1622, or 1650, or 1680)? If the mouse makes it through and out to the east, heading for the river, which stairs does he take? Whitehall Stairs? Privy Stairs?

Ah, one of the great curses of historical fiction ~ a few paragraphs of description can cost days of brain-stressing hunting and digging in order to get it right ~ or as close as reasonably possible. So appreciate any conscientious author of good historical fiction. I try hard to be one. Having done a lot of research years ago the old-fashioned way, with books and interlibrary loans and rare catalogs and research librarians worth my horse’s weight in gold (a salute to good librarians!), today’s internet is fantastic! But it’s also a swamp that can feed you to any number of sneaky gators. Tread carefully! It means cross-cross-cross checking a wide variety of sources to judge what looks to be reliable.

London about 1600

London about 1600 showing London Bridge crossing the Thames and the bend to the south on the left with Whitehall in Westminster

The good thing about 1616 is that it’s the year William Shakespeare died ~ not that his death was good, it was far too early at 52 ~ but the Whitehall I needed was the one that Will had visited a number of times with his fellows to present a play for the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and, after 1603, King James I. And so, the scrupulous Shakespeare scholar, James Shapiro, knows his Whitehall and graciously and deliciously describes its inner secrets in his magnificent and entertaining and highly educational work, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599. Thank you, thank you, Professor Shapiro!

So, my mouse made it through Whitehall and we get an interesting tour along the way. And, hopefully, I made no terribly embarrassing mistakes. Oh, I know there will be mistakes as my mouse and I journey through the 17th Century. But we are making our lists and checking them at least thrice, my mouse and I. Part of the Whitehall tour you can find in Shapiro’s 1599, and I strongly encourage that! For the whole tour, stay tuned for the publication of the first volume of Braving the New World ~ An American Journey. My mouse and I thank you!

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