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The ghosts of Whitehall

By Colin Brown
Author of Whitehall - the Street that Shaped a Nation

Enoch Powell was right. Having researched 500 years of history for a book on Whitehall, I am inclined to support Powell's view that all political careers do seem to end in tears - or to quote him accurately, in failure.

Whitehall street sign
For British politicians and civil servants, all roads lead to Whitehall

The downfall of Margaret Thatcher, whom he admired, may be the prime example of Powell's law in modern history.

Mrs Thatcher made her departure from Downing Street, choking back the tears, barely 200 yards from where another great political figure had made his final exit - Cardinal Wolsey, 461 years earlier.

Wolsey's biographer, George Cavendish, who had served as the Cardinal's gentleman-usher, railed against the fickleness of public opinion in words that echo down over four centuries as a warning to others who would gain high office.

O wavering and new fangled multitude! Is it not a wonder to consider the inconstant mutability of this uncertain world! The common people always desire alterations and novelties of things simply for the strangeness of the case; which afterwards gives them small profit and commodity…for the inclination and natural disposition of Englishmen is, and has always been, to desire alteration of officers who have been thoroughly fed with sufficient riches and possessions by long holding of their offices. And they being put out, then comes another hungry and lean officers in his place, that bites nearer the bone than the old. So people be ever pillaged and despoiled by hungry dogs, through their own desire for change and new officers.

A view looking south from the top of Nelson's column shows the Whitehall leading to Parliament
The MoD, DoH, Treasury, Foreign Office, and Cabinet Office are all on Whitehall

Cavendish gave a detailed description of how the Cardinal, who had been Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor and the Mandelson of his day, departed by barge from York Place, the ecclesiastical palace he occupied by the Thames at Whitehall in 1529, a broken man.

Wolsey was brought down by his failure to deliver a Papal divorce from Katherine of Aragon to enable the king to marry Anne Boleyn, and thousands turned out to enjoy the spectacle of his downfall.

At the taking of his barge, there were no less than a thousand boats full of men and women of the city of London, waffeting up and down the Thames, expecting my lord's departing supposing that he should have gone directly from thence to the Tower. Thereat they rejoiced.

The wharf where Cardinal Wolsey took leave of his palace for the last time is now buried underneath the main building of the Ministry of Defence.

But one fragment of his palace has survived - Wolsey's wine cellar. The 800-ton crypt is preserved underneath the MOD building, having been moved in a remarkable feat of engineering, 9ft 8in to the west and lowered 18ft 9in on jacks to the basement, where it is used today for VIP defence receptions.

Keeping your head

HM Treasury building in Whitehall
Whitehall has become synonymous with the UK government

The wine cellar is only one of several historic relics that remain behind locked doors around Whitehall.

Other architectural gems include the Tudor passage, now inside the Cabinet Office, that Henry VIII had built after seizing Wolsey's palace to enable him to walk from the privy gallery in White Hall Palace to his indoor tennis courts on the west side of Whitehall.

There is also the Admiralty board room with its curious wind "clock" still in working order and spectacular carving attributed to Grinling Gibbons.

Wolsey was fortunate - Henry seized his palace, but allowed him to keep his head. Instead of being taken to the Tower, he was rowed up river to another of his houses at Esher before retreating to York.

A walk down Whitehall provides a reminder that even national heroes are reviled after a time.

Nelson, the hero of the Nile, was feted over dinner at the Admiralty but was later reviled by Lord St Vincent, the First Lord of the Admiralty, for his pursuit of personal fame and his all-too public affair with Lady Hamilton.

Nelson's Column
Admiral Nelson keeps a watchful eye on the comings and goings of Whitehall

Wellington may have been the hero of Europe who defeated Napoleon finally at Waterloo, but the London mob smashed the windows of his home, Apsley House, in April 1831 because he opposed the Reform Bill.

Wellington was the rare exception to Powell's law, living long enough to regain public support. Crowds used to gather at Horse Guards to watch 'Old Nosey' climb on his horse to ride home when he was Commander-in-Chief of the army from 1842 to 1852.

In more recent days, the dining room at Admiralty House that Nelson would have known provided the backdrop for the photographs of John Prescott cavorting with his diary secretary, Tracey Temple, before the Deputy Prime Minister - whose empire included the Admiralty buildings - also resigned from office in 2007.

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