Westminster & West End

Upstream from the City the Thames slowly bends toward the south.  The ancient borough of Westminster, long the main center of royal government, lay along this bend several hundred yards to the City's southwest, centered around its Abbey and medieval palace. By the seventeenth century Westminster Palace no longer served as a royal residence but it still housed the common law courts of King’s Bench and Common Pleas and several administrative offices. It is also where Parliament met.  To its north, in the direction of the City, Henry VIII had rebuilt and enlarged the medieval palace of the Archbishops of York, which he had confiscated from the fallen Cardinal Wolsey.  This palace, known as Whitehall, remained the main residence of English kings until nearly the end of the seventeenth century, when most of it burned down in a disastrous fire. A sprawling and mostly undistinguished edifice built around several courtyards, Whitehall housed a number of courtiers as well as the King.  A public thoroughfare, appropriately named King Street, bisected it, so that access between the palace's two halves had to be provided by gatehouses spanning the street. Its most distinguished buildings were a large Tudor hall and the neo-classical Banqueting House, designed by Inigo Jones around 1620 and featuring a monumental ceiling painting by Peter Paul Rubens, installed in the 1630s.  The Banqueting House is the only major section of the palace that survived the fire and can still be seen today, although its exterior was recased in new stone in the eighteenth century.

At the start of the seventeenth century London and Westminster were essentially separate settlements, linked by a ribbon of development along the Strand, a thoroughfare running parallel to the river, which terminated at Charing Cross, just north of Whitehall, where it linked up with King Street.  On either side of the strand stood several palatial residences belonging to noblemen and bishops, or in the case of Somerset House to the Crown itself. From the early seventeenth century Somerset House became the usual London residence of English queens. But much of the frontage along the Strand was also occupied by inns, taverns and houses belonging to prosperous tradesmen, which courtiers and gentlemen visiting London sometimes rented.  To the south of the Strand a number of alleys, flanked by smaller houses and tenements, belonging mostly to lesser tradesmen, journeymen and laborers, extended down to the river. This juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in close proximity, although fairly typical of London's social topography in the period, was especially pronounced in these districts. 

Most of the land to the north of the Strand remained essentially open until the early seventeenth century, when ribbons of development started to appear along St Martin’s Lane, north of Charing Cross, and Drury Lane, further to the east.  But the population of Westminster grew as London expanded, while law suits and the attraction of the court brought increasing numbers of gentry to the area, who in turn attracted tradesmen looking for customers.  As early as the the 1580s the Crown became alarmed at the expansion of the London metropolis westward toward Whitehall's doorstep and began issuing proclamations prohibiting the erection of houses on new foundations within several miles of the City.  In principle this made most new development illegal but the proclamations were widely flouted.  The Crown also made an exception was made early in the seventeenth century for the King's chief minister, Robert Cecil Earl of Salisbury, permitting him to erect an indoor shopping mall known as the New Exchange on the Strand and a row of solid houses along the western side of St Martin's Lane.

In the early 1630s the Earl of Bedford, who owned most of the land between Drury Lane and St Martin’s Lane, purchased a license from the Crown to develop it as a planned community for gentlemen and “people of quality”.  The result was Covent Garden, the first London neighborhood built exclusively for wealthier residents and designed for purposes of comfort, rather than to accommodate the needs of retail tradesmen.  Very quickly similar development of high-end housing began around Lincoln's Inn Fields, several hundred yards to the east of Covent Garden, and Great Queen Street, which linked the two developlments.  A single surviving house from the period fronting Lincoln's Inn Fields conveys an impression of what these neighborhoods must have looked like.  

The political disruptions of the 1640s and fifties inhibited the creation of additional luxury housing but shortly after the Restoration building began again, most impressively around St James Square but also in other areas to the north and west of Whitehall, on previously open land.  These new districts became known, collectively, as the West End.  This area was laid out around open squares -- of which Covent Garden was the first -- and attracted a wealthy clinetele of courtiers, country landowners and tradesmen who catered to the elite.   


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