Beneath the imposing grey building that houses the Ministry of Defence a Tudor gem lies hidden. Access is restricted, but one of our lucky guides has had the chance to drink in the vintage atmosphere of King Henry VIII’s wine cellar
By Dugald Sandeman
As a former civil servant, the ghost of Whitehall Palace has a particular fascination for me. The fire of 1698 destroyed most of it. William III, by now bereft of his beloved Mary, was not a fan of the palace, which triggered his asthma. Nevertheless, on the second day of the fire, 5th January, he ordered that the Banqueting Hall should be protected at all costs. As a result, we enjoy the sight of the Banqueting Hall today. The only other visible traces of the palace are Queen Mary’s Steps behind the Ministry of Defence and the tennis court wall in no 70 Whitehall.
But another gem lies underground – the wine vault described as Henry VIII’s cellar, although originally this had been built for Cardinal Wolsey. It was located at ground level so it could be easily replenished from boats on the Thames. Its walls survived the 1698 fire and it became part of Cromwell House. By the late 19th century, a later Cromwell House was a government office and the cellar was used as a lunch room.
The grand plan for a new government building that was conceived before the Second World War rested on foundations that would have destroyed the cellar. In 1938, after a public campaign and support from Queen Mary, George V’s widow, it was agreed that the cellar would be saved. Work was delayed by the war and it was only in 1948 that the cellar was encased in a masonry jacket. It was then slowly moved sideways, dropped by 19 feet (6 metres) and slid into its final position. The foundations for the new office were then built round it.
Today, the space is regularly used by members of the Ministry of Defence for events. But public access is limited because of the tight security in the building. If, however, you are lucky enough to find yourself on a visit, you will follow the tortuous route to the cellar, which takes you through the centre of the very fine art deco interior of the main MoD building. The cellar itself is surrounded by an interesting and informative museum display.
The cellar, which is similar to its contemporary at Hampton Court, is a simple, vaulted space with barrels in place to illustrate its use. It is roughly 70 feet long and 30 feet wide (21m x 9m). The entrance door is formal and heavy. At the opposite end, a more mundane door allowed the cellar to be restocked.
The view in the photograph shows the service door on the left and some of the vaulting. Having heard about the cellar, it was a delight to see it and to imagine the feasts and celebrations that must have been hosted there over the centuries.
Images show: King Henry VIII’s wine cellar (right) in the basement of the Ministry of Defence main building, Whitehall (centre) (Photos: ©National Portrait Gallery/©Janet Perham/©2016 MoD/Crown