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a tale of Restoration intrigue by

Molly Brown


 whitehall palace

Whitehall Palace stretched along the Thames for nearly half a mile. It was actually a collection of buildings arranged around several gardens and courtyards.

The London Gazette, 16-19 July 1673:

William Chiffinch succeeded his brother Thomas as page of His Majesty's bedchamber and Keeper of the King's private closet. William Chiffinch was the only person allowed to enter the King's closet unbidden. Chiffinch was also Keeper of His Majesty's Back Stairs. His wife received a salary of 1,200 pounds per annum for showing women up the back stairs to the king's assignation rooms.

Nell Gwyn got to know him well, and would often dine with friends in his apartments at the rear of Whitehall Palace.

Chiffinch also acted as a spy and informer, plying men with drink in order to wheedle information from them. He remained sober himself by using a powerful restorative known as Dr Goddard's Drops or The King's Drops, which were manufactured in a laboratory within the palace grounds.

The king's bedroom door was left open; it was the room where he would receive ministers and favoured individuals - he also sometimes ate there. The room was dominated by a huge bed, railed in in the French manner, with flying boys holding the curtains and great eagles over the bed itself. (The only place the King enjoyed true privacy was in his closet where he kept the scientific rarities he collected. When Charles was being treated by doctors during his last illnesses, at one point the room had to be be cleared; his bedroom contained no fewer than eighty people: asorted lords and privy councillors, surgeons and servants, and five bishops.)

Charles adored clocks and watches. He had at least seven clocks in his bedroom, filling the room with a constant clamour of ticking and ill-synchronized chiming, which apparently drove his attendants mad. Another clock in the antechamber didn't just tell the time; it gave the direction of the wind. But Charles's favourite timepiece was the sun-dial in his Privy Garden.

A famous incident of the 1670s involved that sundial. The Earl of Rochester was wandering drunkenly through the Privy Garden when he came across it. He is reported to have flung his arms around it, quoting the lines: "Sceptre and crown Must tumble down", to which he then added, "And so must thou!" and hurled the sundial to the ground. In another version of the story he attacked the sundial upon noting its phallic shape, then demanding of it, "Dost thou stand there to fuck time?" Regardless of what he said, the king was furious and Rochester was banished from Court.

Whitehall was riddled with secret passageways; there was one from Lord Arlington's quarters to the king's apartments; there was one from Charles's apartments to the quarters of the Maids of Honour; there were hidden stairways and secret rooms. It was a plotter's paradise, and plotting seems to have been one of the favourite pastimes of the late 17th century. "Had I troubled you with a narrative of every little plot I have been informed of," the bishop of Ferns once wrote, "it would have been endless; for as those of the Roman persuasion have been perpetually forward to invent plots and conspiracies which they pretend those of the fanatic party are engaged in, so those others have not been unfruitful of the like inventions against the Romanists."

Whitehall in those days was crawling with spies; there were the spies under the control of Arlington, head of His Majesty's Secret Service; there were spies like Will Chiffinch who reported directly to the king; there were members of parliament and government ministers secretly taking money from foreign governments; and there were the king's mistresses. At least one, Louise de Kéroualle, was popularly believed to be a spy; she was certainly taking money from the French government. Hortense Mancini was subject to repeated attempts at recruitment by the French ambassador, but showed no interest. Nell Gwyn, on hearing of Louise's payments from France, jokingly offered her own services as a spy, but wasn't taken up on it.

Roger North:

When not spying, the court amused itself with gambling, drinking and dancing.

Pepys's Diary, 31 December 1662:


Basset was the most popular card game, and the stakes were high. Thousands of guineas could be won and lost in a single game. The position of acting as a talliere, or one that keeps the bank at basset was so sought after that Charles made an edict that the privilege would be confined to principal cadets or sons of great families as it was fairly certain that whoever acted as talliere would soon possess a considerable fortune.

Another popular pastime was to watch the king eat. Every day at one o'clock, a crowd would gather on a balcony in the Banqueting House to watch Charles tear into his dinner, serenaded by violins.

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(c) 1996 Molly Brown