From The Writers' Room Featuring Whitehall

Madeleine E. Robins on writing Whitehall Episode 12: “More Harmony in Her Bright Eye”

A watershed moment

I have a secret passion for infrastructure. Subways. Sewers. Plumbing. The areas in big houses where the servants worked. On those occasions when I have gone on tours of palaces and great houses, you can keep the ballrooms and state bedrooms: I want to see the butler’s pantry and the laundry, the places where the work got done.

WHITEHALL.EP12_600x960_300dpi_TXTOne of the interesting things about a palace like Whitehall, which was built over a period of centuries, is that there were multiple service areas: multiple kitchens, laundries, work areas, servants’ quarters. Which meant when something went wrong it didn’t go wrong everywhere. Mostly. Except when it did.

Another interesting thing? London is a city that was originally built atop a multitude of streams and rivers, all rushing toward the Thames. The River Tyburn was, according to the BBC, once reputed to have the best salmon in London. The River Fleet, the Tyburn, the Lea, the Effra, the Westbourne–all built over or forced underground into pipes or channels, all flowing down to the Thames. And on occasion, the Thames flowed back.

On December 7, 1663, Whitehall Palace flooded. This was nothing new. The palace was perched on the banks of the Thames–the very thing that made it possible for a royal to make a leisurely trip from Hampton Court to London by barge. Winter flooding was fairly common: one of King Charles’s first requests to Parliament when he returned to England was that the problem be addressed, lest he bring a new queen home to a drowned palace. And Parliament threw some work at the problem: several of the passages in the palace were “raised” before the money was needed elsewhere.

The first winter the new queen spent at Whitehall was so cold that flooding really wasn’t an issue. The Thames froze so solidly that people ignored ferries and bridges and walked across it. The occupants of Whitehall could watch as Prince James and his friends glided over the river surface on skates, a new sport brought from the Netherlands.

But a year later, when Catherine was recovering from the illness that had caused her to miscarry, a combination of storm tides and gale-force winds changed everything. As the ever-useful Samuel Pepys notes, “Up betimes, and, it being a frosty morning, walked on foot to White Hall… At White Hall I hear and find that there was the last night the greatest tide that ever was remembered in England to have been in this river: all White Hall having been drowned, of which there was great discourse.”

Of which there was great discourse? I’ll just bet. When the seat of English rule is under water, people will chat about it.

The hardest hit areas were, of course, those that had already taken on water: the servants’ areas (the kitchen that served Barbara Palmer’s apartments was submerged days before the big flood). The servants of Whitehall were philosophical about it: retreat, taking the perishables with you, and return when everything dried out. These problems rarely affected those abovestairs.

But in writing Episode 12 I needed something, an event that would both catalyze and serve as a metaphor for what was happening between Charles and Catherine, and between Charles and some of his more troublous subjects. When the Whitehall team first met to plan this season and its events, we spoke of the episodes as The One Where… Episode 12 is, to me, the one where the consequences of neglect play out. Parliament neglected problems in Whitehall’s infrastructure (then, as now, it was easy to put off repairs and improvements for another day). The result: a drowned palace.

And Charles? I’d argue that he neglected the “infrastructure” of his own court. The king loved to make people happy, and hated to hurt or disappoint them. So he waited and hoped that his son would sort himself out; he let Rochester raise merry Hell because he was so amusing. We’ve seen the ways in which Charles’s unwillingness to upset either Barbara or Catherine made both bitterly unhappy. And I got to write the episode where the consequences come due. To his credit, Charles steps up in every possible way. He disciplines his son. He defends Catherine–physically and politically–and settles the matter of her future. He makes up for his neglect, and the royal marriage is on firmer footing than perhaps it has ever been.

And I went from simply admiring the king to loving him a little. I hope you do too.

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