Fire, whores, and Wall Street

This day in London history: on 4 January 1698 Whitehall Palace burned down, in a fire that raged for 17 hours. The event was noted, somewhat casually, by the diarist John Evelyn who wrote, the following day, “Whitehall burnt, nothing but walls and ruins left.”

The Duchess of Portsmouth

It was not the first time the palace had been struck by flames: in 1691 a fire broke out in the apartments of the Duchess of Portsmouth, one of Charles II’s mistresses. The Duchess, born Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kérouaille of French nobility, was Catholic and was not popular with the English – in particular one of Charles’s other mistresses, Nell Gwynne.

Nell referred to her rival in the king’s affections as Squintabella and said Louise’s underclothes were not clean. On one occasion, when booed by people mistaking her for Louise, Nell said, “Pray, good people, be civil – I am the Protestant whore.”

Nell Gwynne

Along those lines, Nell is also said to have witnessed a fight between her coachman and another man who referred to her as a whore. She broke up the fight, saying, “I am a whore. Find something else to fight about.”

The palace gave its name to the street Whitehall, now considered the seat of British government. The only surviving part of the palace – the Banqueting Hall – was where Charles I was beheaded. Oliver Cromwell lived at the palace, as did Charles II, following the the Restoration when he was invited to take the throne. Like his father, he also died at the palace, but of natural causes, rather than decapitation.

The execution of Charles I

Also on this day in London history, 56 years earlier, King Charles I had entered the House of Commons to arrest five Members of Parliament for high treason. The men he sought (John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Holles, John Pym and William Strode) had been tipped off and already fled.

The king was defied (politely) by the Speaker of the House, William Lenthall, who said, “May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this house is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and humbly beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this is to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.”

Lenthall’s reply was, basically, reminding the king of the parliamentary privilege. Since then, no monarch has entered the House of Commons.

Wall Street
New York Stock Exchange in Wall Street

And now for something completely different: also on this day in history: January 4, 1865, the New York Stock Exchange opened its first permanent headquarters at 10-12 Broad near Wall Street. Wall Street, apparently takes its name from, surprisingly, a wall, built in 1653 when New York was New Amsterdam. Britain and The Netherlands were at war at the time and the city dwellers were expecting an attack from New England.

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