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It was built as the London home of the Bishops of Norwich not later than 1237, and around 300 years later it was acquired by King Henry VIII. It came to be known as York House when it was granted to the Archbishop of York in 1556 and retained that name for the rest of its existence. Its neighbours were Suffolk House (later Northumberland House) on the west and Durham House, London residence of the Bishop of Durham, to the east. For about seventy years from 1558 it was leased to various Lord Keepers of the Great Seal of England, including Nicholas Bacon, Thomas Egerton and Francis Bacon. In the 1620s it was acquired by the royal favourite George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, and after an interlude during the English Civil War it was returned to George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, who sold it to developers for £30,000 in 1672. He made it a condition of the sale that his name and full title should be commemorated by George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Of Alley, and Buckingham Street. Some of these street names are extant, though Of Alley has been renamed York Place, Duke Street is now John Adam Street and George Street is now York Buildings. Villiers Street runs along the eastern side of Charing Cross railway station.
The mansions facing in the Strand were built where they were partly because they had direct access from their garden fronts to the Thames, which was then a preferred transport artery. The York Watergate (also known as Buckingham Watergate), built ca. 1626, survives, now marooned 150 yards (137 m) from the river, within the Embankment Gardens, due to the construction of the Thames Embankment. With the Banqueting House it is one of the few surviving reminders in London of the Italianate court style of Charles I. Its boldly rusticated design in a confident Serlian manner has been attributed to Sir Balthazar Gerbier, to Inigo Jones himself and to the sculptor and master-mason Nicholas Stone. The design is modelled closely on that of the Medici Fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. It was restored in the 1950s.
The York House Conference that assembled there in February 1626 ended unsatisfactorily with the final rupture of Puritan members of Parliament with Buckingham. York House was the setting for a masque presented before their majesties in May 1627, in which Buckingham appeared followed by "Envy, with divers open-mouthed dogs' heads representing the people’s barking, while next came Fame and Truth", just before his departure for his unsuccessful second foray against France.
The first Duke granted lodgings at York House to the painter Orazio Gentileschi, and to Sir Balthazar Gerbier, diplomat and sometime painter; though after the Duke's assassination in 1628, the Duchess tried to expel him, it was in Gerbier's lodgings that Peter Paul Rubens soujourned during his visit to London this following year.
An inventory of the contents of York House drawn up in 1635 is mined by scholars both for the light it sheds on one of the handful of great art collections formed in the circle of Charles I, and the furnishings of a fashionable Early Stuart nobleman's residence. In the 'Great Chamber' twenty-two paintings were displayed with fifty-nine pieces of Roman sculpture, many of which were heads. In the 'Gallery' were a further thirty-one further heads and statues. Apparently the only modern sculpture at York House was Giambologna's Samson and a Philistine, a royal gift from Philip IV of Spain to Charles I, who passed it to his favourite, Buckingham.
In the early 19th century the designation York House was revived by the palatial York House, built in the Stable Yard, St. James's Palace, for the Duke of York, brother of George IV and heir apparent. Foundations were begun to designs by Robert Smirke, who was quickly replaced by Benjamin Dean Wyatt and his brother Philip; when the Duke died in 1827, deeply in debt with the house unfinished, it was subsequently completed as Stafford House; its gilded interiors by Sir Charles Barry for Stafford's heir, the Duke of Sutherland, inspired Queen Victoria's famous remark about "coming from my house to your palace".
The name is carried today by a commercial building in Portugal Street, Kingsway, London.
The York Watergate is at the centre of the song "London Plane" by progressive rock band Big Big Train on their 2016 album Folklore. The song is written from the perspective of a nearby London plane tree that was a sapling at the time of the construction of the Watergate in 1626 and tells of the stories that such a tree may have witnessed in the years since.
- York House, in Survey of London: Volume 18, St Martin-in-The-Fields II: the Strand, ed. G H Gater and E P Wheeler (London, 1937), pp. 51-60 (accessed 16 May 2015)
- A view of York House by Wenceslas Hollar, in the Pepysian Library, is reproduced in London County Council, Survey of London 18, pl. 2b.
- Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry (1973) London I: The Cities of London and Westminster: 382
- by Sir John Summerson, in Architecture in Britain, 1530–1830 (1963); Sir John withdrew the attribution in the 1991 edition.
- by John Harris in Country Life 2 November 1989.
- in a list drawn up by his relative, Charles Stoakes (Colvin, "Gerbier").
- Summerson, John (1970). Architecture in Britain, 1530–1830. The Pelican History of Art. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 149.
- Isaac D’Israeli, Curiosities of Literature; J. MacIntyre, "Buckingham the Masquer" Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et reformation, 2009.
- Edward Croft-Murray, "The Landscape Background in Rubens's St. George and the Dragon" The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 89No. 529 (April 1947:89-91, 93) p. 90.
- Randall Davies, "An Inventory of the Duke of Buckingham's Pictures, etc., at York House in 1635" The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 10 No. 48. (March 1907: 376, 379-382).
- There were 330 paintings enumerated, many of which were sold at Antwerp in 1649 for the young Duke; among them were seventeen canvases by Rubens. And there were tapestries, marble sculptures, plate and rich furnishings
- John Pope-Hennessy, Samson and a Philistine by Giovanni Bologna (1954); John Harris, "The Link between a Roman Second-Century Sculptor, Van Dyck, Inigo Jones and Queen Henrietta Maria" The Burlington Magazine 115 No. 845 (August 1973:526-530) p. 529.
- Howard Colvin, "The Architects of Stafford House" Architectural History 1 (1958:17-30).
- London's Mansions by David Pearce, (1986) ISBN 0-7134-8702-X
- Survey of London, xviii, plates 31-33.
- Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840 3rd ed. 1995 sv "Sir Balthazar Gerbier", "Inigo Jones" "Nicholas Stone"
- York House, for a list of other mansions in London which have been known as York House.
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