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Privy Stairs

The Privy Stairs were the rivermen’s stairs on the Thames attached to the king and queen’s apartments at Whitehall; the stairs were for use of the monarchs when they still resided at the palace. River access was necessary as the palace faced the Thames rather than the street (Ivimey 163). The stairs were used primarily by visiting foreign dignitaries and courtiers in order to gain access to the palace without needing to negotiate the streets of London, while a second dock, the Whitehall Stairs, was located downstream and was accessible to the public (Pepys). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word privy in the name of the stairs undoubtedly refers to the meaning belonging to or reserved for the exclusive use of a particular person or group of people; that is one’s own (OED privy, adj. 2.a). This naming convention, shared by other places such as the Privy Council and the Privy Garden, emphasizes that the stairs were meant only for a select few people and were off limits to the common people.
The first reference to the construction of a riverside dock near the palace was made in July 1530 regarding payment to the kinges Carpenter towardes the making of a pryvat bridge at yorke place (Cox and Norman). Because York Place was the name of the palace before it was known as Whitehall, this mention to a bridge could be referring to the construction of either the Privy Stairs or the Whitehall Stairs (Cox and Norman).
Because their use would have been exclusive to the English royalty and those in their confidence, one can imagine many historic events beginning from the Privy Stairs. English poet and historian Samuel Daniel mentions the Privy Stairs in an account of the investment of Henry Fredrick to his titles as Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester in 1610:
Peeres of the Realme being all assembled in Parliament, his Maiesty accompanied with the Prince, who was that morning to be inuested in his Principalitie, tooke water at the priuy staires at White hal, and landing together at Westminster bridge, his Maiesty passed directly to the Parliament-house, and the Prince to the Court of Wardes, from whence, after a whiles tarryance for the disposing of things in due order, his highnesse proceeded in this maner to his Creation. (Daniel 6)
Daniel’s account demonstrates the usage of the stairs for royal pageantry.
Courtiers would have also employed them on more menial tasks in order to traverse the city from the palace without having to worry about cutpurses or crowded streets. Samuel Pepys, a naval administrator, also mentions the stairs, writing on April 22, 1668 in his famous diary that After done here, and the Council up, I by water from the Privy-stairs to Westminster-Hall; and, taking water, the King1 and the Duke of York2 were in the new buildings (Pepys). In this context, the everyday usage of the Privy Stairs by people connected to the court can be observed. These stairs were not likely used by people seeking transport across the river to the theatre or other amusements, but they rather would have functioned to convey courtiers on business errands when not used by the king or queen themselves. Although they had a long and storied history, the destruction of Whitehall by fire in 1698 and subsequent relocation of the royal residence to Buckingham Palace ended any purpose for the stairs, though they were present until the construction of the Victoria Embankment (Cox and Norman).


  1. I.e., Charles II. (KL)
  2. I.e., James II. (KL)


Cite this page

MLA citation

Smith, Justin W. Privy Stairs. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022,

Chicago citation

Smith, Justin W. Privy Stairs. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022.

APA citation

Smith, J. W. 2022. Privy Stairs. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

RIS file (for RefMan, RefWorks, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

A1  - Smith, Justin
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Privy Stairs
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

TEI citation

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