The structure was originally built by Henry VIII, after he had acquired Cardinal Wolsey's York Place to the north of the Palace of Westminster, following the Cardinal's downfall in 1529. It was one of a number of new pleasure buildings constructed for King Henry's entertainment, including a real tennis court, a bowling alley, and a tiltyard, and was used as an actual cockpit; that is, an area for staging cockfighting. Thus enlarged, the Palace of Whitehall became the main London residence of the Tudor and Stuart Kings of England, and the Palace of Westminster was relegated to ceremonial and administrative purposes only.
The Cockpit ceased to be used for cockfighting in Jacobean times, and was used instead as a private theatre and as chambers for members of the Royal Household. It was redesigned in 1629 for Charles I by Inigo Jones as a private venue for staging court masques. It was the second cockpit that Jones had redesigned as a theatre, the other being the Cockpit Theatre in Drury Lane, which was renovated after a fire in 1617.
After the London theatre closure of the Interregnum, the Cockpit returned to use under Charles II, and was refitted in 1662. A new dressing room was added for female players, whose presence onstage was a recent theatrical innovation; its walls were decorated with green baize, one possible origin of the theatrical term "green room" for a dressing room. Samuel Pepys records attending several plays at the Cockpit in his diary.
Charles II gave the Cockpit to Princess Anne, daughter of Charles's brother James, Duke of York, in 1683. Anne and her closest friend, Sarah, Lady Churchill were imprisoned here during the Glorious Revolution; both their husbands, Prince George of Denmark and John, Baron Churchill switched their allegiances from James II to William of Orange. Sarah and Anne escaped to Nottingham shortly afterwards. The Palace of Whitehall was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1698. One prominent structure to survive was the Banqueting House, also designed by Inigo in 1619; another, lesser, structure to survive, was the Cockpit. After the fire, William III moved his London residence to nearby St James's Palace, and the site was rebuilt to be used as government offices, and residential and commercial premises. The Cockpit was used to house government officials. It was first occupied by HM Treasury, whose offices elsewhere in the palace had been destroyed, until the Treasury moved to a new building on Horse Guards Road in 1734.
When Anne became queen after the death of William in 1702, she gave the residence to her loyal friends John and Sarah, now Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. They vacated the residence during Anne's reign and it became the Treasury. After the Treasury moved, it was used in the late 18th century by the Foreign Office, after that government office had been founded at Cleveland Row, St James's but before it moved to Downing Street. Next, it was used by the Privy Council as a council chamber, for judicial purposes. It continued to be used by the Privy Council after a new chamber was built for them in 1827. The current building on the site, at 70 Whitehall, is used by the Cabinet Office. The reconstructed Cockpit Passage in 70 Whitehall runs along the edge of the old tennis courts and into Kent's Treasury, built on the site of the original cockpit lodgings. The minstrel's gallery on the ground floor is currently decorated with pictures of fighting cocks and a model of the old Whitehall palace.
A replica theatre based on Inigo Jones' 1629 plan of the Cockpit-in-Court is planned as part of the Shakespeare North complex in Prescot, Merseyside. The historical Prescot Playhouse, the inspiration behind the project, existed between the mid-1590s and 1609. No plans of that theatre survive, however.
- The Location - Whitehall, Ministry of Defence.
- Alternative Theatres Archived 11 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine.
- The Treasury Building - 1 Horse Guards Road Archived 25 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine, HM Treasury.
- FCO Buildings: Historical Background, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
- Perraudin, Frances (22 April 2016). "Shakespeare North theatre plans given go-ahead". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
- Paton, Maureen (26 March 2007). "Shakespeare's Globe goes North". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
- Graham, Elspeth; Tyler, Rosemary (2011). ""So Unbridled & Badde an Handfull of England": The Social and Cultural Ecology of the Elizabethan Playhouse in Prescot". In Benbough-Jackson, Mike; Davies, Sam (eds.). Merseyside: Culture and Place. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 109–139. ISBN 1-4438-2964-1.
- Shakespearean Playhouses, by Joseph Quincy Adams Jr. from Project Gutenberg
- Plan of Whitehall from 1680, showing the location of the tennis courts, cockpit, tiltyard on the St. James's Park side, and the configuration of buildings on the river side