“23 Feb, 1633--The BH was so crowded --fair ladies glittering with their rich clothes and richer jewels and with Lords and gentlemen of great quality, that there was scarce room for the king and queen to enter in.”
B Whiteclocke, Memorials of the English Affairs,
It is not difficult to imagine the scene today. It is, perhaps, more difficult to imagine the Banqueting House’s future claim to fame would be as the site of King Charles I’s beheading. Certainly no one at the prestigious affair guessed.
Inigo Jones, inspired by Italian Renaissance design, created the building for James I to serve as a sumptuous gathering place for plays, masques, balls, and concerts. Drawing on his studies of Italy’s antique architecture, he planned the building as one of order and harmony. This first important building of Jones is set upon a base, with its first story decorated with a series of windows, pediments on brackets, Ionic columns and pilasters. The second story of the building is set off with Corinthian columns and pilasters. A garland swag connects the capitals.
A sweeping stone staircase was followed by the grandeur of the main hall—55 feet (16.8m) wide and 110 feet (33.6m) long—with its soaring columns duplicating the exterior. Completed in 1622, the Banqueting House’s plain cut stone masonry contrasted vividly with the surrounding red, black, and white Tudor buildings.
The Banqueting House sits on the site of a complex of 14th century buildings. Then called York Place, it served as the London residence of the Archbishops of York. Added to in the 15th century, it became a residence fit for a king. That, of course, attracted the eye of Henry VIII, who acquired it when he divested his once favourite archbishop, Thomas Wolsey, of his property. The name was changed to Whitehall Palace and became the sovereign’s principal residence in Westminster. Henry then embarked on an extensive building program, and, at the time of his death, the palace covering 23 acres (93,078 square metres), was the largest in Europe.
Other buildings once stood at the location of the present Banqueting House. Cardinal Wolsey’s building fell to Queen Elizabeth, who erected a banqueting house for entertainments. This building was followed by a 1606 brick and stone building, destroyed by fire in 1619, then ultimately, by the building we see today.
The outstanding feature of the interior is undoubtedly the artwork on the ceiling of the main hall. Charles I commissioned the Flemish artist, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, to paint the Baroque 17th century art as a tribute to James I, his father. Painted in Antwerp, they were shipped to London and put in place in 1635, the only paintings by Rubens that remain in their original intended place. Rubens was paid £3000 and a gold chain for his work—his knighthood from Charles I was related to ambassadorial duties. Full of symbolism, the compartmented ceiling canvasses are on a large scale.
Masques, the performance of which was one of the main functions of the Banqueting House, were moved to another location once the paintings were installed in the ceiling. It was feared that torches used for lighting would damage them.
The vaulted undercroft with its white washed walls was a favourite drinking haunt of James I. Later, Charles II used it for lotteries before its sad use as a place of storage. Thankfully, it is refurbished and in use for celebratory occasions today.
The Banqueting House served the Palace as a formal reception room until the execution of Charles I. On January 27, 1649 he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. (The death warrant is on display in the Parliament Buildings). Shortly after noon on January 30th, 1649, the King was led into the Banqueting House from the palace rooms and through the tallest doorway in the north wall. Then, on the landing of the staircase, where a wall was purposely knocked out, he was led to the scaffold where he was beheaded. His last words, recorded, were “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown. . .”.
Ironically, Oliver Cromwell moved into Whitehall Palace in 1654 and used the Banqueting House as his hall of audience. He died in the palace on May 29th, 1660. After his death, the building stood empty until May 29, 1660 when Charles II arrived to claim the throne to the greetings of the Houses of Parliament. Once again court life with its ceremonies emanated from the Banqueting House. The diarist, Pepys, recorded the fact that Charles II sat under an elaborate canopy while in attendance at the hall.
After James II fled England in 1688, Whitehall Palace no longer served as a royal residence. It was destroyed by fire in 1698, and the Banqueting House was pressed into use as a Chapel Royal. It served as the setting for the ceremonial presentation of the crown to William and Mary. Afterwards the Banqueting House never regained its importance as Kensington Palace took over the roll of main residence for the sovereign.
Each year on January 30th, the anniversary of Charles I’s beheading, a commemorative service is held in the Banqueting House, the sole surviving building of Whitehall Palace that remains complete. This priceless treasure of London continues its role of hosting society and royal events.
The Banqueting House
Tel. 020 7839 3787 (information line)
Open all year round Monday - Saturday 10am-5pm
Closed Bank Holidays and 24 Dec-1 Jan (inclusive).
The Banqueting House may close at short notice for Government functions.
Nearest underground stations: Westminster or Embankment.
Video introduction and audiotape.
Photos courtesy Crown Copyright Historic Royal Palaces
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