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Monday, August 18, 2014

The Banqueting House at Whitehall

Many years ago I went on my first solo visit to London and top of my list of “must sees” was the Banqueting House in Whitehall. It was from a window of this building that Charles I stepped on to the scaffold but its role in the life and times of the monarchy goes back long before that fateful day in January 1649. (see my article on the Execution of Charles I on Hoydens and Firebrands... click HERE)

Whitehall Palace had its origins in the Middle Ages as the London seat of the Archbishop of York. In 1470 George Neville, then the Archbishop of York, but also Chancellor of England, substantially rebuilt the palace in red brick. His work was surpassed by the further renovations of Cardinal Wolsey who added a magnificent Long Gallery overlooking the gardens on one side and the river on the other. In his palace he entertained his king, Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey’s fall from grace was swift and brutal and in 1529, Henry VIII assumed ownership of Wolsey’s properties and York Palace became a royal residence, Whitehall Palace.

The old palace of Whitehall in Tudor times
Henry VIII and his new wife set to work redesigning the Palace to incorporate residential apartments for a Queen. The palace spread across a main road, King Street (now Whitehall). On the river side was the “working’ palace and on the other side of the road, the recreational palace with its parks and tennis courts. Ann never lived to see it completed but shortly after her execution, the King declared it the official seat of the monarchy. Both Henry and his daughter Elizabeth continued adding to and improving the palace and in 1581 Elizabeth constructed a magnificent, temporary, banqueting house (on the site of the present building). Despite its flimsy construction (wood and canvas) it outlasted Elizabeth and was put to great use by James I and his wife Anne as the only suitable venue in which to host their masques.


In 1606 a new banqueting hall was built but an accident with the oil painted scenery saw it razed in 1619. Working on these masques was a young man called Inigo Jones, whose talent for producing moving scenery (and who is credited with inventing the proscenium arch) brought him to the attention of the King and Jones was commissioned by the King to build the new Banqueting House.
Jones’ design was elegant in its simplicity: 7 regular bays above a rusticated ground floor, enhanced with ionic and composite columns above which ran a frieze surrounded by a balustraded pediment built. The magnificent ceiling was painted by Peter Paul Rubens When completed in 1621 it shone out from its red stone Tudor neighbours in the worlds of John Chamberlain “This day the King kept St. George’s feast in the new built banketting roome, which is too faire and nothing suitable to the rest of the house.”

The ceiling painted by Rubens


Inigo Jones is something of an enigma. Little is known of his early life or his qualifications in engineering or architecture. However it is known he travelled to Italy and studied the work of Andrea Palladio (from whom the architectural movement known as Palladian derives). He had a talent with geometric principles that guided his designs in a way not seen in English architecture before and went on to design the beautiful Queen’s House in Greenwich, the gateway at Oatlands Palace (see blog by Anita Davison), Covent Garden Square, the Queen’s Chapel in St. James’ Palace and was even commissioned by the Dutch to design Fort Amsterdam on the Hudson River. His career ended with the English Civil War in 1642 and he died in 1653.

View of Whitehall Palace from the Thames... Of Jones' design only the Banqueting House was built
The Banqueting House became a central part of the lives of the Stuart monarchy. It witnessed:
The execution of Charles I
·                     The ratification of the marriage between Charles I and Henrietta Maria on 21 June 1645
·                     The execution of Charles I in January 1649
·                     The occupation of Oliver Cromwell who sat in state in the Banqueting Housoe
·                     The reception of the foreign dignatories on the restoration of Charles II
·                     Many parties thrown by the sociable Charles II including the annual dinner of the Knights of the Garter.
·                     The ceremony of “Touching for the King’s Evil” was conducted in the Hall by every monarch from James I to Queen Anne (George I refused to do it on the grounds it was “too catholic”).
·                     The distribution of Maundy Monday
·                     The Declaration of Rights (13 February 1689), the conditions required for Mary II and William of Orange to assume the throne,

The great palace of Whitehall was largely destroyed in the fires of 1691 and 1698. The 1698 fire raged for 15 hours. William III gave orders that the Banqueting House was to be saved at all costs and as the smoke from the fire died, the only remaining building of what had been the Palace of Whitehall was the Banqueting House. Plans were made to rebuild the palace but there was never the funds to do so.

After 1698, the building underwent various different incarnations. For a while it was used as a Royal Chapel. In 1808 it became a military chapel to be used as a place for displaying the captured French standards. In the 1830s it was returned to use as a royal chapel and in the 1890s became a museum.It survived the blitz and only in 1964 was it restored to its original configuration and opened to the public.

So if you find yourself at a loose end in Whitehall, do drop in and see this lovely little gem of a building and remember the monumental and tumultuous events it has witnessed.


Interior of the Banqueting House

 Alison Stuart is an award winning Australian writer of cross genre historical romances.  She is a digital first published author, whose 6th published book, LORD SOMERTON’S HEIR has just been released by Harlequin Australia (and is currently on sale on Google Play and Amazon). If your taste is for duelling cavaliers, wayward ghosts, time travel and murder mysteries – sometimes all in the same book – Alison’s stories are for you.





1 comment:

Cassandra Samuels said...

Fascinating Alison. I'll be putting it on my must see list too.