King James I’s London – The Banqueting House

March 23, 2011

This year marks 400 years since the creation of the King James Bible (it was completed in 1611). So, in a new special Wednesday series, we’re taking a look at London during the reign of King James I (he’s the one who commissioned the Bible). First up in our list of some of the key sites from his reign in 1603 to 1625, is the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

All that’s left of the Palace of Whitehall after a fire destroyed the rest in 1698, the Banqueting House was completed towards the end of King James I’s reign in 1622. In a sharp break from the fiddly Elizabethan architecture found in the remainder of the palace, the Banqueting House was the first building in central London which paid homage to the plainer Palladian style, brought back from Italy by ‘starchitect’ Inigo Jones.

The three floor Banqueting House replaced an earlier banqueting house which, funnily enough, had been destroyed by fire only a few years earlier. The new building was built to host royal ceremonies such as the reception of ambassadors and, most importantly, performances of court masques, which at the time were growing in sophistication and were being designed to communicate to audiences messages about the Stuart concept of kingship.

The building is centred on a “double cube” room  – a hall built so that its length is exactly double its width and height. The great chamber also features a balcony believed to have been created not for ministrels but as a space for an audience to watch the proceedings going on below.

It should be noted that the massive ceiling paintings were added after King James I’s death – it was his ill-fated son, King Charles I, who commissioned Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens to paint them around 1630 (they were in place by March, 1636). It was, incidentally, from one of the windows in the Banqueting House that King Charles I stepped out onto a scaffold and had his head cut off – although that was in 1649, long after the era we’re focusing on here.

Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson’s Masque of Augurs was the first masque performed here in 1622, even before the building was complete. The last was Sir William Davenant’s The Temple of Love in 1635 after which the masques were stopped, apparently because the torches typically used to illuminate them would cause smoke damage to the paintings now on the ceiling.

WHERE: The Banqueting House, Whitehall (nearest tube station is Westminster); WHEN: 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday (check website for closing dates as the hall is used for functions) ;  COST: £5 an adult/£4 concessions/children under 16 free; WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/BanquetingHouse/

PICTURE: Wikipedia

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