Treasures of London – The Banqueting House…

March 23, 2012

While we’ve looked at some of the history of the Banqueting House during last year’s special on King James I’s London, we thought we’d take a more in-depth look as part of our Treasures of London series…

A perfect double cube with a sumptuous painted ceiling, this early 17th century building is the only remaining complete structure from the Palace of Whitehall which was destroyed by fire in 1698.

The building replaced an earlier banqueting hall built on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I and another, shorter-lived hall, built by King James I, which was destroyed by fire in 1619.

Following its destruction, King James had Inigo Jones design a new hall to provide, as the previous hall had, a location for state occasions, plays and masques – something of a cross between an organised dance, an amateur theatrical performance and just a chance to dress up.

Jones, who partnered with Ben Jonson to produce masques, designed the hall – which has a length double the width – with these performances specifically in mind. The first one – Jones and Jonson’s Masque of Augurs – was performed on Twelfth Night, 1622, even before the building was completed (the last masque was performed here, incidentally, in 1635, after which, thanks they were moved to a purpose built structure nearby, ostensibly to save the newly installed paintings from being damaged by the smoke of torches – see below).

The incredible paintings on the ceilings, which celebrate the reign of King James I and will be the subject of their own Treasures of London article at a later date, were installed by March 1636. Produced by Flemish artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens, they had been commissioned by King Charles I, King James’ son, in commemoration of his father. Ironically, it was outside the building where the monarchy was so celebrated that King Charles I was beheaded in 1649 (this is marked in a ceremony held at the Banqueting House on 30th January each year).

Following the king’s execution, Whitehall Palace wasn’t used for several years until Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell took up residence there in 1654, using the Banqueting House as a hall if audience. It stood empty after Cromwell’s death in 1658 until the Restoration in 1660 when King Charles II again used it as a grand ceremonial hall for receiving foreign embassies and conducting court ceremonies (these including the ancient custom of what is known as ‘Touching for the King’s Evil’ to cure those afflicted with the disease of scrofula as well as the washing of the feet of the poor by the sovereign on Maundy Thursday.)

King James II was the last king to live at Whitehall Palace and during his reign, from 1685-88, it was used as a royal storehouse. But it was revived for formal use following his reign – it was here that King William III and Queen Mary II were officially offered the crown on 13th February, 1689.

During their reign, the court’s focus shifted to Kensington but the Banqueting House was used for Queen Mary to lay in state after her death in 1694.

Following the destruction of the remainder of Whitehall Palace in 1698 – the origins of this fire are apparently owed to a maid who had put some linen by a charcoal fire to dry – the Banqueting Hall was used briefly as a Chapel Royal and, following a renovation in the late 1700s, it was used for concerts and, from 1808, as a place of worship for the Horse Guards.

Further renovation works followed and in 1837, it was re-opened as a Chapel Royal and used as such until 1890 when this practice was formally discontinued. In 1893, Queen Victoria gave the Royal United Services Institute the use of the building as a museum – among the things displayed there were the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse, Marengo. In 1962, the exhibits were dispersed and the Banqueting House today is used for a range of royal, corporate and social events.

There is an undercroft underneath, designed as a place where King James I could enjoy drinking with his friends. It was later used for storage.

WHERE: Corner of Whitehall and Horse Guards Avenue (nearest Tube stations are Westminster and Embankment); WHEN: Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm; COST: £5 adults/£4 concessions/children under 16 free (Historic Royal Palaces members free); WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/BanquetingHouse/.

PICTURE: Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces/newsteam.co.uk

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