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

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