If these walls could talk: the life & times of Banqueting House

Banqueting House, which stands so proudly on Whitehall, has been a witness to many key moments in English history. It also has a complex relationship with the country’s royal family and is linked, for different reasons, to every single one of our monarchs since Henry VIII. Along the way, it has experienced fire, pageantry, civil war, the execution of a king, the reinstatement of the monarchy and – very nearly – the marriage of Edward VIII to Wallis Simpson.

For all of the above reasons I wanted to pay Banqueting House a visit – but even more so, to view its famous Rubens’ ceiling, painted by the master himself at the request of Charles I. Upon arrival, I began my tour of the building in the Undercroft, a lovely, vaulted room in the base of the building which was designed as a drinking den for James I and his friends. After the king’s death, the Undercroft was used for holding lotteries: John Evelyn describes one gambling session in 1664, at which “the King, Queen-Consort and Queen Mother’ won only ‘a trifle’” – as he did himself. These days, all sorts of glamorous parties and events take place in this wonderfully atmospheric room.

It’s also where I watched a short, but highly informative, film about the history of Banqueting House – if you’re planning on visiting, I would recommend that you do the same, as it sets the scene perfectly for what you see later on. A glance to the right, upon leaving the Undercroft, and you will catch sight of a striking drawing hanging on the wall; at closer inspection, this turns out to be the contingency seating plan for the marriage and coronation of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, who had planned on holding a secular wedding ceremony at Banqueting House. Constitutional objections were so strong, however, that Edward had little choice but to abdicate if he wanted to go ahead with the marriage; eventually, as Duke of Windsor, he married Wallis at the Château de Candé in France.

Banqueting House did not originally belong to the Royal Family. Until 1530, York Place, as it was then called, was owned by Cardinal Wolsey; he, alas, fell out with Henry VIII who promptly appropriated this luxurious residence, declaring it the official London home of the sovereign – and renaming it ‘Palace of Whitehall’. Henry went on to build a number of pleasure buildings around the Palace, which included tennis courts, a tilt yard and bowling alleys.

It fell to Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter, to finish the building work and she continued her father’s tradition of using Banqueting Hall for state banquets, which in her case tended to take the form of dinners for potential suitors or visiting ambassadors. These were hosted in a temporary wooden structure which had to be dismantled and rebuilt on a regular basis.

Elizabeth’s successor, James I, replaced this with a permanent banqueting house – in 1619, however, disaster struck and Banqueting House was destroyed by fire. At that time, the rising star of English architecture was Inigo Jones. Inigo had visited Italy on a number of occasions and had been greatly influenced by his European travels. Having been appointed ‘Surveyor of the King’s Works’ by James I, Inigo was commissioned to build a new version of Banqueting House – and the classically-inspired building opened on 31st March 1621. Elegant, light and spacious, the building’s Great Hall, directly above the Undercroft, was used for royal banquets and foreign receptions and – of great significance – for masques.

Masques, so I learned during my visit, were a combination of theatre, opera, dance and poetry and were beloved of both James and his son, the future Charles I. Involving fanciful scenery design and spectacular special effects, masques also represented the monarchy – and the divine right of kings to govern over their subjects.

Charles I inherited the throne in 1625 and during his reign masques would become even more ingenious and expensive, sometimes costing up to £1m to produce. Charles loved the arts, and it was he who commissioned Rubens, in 1635, to paint the ceiling of Banqueting House’s Great Hall. The nine, immense panels cost the king a then-astronomical £3,000 – but they are stunning. Whatever Charles’ many faults (and, let’s be honest, he was a pretty hopeless monarch), he understood art, and the nature of storytelling. These are the only ceiling paintings by Rubens that can still be seen in their original location – and they take your breath away, so bold, colourful and vivid are they in this unique setting. You could spend hours looking at them and in fact that’s what lots of people were doing when I was there, nestled into the very comfortable-looking beanbags dotted around the Hall.

Rubens

Ironically, the paintings would be one of the last things Charles saw as he walked to his death on 30th January 1646. Having spent the last night of his life in St James’s Palace, in the company of his two children, the following morning he was taken across St James’s Park and through Banqueting House, outside which a scaffold, draped in black, had been erected. Charles I was duly executed – and a unique chapter in English history began.

The country would remain a commonwealth for only eleven years, however, as after Oliver Cromwell’s death a newly-formed parliament called for the restoration of the monarchy. Again, Banqueting House played a key role – it was here that Charles II, the newly-crowned king, was given a rousing reception by both Houses of Parliament. It was also at Banqueting House that William of Orange and his wife, Mary, were invited to become king and queen, in 1689 (James II having fled into exile).

Sadly, just nine years later Whitehall was again ravaged by fire. Miraculously, Banqueting House itself survived (thanks to Christopher Wren taking prompt action and blowing up the surrounding buildings with gunpowder), but this latest disaster marked a decline in Banqueting House’s fortunes. The Court removed itself to St James’s Palace and Banqueting House became a chapel royal, remaining so for the next 200 years. In 1893, Queen Victoria granted Banqueting House to the Royal United Service Institute for use as a museum; just under 100 years later, the management of the building was taken over by Historic Royal Palaces.

If you found the above of interest, do pay Banqueting Hall a visit – there is lots more to learn about this fascinating and iconic building. Not only that, but the area of Whitehall itself has so much to offer; directly across the road, and next on my list of places to visit, is the Household Cavalry Museum. Expect a blog post shortly!

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