Banqueting House, Whitehall
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
Built by Inigo Jones for James I from 1619, Banqueting House was the only major part of Whitehall Palace to survive a devastating fire in 1698. Jones's work was considered to be his masterpiece.
This is not the original banqueting house at Whitehall - that honour went a wooden structure built in 1581 by direction of Elizabeth I. That early structure was used as a kind of multi-function chamber for royal receptions and dining. During the reign of James I it was also put to use for court masques, a form of theatre, which was then popular.
A subsequent Banqueting House burned down in 1619, providing an opportunity for Inigo Jones, then Surveyor of the Kings Works, to undertake one of his first major architectural projects.
Originally the facade used a mix of Portland stone, and Oxfordshire and Northampton stone for the ashlarwork. This latter was prone to crumbling, and was replaced by Portland stone in the 19th century, a fact which gives the exterior more uniformity than Jones's original design.
The interior is devoid of extraneous decoration, save for timber galleries which must have been ornamental only, forcing spectators to view performances from floor level. But then, Banqueting House was not built with pure functionality in mind, rather it was a statement of grandeur and prestige for James I. The first court masque at Banqueting House was performed on Twelfth Night, 1622.
A masque was like a play, albeit a very formulaic one, and James and his son Charles I loved them. The kings, queens, and leading nobles often took roles in the performance, which emphasized the positive effects of kingly rule and the role of the monarchy. A masque was more than light entertainment; it was a political and philosphical statement.
Inigo Jones was called on to create elaborate sets for the masques, using his architectural tallents to design painted scenery panels and backdrops. In fact, Jones seems to have been asked to do more work on masques than on architecture for the king.
The nine panels were much more than a memorial to James I; they emphasized the role of the monarch in providing peace through stability, showing James as a great leader, aided by classical deities in bringing peace to the kingdom. The ceiling at Banqueting House is an astonishing work of art, but it is an even more remarkable statement of belief in the Divine Right of Kings, a belief that would soon bring Charles into conflict with Parliament. As for Rubens, he was paid £3000 for his work, an astronomical amount of money at the time.
The addition of the ceiling panels signaled the end of court masques at Banqueting House, as Charles considered the panels too delicate to risk. The masques were illuminated by candles, and the candle smoke would have damaged the paintings. Charles did not have long to enjoy his creation, however, and in 1649 he was beheaded in front of Banqueting House, stepping to his execution through the large first floor windows to the scaffold.
VisitingBanqueting House seems almost forgotten, ignored by the hordes of visitors that cluster around the entrance to Horse Guards and have their photo taken beside one of the mounted guards on duty at the gates. Yet if you cross Whitehall to the Banqueting House, you're in for a treat. There is a short intructory film in the vaulted cellars beneath the hall. It is worth looking around the cellars, which were part of Inigo Jones' original design for James I.
Then you mount stairs to the first floor, and go directly into the hall itself. This is a cavernous chamber, long and high, with classical, gilded pillars supporting the astonishing painted ceiling high above. At one end is a large throne under a canopy, a reminder that this was very much a royal establishment, and still forms part of the Historic Royal Palaces collection of buildings, along with Kew Palace and Windsor Castle. There are very handy mirrors placed around the hall so you don't have to crane your neck to see the ceiling, and an audio guide tells the story of the symbolic imagery detailed in the panels.
The most striking panel shows James I, surrounded by classical deities, trampling instruments of war. Here, in a nutshell, is the central message Charles I wanted to drive home; the monarchy brings stability, and with it, peace and prosperity. To work against the monarchy, is to destroy stability, peace, and prosperity. Of course, we know with the hindsight of history that Charles' philosophy was doomed to fail, but the ceiling is a fascinating glimpse into the 17th century mind of a king!
You could simply gawk at the ceiling and be done with Banqueting House in 5 minutes, but I do really recommend you listen to the audio guide and take time to examine the painted panels; they really are extraordinary!
About Banqueting House
Address: Whitehall, London, Greater London, England, SW1A 2ER
Attraction Type: Historic Building
Website: Banqueting House
Phone: 0203 166 6154
OS: TQ302 801
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
Nearest station: Westminster - 0.2 miles (straight line) - Zone: 1
We've 'tagged' this attraction information to help you find related historic attractions and learn more about major time periods mentioned.
Historic Time Periods:
Find other attractions tagged with:
19th century (Time Period) - Charles I (Person) - Christopher Wren (Person) - Elizabeth I (Person) - Inigo Jones (Person) - James I (Person) - James Wyatt (Person) - Restoration (Historical Reference) - Roman (Time Period) - Tudor (Time Period) -
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Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
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