When Cardinal Wolsey fell out of favour with King Henry VIII in 1530 he lost his Thames-side abode, then called York Palace, to Henry. While far from a slum, Henry set about turning Wolsey’s Palace (which he renamed Whitehall) into a place fit for a king and within a short time it was the grandest and most ostentatious palace in Europe. The Banqueting House we see today (added in 1619) was but one of the many buildings within the Palace confines.
The current Banqueting House (pictured below – credit Historic Royal Palaces) was designed by Inigo Jones, surveyor to James I and a favoured masque set and costume designer of his wife, Anne of Denmark. It was the third permanent banqueting house to be built at Whitehall. The first was a wooden construction commissioned by Elizabeth I and the second, a stone structure, was also built for James I though it only survived 10 years before it burned down when a candle set fire to a masque stage set.
In terms of the building design, Jones cast aside the English Gothic and Tudor style of the remainder of Whitehall Palace in favour of a clean cut Italian Palladian design, incorporating classical elements – the first of its kind in England. Inside, the Banqueting House is essentially a huge hall two stories high with classical gilded pillars and measuring 110 feet in length, 55 feet wide and 55 feet high, it is often referred to as two cubes resting on a vaulted undercroft.
While banquets where held in these buildings they were primarily used as a place to receive and entertain foreign royalty, ambassadors and other dignitaries as well as a venue for masques, very popular with fun-loving James I, his cultured wife Anne of Denmark and later Charles I, in particular.
Masques were incredibly expensive and extravagant theatrical events, with amazing costumes (designs below by Ingio Jones) music, dancing, spectacular lighting, moving sets and scenery as well as other special effects including fire and smoke. The last masques were held in the current Banqueting House in around 1636 (more on that later) and they totally went out of fashion in 1640 when the royal coffers of Charles I were almost empty and civil war was looming.
While great affairs of state were held in the grand upper hall the Banqueting House’s undercroft was a particularly favoured part of the building by James I as it was here that he liked to ‘entertain’ his favoured male friends in what was his purpose built drinking den, dedicated in 1623 by Ben Jonson, Poet Laureate and writer of many of the masques performed the time:
“Since Bacchus, thou art father
Of wines, to thee the rather
We dedicate this Cellar
Where now, thou art made Dweller.”
Today the undercroft hosts a short introductory film for the visitor as well as temporary exhibitions. When I visited in January 2018 there was a small though fascinating exhibition entitled ‘James I’s Male Favourites’. This focused on the bisexual king’s extramarital affairs with a multitude of younger men all of who were richly rewarded with royal favours – something which created as much controversy as, if not more then, the relationships themselves. While homosexuality was illegal this, of course, did not apply to the king and the aristocratic elite with considered themselves above the law, likening their relationships between older men and beautiful youths to the ideals of the classical world.
Having started your tour in the undercroft you will move upstairs where you will be immediately struck by the main hall’s spectacular painted ceiling. All else, though to be honest there isn’t much else to look at, will pale into insignificance.
The opulent ceiling of nine panels separated by ornate gilded borders was commissioned by Charles I and installed in 1636. They were painted by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, one of Europe’s foremost artists at the time.
The panels (oil on canvas) were painted in Ruben’s atelier in Antwerp and subsequently installed in the Banqueting House. The paintings are Charles’ homage to, and glorification of, the achievements of his father, James I and above all else they portray his and his fathers belief in the Divine Right of Kings (their being God’s lieutenants on earth), a belief that would soon bring Charles into conflict with Parliament and lead to his execution, rather ironically, on a purpose built balcony outside Banqueting House in 1649.
The addition of the ceiling panels signalled the end of court masques in the Banqueting House as Charles I (an art lover and avid art collector) rightly considered the panels too delicate to withstand the smoke from the flaming torches and candles that invariably illuminated the masques.
Such that you do not strain you neck admiring the ceiling, mirrors (on wheels) are provided as are bean bags. Personally I chose a bean bag and carefully positioned it and lay on it for a good half hour enjoying Ruben’s masterpiece as I listened to an informative audio guide (included in the entrance fee) on the artwork and the building and its history more generally.
Making your way back down the stairs to the lobby you will pass, on your left, a large painting of Charles I. I will come back to this in a separate review focusing on Charles’ downfall and execution.
To close this review I need to mention the disappearance of the rest of the Whitehall Palace, which at its largest sported over 1500 rooms and stretched from what is now Trafalgar Square to Westminster, lest you go out in search of it having indulged in the delights of the Banqueting House.
Old Whitehall Palace – Hendrick Danckerts (1625-1680)
Escaping unscathed from the Great Fire of London in 1666, Whitehall Palace was gutted by fire just a few years later in 1698 with the only substantial building left standing being the Banqueting House – saved due to the efforts and determination of William III. The fire started when a Dutch maidservant drying linen sheets on a charcoal brazier in a bedchamber left them unattended. Within minutes of her leaving the bedchamber it was alight and, as they say, the rest is history.
The Palace was not rebuilt after the 1698 fire and the Royal Court moved to St James’ Palace – still the official residence of Her Majesty, the Queen though, of course, her main residence is Buckingham Palace.