The Banqueting House – a Hidden gem of London

It was a cold day and Charles had put on two shirts so as not to shiver. He was walked along through St James Park and up through the Holbein gate into his Privy apartments where he was encouraged to have a small bite to eat and some wine. Just before two o’clock and along with his friend Bishop Juxon Charles walked through his magnificent Banqueting House under the ceiling and out the double doors. There he found a small opening which had been made and stepped out onto the platform to the awaiting crowd outside. Giving a speech ending in the words of ‘I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown’ King Charles placed his head onto the very low block and spread his arms out, an indication that he was ready. Then the axe fell, and in one blow his head was removed from his body. Thus ending the reign and life of King Charles I of England. It was the 30th January, 1649.

Charles was not the first or the last monarch to walk through this grand hall of Whitehall Palace, although he was the only one executed!

Execution of Charles I

Banqueting House was commissioned by Charles’ father, King James VI/I in 1619 after the previous Banqueting House had burnt down. He set up a committee of men to oversee the work. He gave the commission of designing and building it to his Surveyor of the Kings Works, Inigo Jones.

Inigo Jones by Antony van Dyck. NPG

Inigo Jones was a very talented man who had travelled Europe. He was heavily influenced by classic Roman architecture and by the buildings designed by a man named Palladio. Palladian Architecture would work on the belief that everything was mathematically related and should be of equal proportions. Jones would use the geometry of ancient Roman architecture combined with the elements of building he’d seen in the Italian Veneto region, and used these powerful influences to create his own unique style. For example the hall is a double cube of 55 foot high by 110 foot long.

Inigo Jones hall. Credit Laura Adkins

The exterior of Banqueting House that we see today is very different from the initial design that Inigo created. The current is faced in Portland Stone and was completed by Sir John Soane in the 19th Century. When it was first completed the Banqueting House would have been faced in three types of stone giving a much different look. The ground floor was comprised of honey coloured stone from Oxfordshire, the walls above from a pinkish brown Northamptonshire stone and above the columns and decorative element in pure white Portland stone.

The Banqueting House on the left with the Holbein Gate

Banqueting House was the first of its kind architecturally to be seen and Londoners did not know what to think of this revolutionary design of this building. It consisted of two rooms. The first being downstairs. This is the Undercroft and would have performed the roles of storing the wine and also being a private area for King James and his close favourites as a private drinking den. It would be designed as a grotto with an underwater theme and was adorned with rocks and shell work.

The Undercroft. Credit Laura Adkins

The second room was used for two main functions and was on the first floor. The first was to receive foreign ambassadors and to give them an official welcome into the country and King James’ court. It was a place where he was able to impress and show off how great a King he was. They would approach the King from the same entrance that visitors enter the hall today. The king would be seated on his throne where a replica is now placed today.

Mark Wallis of Past Pleasures as King Charles I int he Banqueting House. Credit Laura Adkins

But what was a banqueting house? A Banqueting House was a highly decorated little building situated a short walk away from the main dining hall. Their role had developed from the small little meal of exotic desserts and snacks after large meal while waiting for the entertainment to begin. In the medieval period this is what a banqueting was. And so as time went by little rooms or ‘houses’ were built for them to consume his meal and for the entertainment to be performed. Inigo Jones Banqueting House was the biggest and grandest of them all and the entertainment that was to be performed here were to be the magnificent and creative Masques. Some of these would be designed by Inigo Jones himself. The Masques offered a complete indulgence of the senses: they were a combination of dance, music, poetry and flamboyant costumes. The Banqueting House would have been completely transformed. There would have been tieredseating with an enormous stage which would sometimes have moving parts, like stormy seas to people flying. The hall would have been lit with hundreds of torches and candles too.

A costume design for a masque by Inigo Jones

The purpose of the Masque was to convey a strong symbolic message about the authority and rule of the king, who would sit and watch these performances. In some cases if not himself his queen or children would actively take part. There were two parts to the Masque; the first part was called an anti-masque, a creation of Inigo’s partner in the creation of the Masque Ben Jonson. This would have been performed by professional actors and would portray a world of vice and disorder. It would most likely be funny and entertaining. This would be followed by the actual Masque which would restore order. It was to covey the benefits of a good monarch. Unless there were any special events to celebrate, court masques were customarily staged after Christmas, in the first two months of the year.

It would be King James who would introduce this type of Masque into England. He knew it was an important political tool and would use it to try and capture the hearts and minds of the English nobility. Scotland was a very poorer country when compared to England so James wanted something to make an impression. It would be his wife, Anne of Denmark who would have her skirts and dresses shortened to show off her footwork. His eventual daughter-in-law Henrietta would even perform a speaking part in one of the Masques something which was back then very shocking. 

Rubens, self Portrait, 1623

Inigo Jones would introduce a lot of ideas and techniques used in Europe into English theatre, some which are still used today. Such as the proscenium arch giving a framing to the stage which would be about 6 foot in depth. By introducing changing scenery in one location Inigo was able to give the audience a constant focus, whereas before performances would either have little, if any, scenery or the audience would need to move their attention to different parts of the auditorium. However the Masques were eventually moved from the Banqueting House as a result of the installation of 9 canvas paintings which make up this magnificent ceiling above us. These were painted by Peter Paul Rubens and his studio in Antwerp and were completed by 1634 and installed in the Banqueting House in 1636. They are in fact the only work of Rubens to still be in their original location.

King Charles himself was an avid art collector. His older brother who had died began a collection that Charles took it upon himself to continue. Two of the best collectors of art in his time were the Earl of Arundel and Duke of Buckingham (one of King Charles favourites). It was their avid collecting and Charles’s brother’s legacy that encouraged Charles all the more.  This art collecting eventually brought King Charles into contact with Rubens himself and the two arranged and negotiated the commission of this magnificent ceiling. 

King Charles I

The commission had already been discussed under James I but came to nothing under his reign due to the king’s indecisiveness and Rubens being commissioned elsewhere by Marie de Medici. James’s son Charles eventually commissioned Rubens to paint the nine canvas panels and requested them to commemorate King James I (Charles’s father)

Rubens himself spent much time in the Royal Courts of Spain and was given a number of diplomatic missions by the Spanish Court.  This is what would eventually lead him to England.  Rubens used oil sketches to prepare for his paintings.  One of the preparatory sketches for the Banqueting House ceiling now resides in Tate Britain.  It was not identified until 1956 and was valued at £11.5 million in 2008.   The canvases were completed by 1634 but were not installed until 2 years later, partly due to Charles’s lateness in paying Rubens. He was paid £3,000 (a lot of money back then) and was given a heavy gold chain. Rubens never saw the paintings in position and he died four years after they were installed.

The themes of the panels were to show the greatness of the Stuart Dynasty, King James as a Peacemaker and the Divine right of Kings. This was something Charles strongly believed in and it was the belief that a monarch was answerable to no one but God. It was to be one of the things that would lead to Charles’s downfall.

The first panel is Minerva Spearing Ignorance. The Goddess Minerva appears in a few of the panels and is the Goddess of Wisdom; she is usually accompanied by an Owl. Queen Anne would often play Minerva in some of the Masques An interesting fact regarding the panels is that the measurements used varied from country to country and so some of the canvas paintings when they arrived turned out to be too large. On this Canvas you can see a face has been chopped off to make it fit.

The large centre canvas in this row is The Union of the Crowns. This would be the first panel courtiers and ambassadors would see upon entering the Banqueting House as they approached the King on his throne. The Canvas depicts the Goddess Minerva again joining the two crowns of England (the lady in red) and Scotland (in Gold) under the presence of King James. The baby in between the two is often interpreted as Great Britain and its birth or the future Charles II. At the bottom of the canvas you can see arms being burnt by the torch of Peace symbolising King James’s hatred of War and violence. Another item of note is that King James is only interested in the baby and not in his throne which is being built around him by genii.

To the right we can see another God, this time Hercules.  Discord or rebellion as it can be referred to as was also to represent the Puritans, Catholics and members of Parliament who were willing to stir up trouble in the reign of King James I. Here it is being shown that he will not allow it. Hercules being another god, famous for his strength.

The central canvas is titled the Apotheosis of James I. Again Minerva appears in this image along with the Goddess Victory. They are holding the Laurels of Victory awaiting James who is being carried into heaven on the wings of en eagle. To his left are the embodiments of Faith and Religion and to his right pulling him up is the Embodiment of Justice. His earthly Crown and sceptre are being carried away by a genii to be replaced with the Laurels of Victory and a caduceus which is a symbol of Peace.

To the left we can see the goddess Abundance, symbolised by the upturned cornucopia overfilling with Gold, surprising Avarice (Greed).

The last panel is situated directly above the throne which would have been sat upon by Charles I. The canvas is placed so that Charles would see it the right way up reminding him of his father’s reign and peaceful legacy. It shows King James sitting in a splendid biblical style setting that suggests a comparison with King Solomon. Peace and plenty (in gold and red) to his right embrace while Minerva fights down Mars. In the foreground is Mercury holding the cadecus again. Again James is being crowned with the Laurels of Victory by genii indicating his semi divine status as monarch.

Today taking care of these paintings is a priority for Historic Royal Palaces. Without the constant care and conservation of the paintings over the centuries they probably would not be here today. They have been restored 12 times. During one period of restoration King George II and Queen Caroline scaled the scaffolding to have a better look. The paintings would have sagged and the paint peeled. The Victorians, to address this issue actually stuck them with wheat glue-type paste onto plywood in 1906. During the Second World War the panels were taken down and stored away to prevent any damage during the London Blitz. To do this some workmen would have to go into the loft space and cut thru the paintings to make them small so they would be able to go out through the windows. Five years later they were then conserved and restored in the Orangey at Kensington Palace.

Conservation still continues in the ceiling every 5 years or so a large scaffold is erected in the hall so the conservators can get a closer look at the paintings and the celling to see what, if any, damage has occurred and what they can do to restore and preserve them.

After Charles’s execution England entered first into a Commonwealth and then a protectorate under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. He would eventually reside in Whitehall Palace with his family and did keep back some of Charles artwork which was quickly being sold off. The Banqueting House would be used for some of his meetings with Parliament. Cromwell died in 1658 and his son inherited his position. However he was not as great as his father in being an authority figure and eventually accepted suggestions for him to relinquish his position, making way for Prince Charles to be invited back into England and becoming King Charles II. It would be the Banqueting House where Charles would finish his triumph return back into the capital and accept the throne in 1660.

Maundy Thursday at Banqueting House

The Banqueting House would continue to be used as it was during his father’s reign. Charles would reintroduce services such as ‘touching for the Kings Evil’ and Maundy Thursday. ‘Touching for the Kings evil’ was a ceremony where the King would touch a person suffering from the disease called Scrofula, which caused swelling, and in effect cure them, by touch alone. Charles would only perform it on a Friday and to crowds of no more than 200. These people also had to apply to the King’s royal surgeon for tickets. This ceremony reflected the belief that the King was special, with divine powers. Another ceremony which was held in the Banqueting House was for the poorer people of the realm. This was a ceremony for the poor and took place on Maundy Thursday. It is a tradition which seems to date back to the Middle Ages and the monarch would wash the feet of some of his poorer subjects in memory of Christ washing his disciple’s feet, it also became associated with the giving of things to the poor and the ages. Traditionally clothing and shoes, bread and fish were given, sometimes even a small amount of money. The number of people who would receive these gifts would usually correspond with the age of the monarch. In actual fact at one ceremony the wooden stairs in the location of today’s stone staircase actually collapsed under the weight of the amount of people trying to get in!

Banqueting House as a Chapel

After Charles death and having no legitimate children the throne passed to his brother who became King James II. It would be on the roof of Banqueting House where he would commission a gold gilded weathervane to watch the change in weather and give warning when his son in law was on his way into England to take the throne from James. Just after his ascension to the throne James converted to Catholicism, when most of the English parliament at this time was of the Church of England faith. Matters were made worse when his wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son. People began to worry that England would enter back into the Catholic faith and began to look for alternative solutions. One of these was inviting his son in law (James had two daughters from his first marriage who were protestant) to reign in his stead. James would flee from Whitehall to France and never return.

The Weather Vane on top of the Banqueting House. Credit Laura Adkins

His Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange would make their triumphal procession into the capital and it was here in this hall that they accepted the crown after agree to the Bill of Rights which stated that the monarchy could not pass any laws without first getting Parliament’s approval and also that the throne can only be inherited by someone of the Church of England faith. William and Mary were not very keen on living in London and Whitehall Palace and eventually brought a manor house in the small town of Kensington, this would eventually become Kensington Palace. So by the time a fire broke out in the old Tudor apartments at Whitehall they had moved away from the Palace and were safe. It would be the fire in 1698 which would destroy most of Whitehall Palace. Banqueting House would survive practically unscathed through various efforts; one story is that Christopher Wren ordered that the nearby buildings be blown up to prevent the first spreading into it. This would mark the end of Whitehall Palace but not for the Banqueting House. Its role changed but a role which still included royalty and ceremony. The Banqueting House was transformed into a royal chapel. A big organ was installed halfway down on the Whitehall side, and row after row or pews filled the floor space. It had this role for 200 years.

In 1732 some repairs were made to the fabric of the building and ceiling, one of these was replacing the original Oxford stone of the basement with the more durable Portland stone. The changes were made by William Chambers. From 1808 the chapel acquired a military character and was used as a place of worship for the Horse guards who were based opposite. It was during these changes that the architect James Wyatt rebuilt the northern annex which contained the main staircase. From 1829 the architects Sir John Soane and Sir Robert Smirke carried out the most extensive restoration of the Banqueting House, during which the entire exterior was given a uniform dressing of Portland stone.

Finally in 1890, the Chapel Royal Commissioners were granted permission to discontinue Whitehall Chapel as a place of worship. The Schmidt organ of 1676 was transferred to the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London and other ecclesiastical fittings removed. In 1893 Queen Victoria granted the Banqueting House to the neighboring Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) for use as a museum. The main hall was used to display personal items of famous commanders, including the skeleton of Marengo, Napoleon’s horse. The original plans was for RUSI to partition the interior of the Banqueting House but following many protests the plans were stopped and the current building next door to us was built. Then finally in the early 1980s the Department of environments Department of Ancient monuments and Historic Buildings undertook a restoration of the interior, repainting the walls and installing a reproduction throne canopy and chair which you can see today. In 1989 the management of the building was handed to Historic Royal Places, who still manage it today.

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