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Published February 12th 2012
The original site of The Banqueting House on Whitehall was occupied by the Archbishops of York. When Wolsey was elevated to Cardinal under Henry VIII he extended the residence (known as York Place), and when his relationship with the king broke down in 1529, Henry acquired the building. The palace was renamed Whitehall and extended considerably to include a tiltyard, tennis courts and a cockpit. It became a replacement for the original Palace of Whitehall (that had burned down several years earlier) and grew into the largest royal palace in Europe, eventually occupying 23 acres and stretching down to the river.
Queen Elizabeth I erected a timber banqueting house in 1581, which was demolished and rebuilt of stone by James I in 1609. Its main purpose was a home to the masques that were popular under the Stuart kings. These were elaborate entertainments, glorifying and flattering the monarch and reinforcing his authority and kingship. Ten years later this building also fell victim to a fire, but was replaced by Inigo Jones. The architect, who was a great fan of Palladio, erected a classically styled building faced with three different colours of stone.
Internally the banqueting hall is also decorated in a similar fashion, with both Doric and Corinthian columns against the walls.
Detail from the Inside of the Banqueting Hall - Picture Courtesy of the Official Website
The elaborate ceiling paintings, the largest two measuring 9m x 6m, were commissioned from Rubens. It is probably their size that deterred Cromwell from removing them during his term as Lord Protector (1654-8). After the installation of the paintings in 1636 the Banqueting Hall was no longer used for masques as the elaborate use of candles would have damaged them. From now on it would be used for receiving ambassadors.
Following his trial at the end of the Civil War (1642-9) Charles I went to meet his executioner from the Banqueting House. A window had been removed for the occasion so there was ready access from the building to a specially constructed scaffold. It was here on 30 January 1649 that the king was beheaded.
The Execution of a King - Picture Courtesy of the Official Royal Palaces Website
It is believed that the window (now blocked up) is where a portrait of the king hangs halfway up the staircase.
After his accession to the throne, James II occupied Whitehall Palace between 1685-8 and the Banqueting House was used as a storage facility. On 13 February 1689 the Banqueting House was again used as a location for offering the crown to the Prince and Princess of Orange, who were later to become King William III and Queen Mary II. Although the king preferred to live at Kensington Palace, away from the river, his wife's body lay in state at the Banqueting House after her death in 1694.
On 4 January 1698 Whitehall Palace burned down, leaving just the Banqueting House and the Whitehall and Holbein gates. Following this time the remaining structure saw service first as a Chapel Royal and then as a concert hall before Queen Victoria granted it to the Royal United Services Club for use as a museum.
The Banqueting House is now open for visits from the public to marvel at the magnificent Rubens ceiling, the architecture of Inigo Jones, and as a reminder that a king once stepped from its window to be executed as a common traitor. However it has also reclaimed some of its former usage as it houses approximately 120 functions each year. These are designed to raise funds and are often hosted by the Queen and her politicians.
The Banqueting House is a little way along Whitehall and can be reached by train or tube to Charing Cross, or by bus routes numbers 3, 11, 12, 24, 53, 77A, 88 and 159.