Historic Royal Palaces: Banqueting House

25 August 2014 - 04:10pm
Edited by Cindy Stockman - Spotted an Error?


The Banqueting House, which is located across from Horse Guards Parade, is the only complete building of Whitehall Palace which still exists, and acted as the sovereign’s primary home from 1530 until the reign of William III. The building was the first property to be completed in the neo-classical design, and its creation dramatically changed English architecture.

Banqueting House stands on a site originally owned by the Archbishops of York. In the 14th century, they built a house there called York Place in order for the Archbishop to be closer to the King’s palace at Westminster.

Since the old royal palace at Westminster had been destroyed by a fire in 1512 and Henry VIII had been staying at Lambeth Palace, York Place took centre stage. Henry took over York Place and changed its name to Whitehall; this now meant that the King had a Royal residence in Westminster.

Built in 1619 by Inigo Jones for James 1, Banqueting House is the only surviving building from the old Whitehall Palace. Credit: Historic Royal Palaces/newsteam.co.uk

Built in 1619 by Inigo Jones for James I, Banqueting House is the only surviving building from the old Whitehall Palace.

Whitehall Palace had a number of sizeable public spaces for entertaining, which included the great hall and the chapel. On certain occasions temporary structures were erected for special events. The greatest of these was constructed on the request of Queen Elizabeth I, who established a banqueting house to hold activities associated with her marriage talks with the Duke of Alençon in 1581. This building inhabited the site of the current Banqueting House.

Initially a temporary site, The Banqueting House of 1581 lasted for 25 years. In 1606 James I of England (James VI of Scotland) chose to substitute it with a permanent structure. Made of brick and stone, after being finished in 1609, the new banqueting house had a substantial hall above a ground floor basement.

James I’s new banqueting house was explicitly built to afford a proper venue for the latest and type of court entertainment – the masque. The court masque was a performance staged for and by the Stuart Kings and Queens and their courtiers. A masque was an elaborate theatrical production which joined music, dance, poetry and song together, along with whimsical scenery design and brilliant special effects. Sadly, in 1619, the house was decimated in a fire, but James I decided that another building would soon take its place.

Commissioned by Charles in around 1629-1630, the ceiling canvasses were painted by the world renowned Sir Peter Paul Reubens. The canvasses are the only arrangement by the Flemish artist that remain in its original position to this day.

The canvasses are rather large; two of them measure 9×6 metres. The second set measures 13×3 metres. The canvasses were painted in Antwerp and shipped to London in October 1635. By March of 1636 the prints were on display in the Banqueting House.

The canvases were painted by Sir Peter Paul Rubens and installed in the hall in 1636. Credit: Historic Royal Palaces

The canvases were painted by Sir Peter Paul Rubens and installed in the hall in 1636.

The Banqueting House suddenly stopped it’s putting on of masques. It was decided that the torches used for lighting the productions produced too much smoke and the flames would severely damage the priceless ceiling. Therefore, the much-loved masques would be presented in a new, timber-framed building next to the Banqueting House. It would eventually become the great ceremonial chamber of the court, holding massive receptions and the customary ceremonies of court life.

The Banqueting House would soon see an event unlike the glitz and glamour it was accustomed to. After the battles between Parliament’s authority and the control of the King, which delivered the Civil War from 1642-1649, Charles I was found guilty of treason and delivered a death sentence in 1649. Soon after the sentence was given, construction began on a scaffold at Banqueting House.


On the morning of 30th January, the procession began from St James’s Palace to Whitehall with Charles surrounded by an escort of halberdiers (guards armed with the two-handed pole weapon which was used during the 14th and 15th centuries). At the chosen hour, the King was guided out through the galleries of the palace and into the Banqueting House.

Charles stepped on to the scaffold from an upstairs window that was removed for the occasion. He was unable to speak to the crowd that gathered, therefore a group of shorthand reporters were present on the scaffold to note his final speech. Charles made certain to give his reasons for his death and still pledge his loyalty to the Church of England.

The King removed his cloak, handed it to the Bishop of London and placed his head upon the block. Charles extended his hands and the executioner delivered one blow that severed his head.

Following the death of Charles I, Whitehall remained deserted for a number of years. A committee was granted the authority by Parliament get rid of the King’s property. However, the dissolution of the property was halted when Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector and moved into Whitehall in 1654. Cromwell used the House for reception and audiences. Upon his death in 1658, a failed attempt to sell the palace transpired. It remained empty until 1660, when Parliament asked for the restoration of the Monarchy and the property returned to the King.

James II would be the last King to reside at Whitehall Palace for the short four years he reigned. Banqueting House was used as a storage facility for furniture and other items as the Royal apartments underwent refurbishing.

One of the last grand ceremonies to take place at Banqueting House took place on 13th February 1689, when the Prince and Princess of Orange (the soon to be King William III and Queen Mary II) were proclaimed joint sovereigns.

Following this last grand gathering, the Palace and House began its steady decline in significance, as William was asthmatic and needed a less damp residence. He spent his time at Kensington Palace on higher ground and not on the River Thames which exacerbated his health problems. Despite the new regulations in 1662 requiring water buckets for every chimney, the Palace almost became a tinderbox in 1691.

In 1694, Queen Mary died and Banqueting House was used for the Queen’s lying in state.

Whitehall would meet its fate by fire in 1698 when some linen caught fire and in a matter of five short hours, the Palace was decimated. The only surviving structures were Banqueting House and the Whitehall and Holbein gates. William III, and Queen Anne later on, thought about rebuilding the palace after the fire but unfortunately nothing came to fruition. Although, Sir Christopher Wren did refit Banqueting House into a Chapel Royal to replace the Tudor Chapel destroyed in the fire. The Banqueting House remained in use as a chapel until 1890.

The 18th century saw widespread repairs to the building and ceiling. In 1732, the Rubens painting and decoration of the hall was overseen by William Kent, whilst Sir William Chambers began work on the exterior. The original basement Oxford stone was replaced with a stronger Portland stone; this changed some of Inigo Jone’s original appearance.

Beginning in 1829, architects Sir John Soane and Sir Robert Smirke began what would be the most all-encompassing refurbishment of the Banqueting House.

In 1890, the Chapel Royal Commissioners were allowed approval to cease Whitehall Chapel as a place of worship. The Schmidt organ of 1676 was moved to the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London and other church fixtures were done away with. Queen Victoria granted the Banqueting House to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) for use as a museum in 1893.

The museum closed in 1962 and the great south window, earlier obstructed by the RUSI building, was refurbished.

Undercroft of the Banqueting House.

The undercroft of the Banqueting House.

Today, Banqueting House hosts Royal and Government functions, as well as society events. It is open to the public for viewing.

A must see is the undercroft. The undercroft was created for James I and his friends to partake in drinking. Following his death, it was used for gambling.

For ticket information and opening times, visit: Historic Royal Palaces, Banqueting House.

Photo Credits: Historic Royal Palaces

  • Emily Elizabeth Windsor-Cragg

    Its configuration is perfect for public meetings, interactive management conferences and commercial exhibitions. So much can be done to bring it alive again. :)

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