• Richard Ing

Banqueting House. The last vestige of a forgotten Royal Palace.

Inigo Jones magnificent Banqueting House on Whitehall. Note the weather vane top left.

About halfway along Whitehall, opposite Horseguards stands an architectural gem and the venue at which two great events that changed the course of British history took place. The Banqueting House is the last remaining complete building that once formed part of the sprawling Royal Palace of Whitehall. Whitehall Palace was initially constructed for Henry VIII who used it as his base in Westminster. Successive monarchs continued to use Whitehall until 1698 when it was burnt to the ground. The only building to survive was the Banqueting House.

The current building was designed by the hugely influential architect Inigo Jones. Jones had studied the work of Italian architectural maestro, Andrea Palladio and Banqueting House is among the first Palladian style building to be completed in England. It's handsome facade of white Portland stone, replete with swags and garlands of beautifully carved foliage, is worth 5 minutes of anyone's time to just stop and admire. The Banqueting House was completed by 1622 and was used by the flamboyant James I to host great theatrical events known as masques.

Masques were a form of entertainment, which were elaborately staged and the participants wore fabulous, specially designed costumes. Those held in the Banqueting House used Inigo Jones' talents to provide the scenery and relied on Shakespeare's great contemporary, Ben Johnson to provide the script. The main parts were often played by the Royal Family who loved to show off. One such attendee who witnessed a Masque in early 1617,(albeit at an earlier Banqueting House on the same spot) was none other than native American princess, Pocahontas.

Banqueting House is lavishly decorated, especially in the Great Saloon. On the ceiling is the magnificent rendition of "The Apotheosis of King James I" commissioned by his son, Charles I and painted by Dutch master, Peter Paul Rubens. This was an enormous project and Charles paid Rubens £3000, equivalent to about £300,000 today, for the privilege.

Sadly, Rubens masterpiece would be the last piece of art that Charles I would ever set eyes on. It was from the Banqueting House that Charles would step out onto the temporary scaffold erected for the sole purpose of his own execution in January 1649. The clock across the road on Horseguards reminds us that the time of Charles' death was 2 pm in the afternoon as that hour is marked by a distinct black spot on the clock face. And over the doorway of the building rests a bust of Charles I as a reminder of his grisly demise.

Nearly 40 years later the Banqueting House witnessed the departure of the last Catholic King of England, James II. James knew that William of Orange was waiting in Holland to sail with his invasion fleet to take his crown but would not embark until a favourable wind came from the East. James installed a weather vane, still in place at the Northern end of the building, that would tell him when the "Protestant wind" was blowing. On 11th December 1688 the wind changed and James departed Whitehall for France where he was to spend the rest of his life in exile. William III and his wife, Mary II were finally invited to become joint monarchs in February 1689 in a ceremony held at ... Banqueting House.

Copyright Richard Ing. Photography by Richard Ing.

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