Banqueting House

A ground breaking design, a fabulous ceiling and some gruesome history make the Banqueting House unmissable viewing. Peter Gray reports.

This elegant Italianate mansion, the sole surviving part of the fabled Whitehall Palace, was designed by Inigo Jones for King James I. It is chiefly known today for its ground breaking renaissance design as well as for Peter Paul Rubens’ glorious ceiling. King James commissioned the building at the height of his power, yet only a few short years later the building would play host to the monarchy’s darkest hour: the execution of Charles I.

The current Banqueting House, the third on the site, was begun in 1620 after the previous structure perished in a fire. The first building had been a temporary wooden structure constructed in the time of Elizabeth I. Despite proving popular as a venue for the masque (an elaborate form of courtly entertainment), James I nonetheless decided to commission a new building from the architect Robert Stickells.

This second Banqueting House seemed to please the monarch even less, however. Stickells had designed the building with a series of columns supporting the central gallery, and these supports proved an enormous obstacle when watching a performance. Few mourned therefore when the building was engulfed in fire in late 1619.

Inigo Jones was commissioned to construct a new building. Aware of the king’s unhappiness with the previous banqueting hall, Jones sought to create something radically different. Drawing on his knowledge of renaissance architecture and particularly the work of Andrea Palladio, Jones set about building a classically inspired building – Britain’s first.

The architect had spent many years in Italy, patiently studying and sketching classical buildings and his intimate knowledge of the style and all of its variants meant that he was perfectly placed to assist the king in building his new house. Jones’ Banqueting House was completed in 1622 and it was an immediate hit with the king and his court.

The key to Jones’s design was the use of a double cube structure for the great hall. The double cube structure had been venerated by classical architects for its cool geometric symmetry and platonic virtue. Plato held that the cube was one of the five basic structures used to build the universe. The others being the tetrahedron, the octahedron, the icosahedron and the dodecahedron.

The Banqueting House is crowned by Peter Paul Rubens’ quite magnificent ceiling. The ceiling was installed in 1636 with the three main canvasses depicting The Union of the Crowns, The Apotheosis of James I and The Peaceful Reign of James I. Rubens, one of Europe’s most important and significant artists, completed the works in Antwerp before the works were shipped and installed in their new home in Westminster. The canvasses were commissioned by Charles I to celebrate the Divine Right of Kings and in particular his father James I’s achievements. It is ironic therefore that the canvases remain one of the last things that the unfortunate Charles saw before he stepped onto a scaffold outside the Banqueting House for his execution.

The King was lay down on the scaffold and said a short pray. Hs last words were “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world”.

More information about the Banqueting House can be found here.

Information about other places of interest in London can be found here.


-London History & Events-
What: historic building
Why: palladian architecture
Where: Whitehall
Website: Banqueting House