From archbishop's residence to banqueting houses
In the 14th century a rather grand London residence was built for the men who were appointed to one of the two most important appointments in the Church. Their house, named York Place, was conveniently situated near the King's principal residence at Westminster and was from early on, very well appointed. During the 15th century York Place was occupied by archbishops who were not only great churchmen but who also held high positions in the State. These high appointments brought great wealth, and York Place was gradually expanded into a substantial residence.
In 1519, the Venetian ambassador described the Cardinal's residence, York Place, as 'a very fine palace, where one traverses eight rooms before reaching his audience chamber'.
Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII
In 1514 Thomas Wolsey (c1475-1530) was made Archbishop of York and began work to further extend York Place, which soon became a favourite visiting place for his king, Henry VIII (1509-47).
Wolsey's unparalleled position of trust with the King began to break down in the late 1520s but before he fell from favour Henry VIII stripped him of all his assets in the south of England, including the Archbishop's town house, York Place.
Of the Cardinal's possessions York Place was the most important to the King, because the old royal palace at Westminster had been largely destroyed by fire in 1512 and Henry had been staying at Lambeth Palace as a substitute.
The acquisition of York Place, renamed Whitehall, meant that the monarchy once more had an appropriate residence in Westminster.
Henry’s pleasure buildings
Henry VIII continued and extended Wolsey's building programme. He acquired a large plot of land opposite his new palace on the west (or park) side of the public road from Charing Cross to Westminster. There he built for himself a series of pleasure buildings including tennis courts, a tiltyard for tournaments and a cockpit.
The main buildings of the palace, including the great hall, chapel and royal apartments, stood on the east side of the road (the side of the present Banqueting House) stretching to the river.
The street was spanned by two splendid gateways, the King Street Gate and Holbein Gate, which enabled members of the court to pass from St James's Park to the palace without crossing the public road.
On Henry VIII's death the palace covered 23 acres and was the largest royal palace in Europe.
The first banqueting houses at Whitehall
The ceremonial use of Whitehall Palace demanded a number of large communal spaces for entertainment that included the great hall and the chapel, but from time to time temporary structures were constructed for special occasions. The largest of these was built by Queen Elizabeth I (1553-1603) who erected a large banqueting house to hold entertainments connected with her marriage negotiations with the Duke of Alençon in 1581. This building occupied the site of the present Banqueting House.
The Banqueting House of 1581 was probably meant to be only a temporary structure but, in fact, it continued in use for 25 years. Although the building had substantial foundations its main structure was of timber and canvas and so it must have become very dilapidated by 1606 when James I of England and VI of Scotland (1602-25) decided to replace it with a permanent building. Built of brick and stone and completed in 1609, the new banqueting house had a large hall above a ground floor basement, like its predecessor.
James I's new banqueting house was specifically built to provide an appropriate setting for a new and elaborate type of court entertainment - the masque. Its significance for the King is vividly demonstrated by his immediate decision to rebuild it after it was destroyed by fire on 12 January 1619.
Lead image of King Henry VIII copyright Thyssen-Bornemisza collection Bridgeman Art Library