The Banqueting House is the sole survivor of the legendary Palace of Whitehall, once the largest palace of its time in Europe, almost totally destroyed by fire in 1698.
James I was disappointed with his first banqueting house. But not for long, as it burned down in 1619!
When it was completed in 1622, the new banqueting house towered above the surrounding buildings. James I was delighted! The King had wanted an elegant new building in which to host performances of his beloved masques. He turned to the talented Inigo Jones, his highly regarded masque designer and the Surveyor of the King’s Works. Jones used the forms of ancient Roman, and Italian Renaissance architecture to create this impressive building.
In James I’s day the building’s façade had contrasting storeys constructed from honey-coloured and pinkish-brown stone, with ornamental details picked out in white Portland stone. It was a stunning sight for Londoners used to the warm brick tones of the medieval and Tudor Whitehall Palace.
The masque was a sophisticated blend of poetry, propaganda, music, dance, and extravagant and often outlandish costume. James I and his wife Queen Anna loved the masque and sometimes took part. The performances for the royal couple were created by playwright Ben Jonson, with moving scenery and magical settings designed by Inigo Jones.
Despite the delight of the spectacle, the crowded room must have been stiflingly hot, and smoke from the hundreds of flaming torches oppressive. On many occasions performers were a little worse for wear. At the masque, it seems there was always some performer misbehaving, falling over and forgetting their lines, or even being sick!
The first masque performed for James I and Queen Anna in 1605 was the Masque of Blacknesse, in which the Queen danced.
A major fire, started by a maid drying laundry, devastated the palace of Whitehall in 1698. The maid unfortunately perished, but the Banqueting House was saved on the express orders of William III. Its south window was hastily blocked up to stop flames reaching the interior. Huge efforts were made to stem the oncoming fire. After two terrible days the Banqueting House was the sole complete survivor of a once-grand palace of Whitehall.
After 1698 the Banqueting House had a number of different uses. It was used for much of its history as a Chapel Royal. A young Queen Victoria attended services there with her family.
The exterior of the Banqueting House as it is today is the result of a major renovation between 1829 and 1837 by Sir John Soane. He had the building refaced in white Portland Stone. It became a military museum in 1895 and remained so until it was re-opened in 1964 as a historic building and events venue.
Whitehall was known as one of the first examples of Palladianism in British architecture - find out more about what remains within Banqueting House.
Walk in the footsteps of the condemned King and stand at the spot where Charles I's execution took place, just outside Banqueting House.