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The Masque

A fabulously extravagant, early 17th century court entertainment

A fabulously extravagant, early 17th century court entertainment

The masque began as an improvised performance at court in the 16th century during which courtiers and even royals would disguise themselves for play acting, fun and dancing. By the early 1600s, under masque-loving monarchs James I and his queen Anne of Denmark, it really took off. 

Masques were first staged for James I in a former version of the Banqueting House, with singing, acting, music, dialogue, amazing costume and above all, ‘special effects’ and moving scenery.

Masques were created by the brilliant partnership of playwright Ben Jonson and set and costume designer Inigo Jones. Jones was also a skilled architect, who built the Banqueting House for James I, completed in 1622.

Inigo Jones design of 'A Torch Bearer, Indian'.

What went on at a masque?

Masques were performed for, rather than by, the court, although sometimes the queen and her ladies danced. 

A masque was also a place to see and be seen. They were incredibly expensive to produce; some of the most lavish were staged by affluent lawyers. But despite the cost, they weren’t always the most comfortable of shows to attend, for either actors or audiences. 

The crowded room was stifling hot, and smoke from the hundreds of torches must have been oppressive. Sometimes there was a long delay before the performance began. The chaplain to the Venetian Ambassador wrote of his experience after attending a masque in 1618:

‘So crowded and uncomfortable that had it not been for our curiosity we would have given up or expired … every box was filled notably with the most noble and richly arrayed ladies… During the two hours of waiting we had leisure to examine them again and again.’

Image:  'A Torch Bearer, Indian', costume design for the masque by Inigo Jones, © Chatsworth House.

We're only here for the dance

Despite the spectacle, masques must have been difficult to follow in the smoky, noisy room, especially without a programme.

The court probably talked and laughed throughout the performances, drowning out the words and music. Everyone saved themselves for the dancing, a major part of the event. They practised for weeks beforehand to be sure of the steps.

Did you know?

Celebrity spotting was fundamental to the masque. Everyone from the Queen down would participate!

Early masque costume design by Inigo Jones, 'A Statue Transformed'

Misbehaviour at the masque

It seems that there was always somebody misbehaving at the masque.

The performers were frequently drunk, as ‘wine did so occupy their inner chambers’. On occasions actors would fall over or actually be sick during performances!

Even the first masque to take place in Inigo Jones’s splendid new Banqueting House (to which many foreign ambassadors were invited) was marred by squabbling. Quarrels often broke out among foreign dignitaries over who was seated closest to the King during a masque, adding to the drama.

It also became a bizarre tradition at the end of every performance for the audience to upset the table laid out with refreshments, smashing glass platters with great glee.

Image: 'A Statue Transformed', early masque costume design by Inigo Jones, © Chatsworth House

 

 

Illustration of King James I

‘Why don’t they dance? What did you make me come here for? Devil take all of you, dance!’

James I loses his temper while waiting for the show to begin in 1618.

Inigo Jones masque costume design, 'A Daughter of Niger'

Outrageous or offensive?

The first masque performed for James I and Anne of Denmark in 1605 was ‘Masque of Blacknesse’, created by Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson. It was a new form of court entertainment, commissioned by the Queen, in which she and her ladies appeared and danced with blacked-up faces.

While this seems offensive to us now, the masque was all about decadence and illusion. To a 17th century audience, the Queen was behaving more outrageously by flashing her ankles in public in a flimsy costume.

The ‘Masque of Blacknesse’ also astonished the audience with its special effects. Designer Inigo Jones created an ‘artificial sea with waves which seemed to move’, in addition to mermaids in shells, tritons, seahorses and ‘six huge sea monsters’.

Such special effects were the trademarks of Jones and Jonson, and they became increasingly flamboyant. Their ‘The Masque of Queens’ performed in 1609 opened with a scene from hell, complete with fire and smoke. This vanished to reveal a ‘glorious and magnificent building figure the House of Fame … filled with several coloured lights like emeralds, rubies, sapphires, carbuncles etc.’ 

Image: 'A Daughter of Niger', Inigo Jones's masque costume design, © Chatsworth House.

Inigo Jones costume design for a masque 'A Lady Masquer'

Masques for a new monarch

James I’s son, Charles I (1625-49) and his French queen, Henrietta Maria loved the masque too. They continued the tradition of expensive performances, using Inigo Jones’s new Banqueting House that was completed in 1622.

However, war and and the outbreak of plague meant that the Banqueting House was deserted until 1631, when the masque ‘Love’s Triumph through Callipolis’ was performed.

Henrietta Maria and her ladies took great delight in dancing in this, and subsequent masques. The choreography grew ever more intricate, and the scenery and special effects ever more complex.  

Although extremely expensive, a fresh masque was performed at least twice a year for the next five years.

Image: ‘A Lady Masquer’, costume designed by Inigo Jones, © Chatsworth House

The man in the masque

Charles I commissioned Gerrit van Honthorst to paint a mythological depiction of himself and his wife Henrietta Maria as they might appear in a masque.  

‘Mercury presenting the Liberal Arts to Apollo and Diana, 1628’ was originally displayed at the Banqueting House.

Did you know?

This painting now hangs at Hampton Court Palace.

A royal fantasy

This huge painting creates a sense of what a masque would have been like, with ‘miraculous’ special effects. Charles (Apollo) and Henrietta Maria (Diana) are seated on what seems to be a floating cloud.

There is also hidden drama here. The sitter playing Mercury is the royal favourite, Duke of Buckingham, who exercised a powerful hold over the King.  Buckingham’s wife appears next to him (bare-breastedness was not uncommon in the Stuart court masques).  Both men gaze intently at each other, not at their wives.

Image (detail used in header) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.

The end of the masque

The installation of Peter Paul Rubens’ ceiling paintings in 1636 marked the end of the building as a venue for masques, with their requirement for brilliant, and highly damaging, illumination. ‘Seventy dozen torches and 60 flambeaux’ alone were ordered for a single performance of  ‘The Triumph of Peace’ in February 1633.

But more importantly, the world was changing, and Civil War was looming.

The royal coffers were all but empty, and the nation was in a state of unrest. The world of the masque, with its fantasy, extravagance and illusion was coming to an end. By 1640, it was dead.

On 10 January 1642, Charles I left Whitehall for York. He would not set eyes on Banqueting House for another seven years. Then he would walk across its hall on the final day of his life, to the executioner’s block. 

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