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Banqueting House

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Banqueting House Rubens ceiling
© HRP

The Banqueting House is the only remaining complete building of Whitehall Palace, the sovereign's principal residence until 1698 when it was destroyed by fire. Designed by Inigo Jones for James I, the Banqueting House was originally built for occasions of state, plays and masques. Its commission in the early 17th century marked both the arrival of Renaissance architecture in England and a particular high point for the Stuart Dynasty, which had recently become the first royal family to rule both England and Scotland. Banqueting House was finished on 31 March 1631.

Masques were very elaborate, theatrical performances; a cross between a pageant, theatre, opera and dance. King Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria would sometimes dress up and take part too. Inigo Jones was not only an architect and he sometimes designed the costumes for the masques. Once the Rubens ceiling paintings were installed there were no more masques held here for fear of damage from the candles and smoke, but masques continued in a building nearby.

Rubens Ceiling

The magnificent ceiling paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens were commissioned by Charles I to celebrate his father's life, wise government and the divine right of Kings. Ironic, therefore, that Charles would have walked underneath this ceiling moments before his execution (more information below).

The ceiling is made up of two canvasses which measure 28x20ft and two others 40x10ft. They were installed in the Banqueting Hall in 1636. The three main canvasses depict The Union of the Crowns, The Apotheosis of James I and The Peaceful Reign of James I. Rubens was paid £3,000 for his work here.

Charles I Execution

Banqueting House Charles I Bust© HRP

Following nine years of Civil War, Charles I eventually surrendered and was put on trial in January 1649. His enemies put him on trial for tyranny and treason, the verdict was guilty, the sentence – death. 'By the severing of his head from his body', Charles's fate was decided.

This would be the Stuart Dynasty's lowest ebb when James' successor, Charles I, fresh from his defeat in the English Civil Wars, was executed in front of the building on a specially constructed scaffold.

As he stepped out of a window, on the 30 January 1649, and on to the scaffold outside Banqueting House, he announced, "I go from a corruptible, to an incorruptible Crown; where no disturbance can be." As the axe fell, 'a groan as I never heard before, and desire I may never hear again' went up from the crowd watching the unimaginable event – the killing of the Lord's anointed sovereign. This realization, and the dignity with which the King conducted himself, created a great wave of emotion for the dead monarch. (He even wore an extra shirt so the crowd would not see him shiver.) Charles I was recognised as a martyr and 30 January is remembered as Charles the Martyr day.

Oliver Cromwell died in 1658 and a restoration ceremony for Charles II was pointedly held here in 1660 to mark the return of the monarchy after Cromwell's brief Puritan Commonwealth.

New Permanent Exhibition for 2013

A new permanent display opened in 2013 about the execution of Charles I. The display tells in outline the story of the events leading up to his execution through a series of banners which visitors will be able to read as they climb the stairs to the main Banqueting Hall, and close to the spot where he stepped out and met his untimely death.

Through a series of interpretation, including an emotive film, the display will tell the story of the events leading up to the King's execution. These events not only led to Charles's death, but culminated in Civil War, political unrest and, ultimately, the abolition of the British monarchy and the birth of the Commonwealth of England.

Underneath the magnificent full-length portrait of Charles I by Daniel Mytens, a dramatic film will show the final few hours of the man who fought tirelessly for the divine right of Kings as he bids farewell to his children and burns his personal papers in preparation for death.

A Visit

A visit starts with a video to watch in the Undercroft which lasts around 15 minutes. It explains the history of the building and the kings associated with it. You then collect an audio-guide to head up to the Banqueting Hall. The room is fantastically imposing and wonderful to see. The guide explains the Rubens paintings and more of the history of the building. I discovered that after the 1698 fire which destroyed the rest of Whitehall Palace, Banqueting House became a Royal Chapel for nearly 200 years. There are now many private events held in the Banqueting Hall and guests have included George Bush and Nelson Mandela, as well as visiting ambassadors and foreign governments. There was also the skeleton of Marengo, Napoleon's horse, once displayed here and it can now be seen at the National Army Museum.

Visitor Information

Banqueting House© HRP

Address: Whitehall, London SW1A 2ER

Use Journey Planner to plan your route by public transport.

A London Pass gives you unlimited admission to loads of top London attractions including banqueting House.

Official Website: www.hrp.org.uk/BanquetingHouse

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