Banqueting House – last survivor of the Palace of Whitehall

It looks just like yet another government building from the outside, yet this is in fact the last survivor of the Palace of Whitehall, witness to the death of a King and home to a Rubens masterpiece.

Banqueting House is also not really a house for banquets, although they certainly happened on occasions, even a King wasn’t rich enough to justify building an entire House just for the occasional meal.

Designed by the man who brought classical architecture to England, Inigo Jones, Banqueting House was completed in 1622 and it’s austere design stood out strikingly from the fussy Tudor palace complex that surrounded it at the time.

The Tudor palace burnt down in 1698, leaving this building one of the few standing, and with little support for a rebuilding of the Palace, the area was slowly given over to government offices.

Unfortunately, the original frontage was lost in the 19th century, when it was reclad in the Portland Stone that dominates Whitehall, turning it, at least externally, into just another government office building.

Something else that was lost at some point is a window on the northern side, for it was out of that window onto a wooden scaffold that King Charles I once stepped — for England’s only attempt at Regicide — the execution of a King.

Following the restoration, it was for a while a Royal Chapel, and then in 1893 it was given to the Royal United Services Institute by Queen Victoria, who planned to chop the huge banqueting hall within up into offices.

Following a bit of an outcry, that didn’t happen, so it was turned into a museum, which it remained until 1962, when it was transformed into it’s current function – a tourist attraction.

What’s inside is a rather sanitised undercroft, which doubles up as a toilet, exhibition base and a video screen showing the history of the building, for the reason to come here isn’t this room, but what’s upstairs.

So upstairs, to the magnificent hall itself, with a ceiling by Rubens, although he took the money and then refused to work in London, doing it all at home in Antwerp and shipping the panels over to London for installation.

The hall is Paladian in composition, being two perfect cubes — that is the length is exactly double the width and height. A throne dominates the far end, with the fire escape hidden behind it.

The upper balcony is often described as for musicians, but was in fact for the lower nobles who were invited to observe the party below, but not to join in.

No wonder the King lost his head!

To be crude about it, this is a big empty room with a nice painting on the ceiling, and well, that’s about it frankly. It’s worth visiting — once — but not likely to be a place for regular visits.

One day that is worth visiting, the outside, is the last Sunday in January, when the English Civil War Society lay a wreath on the railings outside in memory of the Regicide.

Banqueting House is open daily, and entry is £5.50, or free if you hold a Historic Royal Palace’s annual pass.

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