The Banqueting House: An Artistic and Historical Masterpiece


The Banqueting House on Whitehall Street is the only remaining building of the Palace of Whitehall, which was the primary residence of English monarchs for much of the 17th century. In its day, it was the largest palace in Europe, eclipsing even Versailles and the Vatican with its 1500 rooms. Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour there (in 1533 and 1536), and it was there where he died in 1547.

banqueting2In 1622 James I commissioned Inigo Jones to redesign the Banqueting Room, and Charles I was responsible for adding the beautiful ceiling with paintings by Rubens. These paintings, designed to reinforce Charles I’s belief in the divine right of kings, were completed in Antwerp and rolled up for transportation to England, where they were painstakingly laid out and attached to coffers in the ceiling.

Prior to the addition the ceilings, the room was often used for elaborate masques and pageants. Afterward, it was determined that the smoke from the bright lights would damage the ceiling, and it was used primarily for official functions.

It was across this floor that Charles I walked one final time before meeting his fate on the scaffold constructed outside. (So much for the divine right kings.)

banqueting9For some reason, Cromwell chose not to destroy the building as he did so many other buildings symbolic of royal preference. Perhaps because he decided to use it for his own state functions.

Fires in 1691 and 1698 destroyed nearly all the Whitehall Palace buildings, except for this one, probably because Sir Christopher Wren, the reigning architect of the day, had the building next to it blown up to prevent the fire from spreading to the Banqueting House.

A Single Room

While it’s only a single room, it’s definitely something not to be missed. The audio guide that comes with your admission fee is excellent, there are lots of chairs and benches where you sit and gaze at the room while listening, and if you’re very fortunate, you can grab one of the beanbags on the floor and lie prone while admiring the lovely ceiling. When I was there on a Saturday, there weren’t a lot of people there—while I expect everywhere else in Westminster was teeming with crowds as usual—and I could lie there and contemplate the historical and artistic significance of the room in peace.