Banqueting House (Historic Royal Palaces)


Whitehall Palace, Whitehall, SW1A 2ER


0870 482 7777



Opening times:

Mon–Sun 10:00–17:00

How to get there:

Tube: Westminster/Charing Cross

Entry fee:

Admission charge, free for children under 16

Additional information:

Disabled access, small shop

The Banqueting House is the most obvious and complete remnant of the old royal Whitehall Palace, which occupied a vast area from St James’s Park to the river, and from Charing Cross to Parliament Square, and was the principal residence and seat of government of the Tudor and Stuart monarchy (16th and 17th centuries). The residential part of the palace was almost totally destroyed in a disastrous fire in 1698, but the Banqueting House was saved. Erected on the site of an old Elizabethan banqueting house, which had been rebuilt in 1606 but destroyed by fire in 1619, the new structure (1619–22) was to be a fitting setting for festive occasions, formal spectacles and grand court ceremonials. A committee was formed to plan the new building, which was designed by the great architect Inigo Jones. Jones’s approach to architecture, based on classical Roman models, the mathematical principles of Vitruvius and the pure designs of the Renaissance architect Palladio, was revolutionary in Britain. His strict use of the orders, Ionic below and Corinthian above, the alternate triangular and segmental window pediments, and the internal double cube proportions of the main hall, produced a rational, measured and dignified building of tremendous impact. Externally the building has been altered: sash windows were installed in 1713, and in the 19th century it was given a Portland stone façade. Internally, however, it has been restored to how it would have appeared in early Stuart times, a fitting stage for state occasions such as the international marriage negotiations conducted by James I and the reception of foreign ambassadors. The king and court could enter from the north, from the palace’s Privy Gallery, where the throne, under its symbolic canopy of state, was erected. For state occasions, when magnificence was required, the walls below the gallery were hung with rich tapestries which blocked the windows. The public was admitted from the south, the entrance approached up a timber staircase (the present entrance and staircase were added by James Wyatt 1808–09—note the sculpture bust of James I by Hubert Le Sueur, commissioned by James’s son Charles I in 1639).

The Rubens Ceiling
Peter Paul Rubens, an artist of international fame fêted by the courts of Europe, and whom the Stuart monarchy was eager to engage, seems to have been approached as early as 1621 to paint the great compartmented ceiling. But, diverted to Paris to decorate the Palais Luxembourg for Catherine de’ Medici, it was not until 1629–30, after James I had died and when Rubens was on a diplomatic mission to London as an emissary of the King of Spain, that he was officially commissioned. In London Rubens presented to Charles I his great painting Peace and War (National Gallery) and was knighted. The nine Banqueting House canvases were painted in Antwerp in 1630–34 and then sent to London where they were installed by 1636 (Rubens was paid £3,000 and never saw the works in situ). The theme of the magnificent Baroque scheme, the like of which Britain had never seen, was the glorification of the peaceful rule of James I. Over the centuries the paintings have seen a succession of restoration campaigns, the last taking the opportunity to rearrange the canvases in the order intended by Rubens. Entering from the south, the viewer is immediately struck by the central oval, the Apotheosis of James I, the king borne heavenwards by Religion and Justice, his temporal crown carried by putti while Minerva (wisdom) holds out a wreath of laurel. Flanking this are two friezes of exuberant putti, symbolic of the peace and prosperity of James’s reign. Above the throne, visible the right way round to the visitor entering from the south, is the Benefits of the Government of James I. Peace and Plenty embrace, Minerva defends the throne against Mars (war), who in turn tramples enemies about to be banished to Hell. On either side are ovals with the Triumph of Reason over Discord and Triumph of Abundance over Avarice. At the north end, visible to the king seated on his throne, is the Union of England and Scotland, James I gesturing towards a child, the new-born union of the two countries, while Britannia holds the joined crowns above his head. To left and right are Minerva driving Rebellion to Hell and Hercules beating down Envy. Rubens’ masterly allegory celebrates James I’s wise government and the Stuart adherence to the divine right of kings but also, through its extolling of peace, alludes to the recent Anglo-Spanish peace negotiations.

On the installation of the pictures, the Banqueting House ceased to stage court masques or theatrical spectacles which involved flaming or smoking torches which would have harmed Rubens’ works. But with its revolutionary architecture, its painted masterpieces symbolic of the nature of Stuart government and its function as a setting for state occasions, the Banqueting House assumed a potent iconic status. Several architectural designs for a new Whitehall Palace retained the Banqueting House at their heart. Quite deliberately, it was where Charles I was executed (on 30th January 1649), led from the staircase window to the scaffold erected against its walls. Charles II continued to use the Banqueting House for solemn state occasions. It was here that the sovereign touched for the King’s Evil, an ancient ceremony performed for those with scrofula, last performed by Queen Anne (mid-18th century); and it was also where the Maundy Thursday ritual of the washing of the feet of the poor, and distribution of money, was performed by the monarch. After the 1698 fire, however, William III had the building converted into the Chapel Royal, a function retained until the 1890s when it became the Royal United Services Institute museum. It is now used for formal royal and state occasions and banquets.

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Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

Please do share your comments and updates with us via the form below the entry for each museum.


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