What To Expect
Situated in Whitehall, at the back of Horse Guards Parade, stands the splendid Banqueting House, the only complete building of the old Whitehall Palace to have survived. Whitehall Palace was built on the site of the London residence of the Archbishops of York, and was acquired by Henry VIII from Cardinal Wolsey in 1530. From this time, until the reign of James II, the Whitehall Palace became the monarch's main residence. Henry extended and enhanced Whitehall, making it the largest palace in Europe. The Banqueting House now represents one of the few surviving examples of work by Inigo Jones.Commissioned by James I of England (James VI of Scotland), this renowned architect was given the task of replacing the old Tudor banqueting hall which had become quite dilapidated. Started in 1619, the Banqueting House took three years to complete in the neo-classical 'Palladian' style, first introduced to Britain by Inigo Jones following his studies of antique architecture in Italy. To complete this magnificent building the famous Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens, gave the ceilings his distinguished, ornate decoration some years later.
Originally built for occasions of state, the Banqueting House saw many plays performed within, grand balls and masques staged, as well as traditional banquets laid out for important guests. With the installation of the ceiling panels, the primary function of the building changed, and it became a reception hall to receive foreign ambassadors and visiting dignitaries. This culture continues in the present day, with the Banqueting House remaining as one of the finest venues in London for both royal and high society functions.
For all its fine and stately presence, the Banqueting House conceals a gruesome chapter in its history. In 1649 a scaffold was erected against the northern annexe of the Banqueting House to facilitate the beheading of Charles I, in front of a crowd of several thousand spectators. A special commemorative service to Charles I is still held annually in the Banqueting House on the morning of 30th January. Only five years later in 1654 the Whitehall Palace became the official residence of the King's great adversary, Oliver Cromwell, when he became Lord Protector. Cromwell died at Whitehall Palace on 29th May 1660.
When the monarchy was restored with the accession of Charles II, Whitehall Palace, and subsequently the Banqueting House, once again became the venue for ceremonial affairs of state. During the short reign of James II, the Banqueting House became a storage area whilst alterations were carried out to the state apartments. One curious legacy does survive from this period. A wrought iron weather vane on the roof, reputed to have been erected by the king, to indicate when the winds were favourable to bring Prince William of Orange to England - a matter of some concern to the king whose throne was being challenged.After the exile of James II, the last grand ceremony witnessed at the house was the offering of the crown to the Prince and Princess of Orange (the future William III and Mary II). With the royal couple deciding on a new house at Kensington in favour of the rather tired Tudor Palace, this marked the end of full time royal occupancy of Whitehall Palace, and the decline of the once splendid former residence. In 1694 the young queen died, and was laid in state in the Banqueting House prior to her burial.
In 1698 the bulk of the timber-framed palace was destroyed by fire, with only the Banqueting House and the Whitehall and Holbein Gates left intact. Four days after the fire, Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to convert the Banqueting House into a Chapel Royal, replacing the destroyed Tudor chapel, now destroyed. Although much altered over the years, the Banqueting House remained as a chapel until 1890. The Holbein Gate was eventually demolished in 1759.In 1893 Queen Victoria granted the Banqueting House to the United States Services Institute for use as a museum. This arrangement continued until 1962, at which time the building reverted back to its original function as a grand reception hall.
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