Monday, 21 February 2011

The Banqueting House, Whitehall

It has been several years since the Brimstone Butterfly has alighted at the Banqueting House, Whitehall. Last Friday I had another chance to pop in to see Inigo Jones' masterpiece. On my very first visit as a schoolgirl I witnessed with awe my friend Cristobel mount the English throne until I launched a coup d'état and told her to get off it as I wanted a turn sitting on the red velvet chair beneath its canopy of state.

The original palace of Whitehall dates back to the reign of Henry VIII. Cardinal Wolsey had built a sumptuous residence for himself near Westminster which he named York Place. This residence rivalled the palaces of the king himself for sheer opulence. Henry was quick to help himself to York Place just as he had to Hampton Court when Wolsey fell from royal favour. Henry renamed the palace Whitehall and set about enlarging the palace and pleasure grounds to include a cockpit, bowling green and tennis court. I was once fortunate enough to view an extant turret and walls of the double storey covered Tudor tennis court, complete with large leaded window, concealed within a modern office complex. That was when modern Whitehall regularly threw open its doors to the public as part of the London Open House weekend. Security considerations have probably been the reason why I have not been able to gain access in more recent years.
James I in front of the Banqueting House
It seems when Tudor monarchy wanted to entertain foreign ambassadors and put on a show they had a temporary banqueting hall erected built of timber. Clearly they had not forgotten the fabulous temporary hall of timber and glass Henry VIII had built for the Field of Cloth of Gold, to get one over the King of France, who had to make do with a mere tent, albeit one fashioned from the finest materials and no doubt furnished with an equally splendid interior. After all, a king like Francois I, who kept Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" on display in his bathroom at Fontainebleau, was hardly likely to skimp on things affecting his own creature comforts.

When it came to holding grand receptions, the Stuart kings wanted to build a permanent structure that would also serve to announce to the world at large the arrival of a new dynasty on the throne of England. The first structure King James I had built was destroyed in a fire so he promptly commissioned his surveyor of works to come up with a new design. The king’s surveyor of works was none other than Inigo Jones, who also designed the Queen’s House at Greenwich, the king’s grandiose present to his own spouse, Anne of Denmark. Both buildings had been inspired by Inigo Jones' visits to Italy and by the scholarly tomes written by that great Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Their joint contribution to neo-classical architecture in England is celebrated at Chiswick House by the two statues representing them on the steps leading up to the front portico.

Jones’ double cube Banqueting House is two stories high, 110 feet in length and 55 feet wide. The pillars of the undercroft bear the weight of the Hall above which owes more to Ancient Rome and Greece than to the medieval Great Halls of England with their hammer beam roofs and gothic windows, one of the finest examples of the latter being the Great Hall at Hampton Court. The exterior of the building was refaced with Portland stone in the 19th century but in keeping with Inigo Jones’ original design. Unfortunately this meant that the effect of three different hues of stone on the façade as planned by Inigo was lost forever.

The Banqueting House was completed by the end of March 1621. According to the guidebook, the undercroft was the scene of raucous drinking parties between James and his male favourites and hangers-on. One pastime they would not have indulged in would have been cadging a smoke off one another. James was a virulent anti-smoker and even published a pamphlet lambasting the habit in 1604 called “A Counterblaste to Tobacco” in which he roundly condemned the weed as being:

"A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse".
By contrast to what took place below in the undercroft out of side of prying eyes the upper hall, reached by a flight of elegant stairs, was the scene for more sedate pastimes such as grand receptions for foreign ambassadors. It was also where hoi polloi got the chance from the upper gallery to gawp at the king dining in public. To ensure they stayed at more than arm’s length the gallery could only be accessed by separate external stairs. In more recent years an internal staircase was built to link the ground floor of the hall with the gallery but  it was not open to the general public when I popped by, although I did spy a female member of staff seemingly sorting out furniture in the gallery, perhaps for an evening event. Court entertainments known as masques, that early mixture of opera, dance and theatrical spectacle so beloved by the Stuarts, were also held here. Inigo Jones found himself roped in to produce stage designs for court masques in collaboration with the noted playwright Ben Jonson.  A recurring theme of such masques was the world plunged into chaos until the Stuart monarchs restored harmony and order to the world. It was a conceit which found full expression in the ceiling panels. King Charles I, son of James I, commissioned Rubens in 1635 to glorify his father and the House of Stuart in a sequence of 9 paintings which culminated in a central painting showing James ascending into Heaven. Other panels signified the union of Scotland and England with the accession of the Scottish Stuarts to the throne of England or else promoted, in allegorical form, the divine right of kings. Something that is not obvious from the digital images alone is that each individual painting was not produced on a single panel as might be expected but on a series of panels.

It can be no coincidence that Parliament chose to erect a scaffold outside the Banqueting House upon which to execute King Charles I on Tuesday 30th January 1649. The hapless monarch was forced to walk under the Rubens ceiling which exalted his own family and the divine rights of kings before stepping out of  a window on the second story to face his own frail mortality on the block outside. A year later this accountof the king's final hours was published in London by one Peter Cole, whose address was given as being "at the sign of the Printing-Press in Cornhil, near the Royal Exchange."

" About ten in the morning the King was brought from St. James's, walking on foot through the park, with a regiment of foot, part before and part behind him, with colours flying, drums beating, his private guard of partizans with some of his gentlemen before and some behind bareheaded, Dr. Juxon next behind him and Col. Thomlinson (who had the charge of him) talking with the King bareheaded, from the Park up the stairs into the gallery and so into the cabinet chamber where he used to lie.  (It is observed the King desired to have the use of the cabinet and the little room next it where there was a trap door.) Where he continued at his devotion, refusing to dine, (having before taken the Sacrament) only about an hour before he came forth, he drank a glass of claret wine and eat a piece of bread about twelve at noon. From thence he was accompanied by Dr. Juxon, Col. Thomlinson and other officers formerly appointed to attend him and the private guard of partizans, with musketeers on each side, through the Banqueting house adjoining to which the scaffold was erected."

With the execution of the sovereign and the earlier execution in 1645 of the king's own Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, Dr Juxon discreetly retired into private life. Following the Restoration he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by the late king's eldest son, Charles II. Reminders of Juxon's archbishopric can still be seen at  the Old Palace Croydon   notably in the carved blackamoor heads decorating the pews in the chapels. 18 years later on Friday 19th June 1663 Samuel Pepys refers to Juxon's recent demise  in his diary:
"Lay till 6 o’clock, and then up and to my office, where all the morning, and at noon to the Exchange, and coming home met Mr Creed, and took him back, and he dined with me, and by and by came Mr Moore, whom I supplied with 30l., and then abroad with them by water to Lambeth (Palace) expecting to have seen the Archbishop lie in state; but it seems he is not laid out yet." It is to be hoped that he treated the corpse of the archbishop with more respect than that of a medieval queen. When invited on a private tour of Westminster Abbey on Februray 23rd 1669 he wrote:

"and here we did see, by perticular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois, and had her upper part of her body in my hands. And I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birthday, 36 year old, that I did first kiss a Queen".
The Brimstone Butterfly cannot lay claim to kissing any king or queen on the mouth, living or otherwise, although she did kiss a Tsar when she was made Tsarina for the night in Russia

With the return of King Charles II to the throne the Banqueting House was again used for royal receptions. The diarist John Evelyn was present when the Russian Ambassador appeared before the king on the 29th December, 1662:

 "Saw the audience of the Muscovy Ambassador, which was with extraordinary state, his retinue being numerous, all clad in vests of several colours, with buskins, after the Eastern manner; their caps of fur; tunics, richly embroidered with gold and pearls, made a glorious show. The King being seated under a canopy in the Banqueting-house, the Secretary of the Embassy went before the Ambassador in a grave march, holding up his master's letters of credence in a crimson taffeta scarf before his forehead. The Ambassador then delivered it with a profound reverence to the King, who gave it to our Secretary of State … Then came in the presents, borne by 165 of his retinue, consisting of mantles and other large pieces lined with sable, black fox, and ermine; Persian carpets, the ground cloth of gold and velvet; hawks … horses … etc. … Wind music played all the while in the galleries above."

John Evelyn also described a less than happy visit to the Jacobean undercroft on 19th July, 1664 where he took park in a lottery with Charles II, his wife Catherine of Braganza and his father's widow, Henrietta-Maria: 
"To London, to see the event of the lottery which his Majesty had permitted Sir Arthur Slingsby to set up for one day in the Banqueting House at Whitehall, I gaining only a trifle, as well as did the King, Queen-Consort, and Queen-Mother, for nearly thirty lots; which was thought to be contrived very unhandsomely by the master of it, who was, in truth, a mere shark." 

The Banqueting House stopped being used as a reception saloon and became instead the Chapel Royal after the rest of the palace of Whitehall burnt down in 1698. In the late 19th century it was in danger of being divided up. Fortunately it was spared such a fate and became a museum instead, which itself closed in the 1960s. Nowadays, like so many other historic buildings, the Banqueting House pays its way by serving as a stylish venue for concerts, conferences, weddings and receptions.

The Banqueting House, Whitehall is to be found opposite Horse Guards Parade, though it is probably best neither to attempt to sit on the throne nor smoke a pipe lest you attract your own counterblast from the staff on duty.