The finest of all of the royal palaces in London at the time of Henry VIII and the envy of Europe, the Palace of Whitehall started life not as the palace of kings, but as the home of Archbishops and Cardinals. Initially called York Place, it was the home of the Archbishops of York from the 1400’s, and in 1514 one of the great house’s most famous residents, Thomas Wolsey, was made Archbishop and took up residence.
In the 1520’s Wolsey and Henry “fell out” and the King stripped him of all his assets, including York Place. This gave Henry a royal foothold back in Westminster – at this time he and his court were based in Lambeth after the original Westminster Palace was destroyed by fire in 1512.
As was Henry’s way he quickly renamed it Whitehall and set about creating a home fit for one of the most powerful men on earth and much of this revolved around his entertainment. He added tilt yards for jousting, a cockpit for cock fights and a great hall and by his death the Palace occupied 23 acres of London’s prime real estate.
In 1581 the first of a series of banqueting halls was built in the Palace by Elizabeth I, finally ending with the building we see today. James I engaged Inigo Jones to build the current hall as a home to the court masques – extravagant theatrical entertainments that were a favourite of all the Stuart Kings.
In 1636 the hall received the fantastic ceiling paintings that we can still see in situ today. Commissioned by Charles I, the 58 sq meters of paintings from the Flemish master Rubens cost a hefty £3,000 (that would be equivalent to many hundreds of thousands of pounds in today’s money).
In 1649 the Banqueting hall had its most infamous moment when on a bitterly cold January day, Charles I wearing two shirts so he did not shiver and appear afraid, stepped out of one of the Hall’s windows and onto the gallows that had been erected for his execution.
In 1691 a fire destroyed a number of the Palace’s original structures, then a second fire in 1698 destroyed all remaining buildings except the Hall. It is thanks to this one survivor that we are able to make sense of the remaining images of the Palace and get a true understanding of just how grand this residence, once described by a visiting Venetian diplomat as Europe’s finest, actually was.
To visit the Banqueting Hall take the tube to Westminster and walk up Whitehall for about 200m.