Four Hundred Years of Spectacle and Glamour!

This year we mark the 400th anniversary of the building of the Banqueting House, the only surviving portion of the lost Palace of Whitehall. Banqueting House is famous as the home of the Rubens ceiling, and host to dramatic events and celebrations throughout its history. Former Head of Historic Buildings Jane Spooner tells us more about the very first glamorous event to take place in this magnificent edifice.    

Banqueting House ceiling decorated with paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens © Historic Royal Palaces

On this, the 400th anniversary year of the building of the Banqueting House, it is time to reflect on what happened inside this elegant remnant of the once great Palace of Whitehall, most of which burnt down in 1698. The Banqueting House was designed by Inigo Jones, the new Surveyor of the King’s Works, and also a well-established theatre designer who had worked for his Queen, Anna of Denmark. The building, begun in 1619 and finished in 1622, was constructed especially to house Masque performances, and other grand events such as the reception of ambassadors, feasts, and royal ceremonies.  

Court Spectacles 

Masques were extravagant, wildly expensive costumed dramatic performances, which combined a mixture of music, poetry, dance, song and fantastically realised scenery. They were particularly beloved of the Stuart monarchs, and were strongly allegorical (full of symbolism and metaphors), where the drama was understood to symbolise the virtues and benefits of the ruling dynasty. They were performed at Whitehall and Hampton Court Palaces for the benefit of a royal audience, their aristocracy, and other important guests, such as ambassadors. Usually taking place on Twelfth Night (6th January), the drama took advantage of the dark nights, where illumination would be provided by firelight, wielded by performers carrying flaming torches, and strategically positioned candelabras. Elaborate painted scenery was devised, designed by Inigo Jones, and placed upon a high-platformed stage with a proscenium arch (a frame that surrounds the stage, separating performance from audience). The stage was high enough to conceal men beneath, who moved the scenery around and who, from the wings, operated such extraordinary constructions as a crane, carrying painted clouds, from which descended gods and goddesses. 

The new Banqueting House was finished just in time to host the magnificent ‘Masque of Augers’ on Twelfth Night, 1622. Performed for the king, the drama also featured none other than the heir, Prince Charles, as well as other lords of the court. The royal family enjoyed dressing up and performing – something which did not amuse their more Puritan critics. King James I and VI enjoyed this masque so much, that, most unusually, it was repeated in the Spring, on May 6th of the same year. For this second performance, the windows must have been covered, to block out the light evening. 

The Decorative Scheme 

When the Banqueting House was first completed it had no brightly coloured ceiling paintings by Rubens – they were installed in 1636. Instead, most of the interior was painted pure white. There was some colour though. Twelve ‘golden boyes’, putti or cherubs, hung from the ornate ceiling bosses ornamenting the carved ceiling. A ‘great neeche’ [niche] with a blue fretted domed ceiling was in the south wall opposite the grand door into the room. The golden boys and niche were later removed, but were probably still in place when the ‘Masque of Augurs’ was performed. 

We know from design drawings for another masquing room that the scenery and stage took up half of the hall, and that the king was enthroned near to its centre – as much on display as the drama itself. Behind him was boxed seating for the rest of the audience. A carpet was on the floor between the stage and the king, for dancing. 

Banqueting House interior © Historic Royal Palaces

The Masque of Augurs 

The libretto (script) for the Masque of Augurs was penned by the great poet and playwright Ben Jonson, working closely with the designer Inigo Jones. Later their relationship would sour, but for the time being, Jonson was happy to note that “The invention was divided betwixt Master Jones and me.” The composers for the music were Nicholas Lanier and Alfonso Ferrabosco II, and their music and songs would have formed a very significant part of the performance. Sound was an essential element in the masques.  

The Masque of Augurs follows the conventional structure, beginning with two ‘anti-masques’, demonstrating the unruly and confused state of the land before Stuart reign. ‘Low’ characters bandy words with a Groom of the Kings Revels, putting on a display of dancing bears, swaying to the music of a rude ballad. The second anti-masque begins, where ‘a perplexed dance of straying and deformed pilgrims taking several paths’ occurs. The end of the anti-masques are signalled by the magnificent arrival of Apollo, descending from the heavens on a cloud. He summons his children – the muses, personifications of the arts, who sing a chorus to King James on his throne. Then, Prince Charles and the aristocratic masquers process into view, lit by torchbearers. They are all wearing white satin and taffeta costumes, with feathered caps, ornamented with strips of silver ‘tincell’. Their bright and glistening costumes in the firelight give them an otherworldly appearance. The exquisitely garbed masquers dance, and include a dance of augury (divining a glorious future for the Stuart monarchs). Apollo steps forward and sings to the king on the same theme, and is joined from the heavens above by Jove and the Earth. The masquers dance a final dance, and the masque concludes, with the audience themselves taking to their feet to join in. 

Banqueting House close-up, designed by Inigo Jones for King James I © Historic Royal Palaces.

The masque’s main, rather unsubtle, message, was of the semi-divine nature of the Stuart’s rule, and how things augured well for the future of the dynasty. However, other messages were also communicated. Prince Charles dancing with his lords, before the king, represented the future of the Stuart dynasty, and reflected on the hopes of a marriage for the heir to the throne, to ensure the continuation of the dynasty. They were performing as a college of augurs – ancient Roman soothsayers, predicting a wondrous future. There are references in Jonson’s libretto to the performance taking place within the new Banqueting House – the building itself a classical reference to Stuart justice and wise rule, through its architectural ancient Roman basilica design. 

See and be seen 

It is important to remember though, that whilst these lofty classical allusions were being enacted, the masque was also viewed at the time as a rather more worldly high-class party, where one should be seen, and seated to the best advantage. Even this inaugural masque in the king’s grand new building was marred by the invited ambassadors squabbling over their invitations and seating! The experience must have been very intense – no expense was spared, everyone was dressed in elaborate finery, the room, although vast, was hot and crowded, and filled with smoke from the flaming torches. 

Banqueting House Repurposed 

The Banqueting House fulfilled its role as a masquing house for fourteen years. However, that all changed when Rubens’ giant canvas paintings were installed in the ceiling. Now king, Charles I decreed that the smoke from the masques was too damaging for his expensive paintings, and a new building was constructed next door for them. The celebration of the Stuart dynasty continued to be performed above him, on the ceiling paintings, where the deceased King James was depicted ascending into the Heavens, to join the Gods who had formerly honoured him on Inigo Jones’s stage. Once Rubens’ paintings were installed, the Banqueting Hall became instead a grand presence chamber for the Stuart monarchs. Ambassadors were received with full pomp there. Also, the Banqueting House hosted quasi-religious royal ceremonies, such as ‘touching for the King’s Evil’ where the King would ‘cure’ his subjects of the disease, Scrofula, and on other occasions, dispense Maundy Money on Maundy Thursday. After the 1698 fire, the Banqueting House was converted into a Chapel Royal. It later became a military museum, and today is looked after as one of Historic Royal Palaces’ fabulous properties. 

The King’s Final Performance 

On 30th January 1649, Charles I walked for the last time across his Banqueting Hall, towards a scaffolding set up outside, upon which he was to be executed. I wonder if, in between the pangs of terror he must have felt before the axe descended, Charles remembered Twelfth Night 1622, when as a prince he danced an augury, predicting the long and fortunate reign of the House of Stuart. 

Dr Jane Spooner
Former Head of Historic Buildings 

Further Reading 
The story of the Banqueting House’s construction can be read in an earlier blog, celebrating the 400th anniversary of the start of the building project   

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Further Reading