London Style: Banqueting House aka Whitehall Palace

Did you know that there are plague pits dotted all around the city of London? Common sense tells me, of course there are because there are millions and millions of souls that have lived in this tiny area over the centuries. Where they can they possibly put everyone that has died? Up until relatively recently, cremation was believed to be a sin. Burying the bodies or putting them in a mausoleum was the right and proper thing to do with passed on loved ones.

I was riding around the tubes, as one does while living in London, and I noticed that my ears popped in between Kentish Town and Camden Town. The train dives down and then rises rather quickly. It’s to avoid a plague pit. When I first heard this, I was shocked! I was unable to find hard evidence of this doing a little research online, but considering they found King Richard III under a parking lot just recently, it wouldn’t surprise me either way.

London fascinates me with all of the history that is above, below and around us. And what strikes me most is when a historical church or building is juxtaposed near a modern apartment complex or office building. I love that the city hasn’t torn down the remnants of a past time to make room for the new world like the bombed church I wrote about before, St. Dunstan in the East.

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St. Dunstan in the East, London

This surrounded and protected history peaked my interest in the famous Banqueting House near Trafalgar Square and 10 Downing Street. A part of the Historical Royal Palaces, the Banqueting House stands near where Whitehall Palace stood during Henry VIII’s reign.

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Just add an ‘A’ and you have Whitehall Palace!

I was disappointed when I found out Whitehall no longer stands due to a fire, but the city did what it did best: build on top of the ruins and create this mansion that was home to Charles I in 1622. It does still contain some of the structural integrity of Whitehall Palace, but it is a completely transformed building from its original heyday in the 1500s.

The former York Place was home to Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s almoner, but then he gave it to Henry VIII who expanded it to fit his new title of Supreme Head of the Church of England. Henry VIII aimed to make it the biggest building in all Christendom, but when Wolsey was indicted for being a traitor, Henry VIII changed the name to Whitehall Palace ridding the palace of any former Wolsey stain.

Whitehall Palace had no banqueting room, so Queen Mary I expanded the structure to include one, but by the time King James I came to live in the area, it had burned down thanks to some careless cleaners who decided to burn trash inside the structure in 1619. The rebuild would look nothing like its Tudor predecessor.

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King James II was the last monarch to live at Whitehall Palace. Most of the following royals had moved to Hampton Court Palace in Surrey. But also, the then officially named Banqueting House, was mostly destroyed in another fire and thus made redundant. It was then converted to a chapel for a number of years before being destroyed again in yet another fire in 1698.

The building can’t seem to catch a break with all of the history being incinerated.

When you enter the monument, you are shown to a small nook that has a television set up. You sit in a small theater set-up and watch a video of the magnificent building and what it had been over the centuries. Besides copious fires, it saw the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and some controversial rulers and times.

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After the film, you are ushered into a massive room. Several bean bag chairs are set up in a circle and a red throne sits at the head of the room. For a moment, I was disappointed. The entire surviving Banqueting House is just a mere room. But then you sit in the chairs and look up. I now understood why the popular 1990s relics were splayed around. The point if for you to admire the artwork on the ceiling.

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The painter for the famous ceiling is none other than Sir Peter Paul Rubens, who has masterpieces and massive artworks spread all across Europe. This is the only scheme of his that has not been moved since it’s commission by King Charles I.

The ceiling consists of 9 massive canvases with the central panel measuring 58 square meters. They were put in place in March 1636, so it really is astounding that at least one building in London has artwork that has not moved in 380 years.

Sir Rubens said this of the work:

‘I confess that I am, by natural instinct, better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities. Everyone according to his gifts; my talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size or diversified in subject, has ever surpassed my courage.’

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While I was initially disappointed in the building, er, room, I am ever impressed by what London holds dear. This was the last of the five major Historical Palaces I went to see, and I would recommend it for anyone who loves art, architecture, and English history. But if you find yourself strapped for time touring around, then check out this video, and you’ll capture the essence of the structure.

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