There is always a magic feeling when you step into a historic place and you know that before you there is a literal pantheon of Who’s Who of history and events have taken place there in that space you have just entered. You can smell the history and senses it and I get goosebumps and that excited geekiness comes over me.
Last Monday I was in London and found I had free time so I headed toward Whitehall (once a large sprawling palace now the heart of democratic government) and head towards one of the Historic Palaces that is homed there and the last bastion of the former Royal palace of Whitehall, Banqueting House.
I have tried several times to go but each time I have found myself arriving when it’s closed for special events. The vaulted ceiling is stunning in the ground floor. Here you head to watch a video. I will be frank if you knew none of the history it would be great but I skipped it after 5 minutes as it is literally very basic history.
Upon collecting my audio guide (included in the price and Art Fund holder get in half price) I headed up to the banqueting space. The name it turns out is miss leading it was never used as a banqueting space but as an entertaining space for masque and balls and receiving ambassadors and diplomats (a room it still does today). The first thing I thought was that it was so big and airy. This however is due to the classical dimensions used buy the Architect Indigo Jones upon rebuilding the hall.
The next thing that grabs you is the red throne at the end of the room. I felt drawn there like a magnet. I could see Charles II draped over it and Nell Gwen at his side winking and smiling.
By this point if you haven’t had your eyes drawn above then you are quite clearly blind as there is the stunning ceiling with canvases by Peter Paul Rubins Commissioned by Charles I. Amazingly the panels were painted in Rubins native Low Countries and shipped to London in specially made protective containers. The size and scale of the individual canvases is extraordinary when you consider it. And the mind boggles at how they got the valuable art work up to the ceiling in the Stuart age.
The themes through out the images are monarchy and god anointment of the monarch, themes that would see Charles I loose his head just out side the window of that very room. Ironically they would have been the last paintings he ever saw. This room would have seen the reigns of Stuarts as well as the Lord Protectorate Oliver Cromwell, then the restoration of Charles II.
As well as being the place to meet diplomats and ambassadors this space also was used for Mournday Thursday washing of the feet and the giving of aid to those in need. It is said that one year the people seeking aid were so many that the stairs collapsed under their weight.
It was also in this room that the Tudors & Stuarts performed the Touching of the Kings Evil. Originally started during the reigns of medieval kings the Stuarts brought this back. The king who was a anointed by god was said to be able to cure suffers of a skin disease called Scrofula simply by laying is hands on the suffers head and giving them a Angel (gold coin) showing St Michel of Mont St Michel slaying a beast. Many were pieced and worn buy the sufferer as a Talisman and protector from illness.
Of course the most tragic and exciting piece of history that this room has seen is the last moments of Charles I life as he left the room though one of its windows to an erected scaffold to execute him. It was a cold morning on 30th January 1649 Charles wore 2 shirts so that the crowd did not see him shiver. This is remembered each year with a special ceremony outside banqueting house on Whitehall.
It is an amazing space, the audio guide is detailed and interesting the room however does kind of speak for itself. The staff were welcoming and it’s nice to be in a space where there are not loads of gallery guards watching you like a criminal. So if you want to go somewhere with history all around and you don’t want to trail around room and galleries then head to banqueting house and like the history wash over you.