The most fascinating thing about Banqueting House, situated in Whitehall in London, is that it is the only remaining part of Whitehall Palace, that vital Tudor building which would have been the scene of so many gatherings, parties and decisions. For this reason alone, Banqueting House is worth a visit for any history enthusiast.
However, today’s visitor will find more information and relics from the early Stuart kings. There is a video to watch first of all in the Undercroft, before ascending to the hall itself, where an audio guide will help you explore the room in detail.
James I used Banqueting House for court gatherings, splendid masques and private parties in the Undercroft beneath the hall. It was his son, Charles I, who glorified his father by having the ceiling painted by Rubens, showing the king being welcomed into heaven. Both James and Charles were fanatical believers in the divine right of kings to rule, and the ceiling leaves no room for doubt about that belief. I have always interpreted James I as having been a rather underwhelming man – as someone with dribble in his beard, admiring his handsome courtiers rather than ruling his kingdom. But, having gazed at that ceiling for some minutes, I could not doubt that Charles I did not see his father as anything like that, but rather as a king ordained by God, the undisputed ruler of England and Scotland.
How then, must Charles have felt when he passed underneath that ceiling in 1649 on the way to the scaffold. It had been erected outside a window at Banqueting House, and a statue of his head now marks the spot where historians think he took his final, defeated steps towards his execution. Was he humiliated, or did he feel vindicated that he passed beneath such a declaration of the supreme power of his father?