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The complex of buildings found at Westminster is a little architecturally confusing. We have Westminster Abbey, clearly old from what you see inside it, Westminster Hall and the Palace of Westminster, which look similar, and Big Ben, which screams Victoriana. These buildings can easily blend together if you don’t look carefully and that blending was indeed the intention of the designers.

It’s pretty shocking that in 1834, not that long ago, we lost an enormous historical palace at Westminster which consisted of amazing medieval and early modern buildings. This ‘Old Palace’ was destroyed by a terrible fire and the only surviving buildings are the Cloisters of St Stephen’s, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, the Jewel Tower and most notably Westminster Hall.

Illustration of the Old Palace of Westminster in the reign of Henry VIII - Henry William Brewer, 1884

Illustration of the Old Palace of Westminster in the reign of Henry VIII – Henry William Brewer, 1884

The Westminster site was used as a residence for Kings of England since the 11th century and much was built and extended over the course of the next 500 years. The oldest part we can still see is Westminster Hall, which was built by William II. In 1295, the Model Parliament met at Westminster, beginning the tradition for all future parliaments of England.

Because the palace was not designed for intensive parliamentary use, drastic alterations were made to it between the 16th and 19th centuries. The palace must have looked a little dilapidated and in the 18th century there were calls for a new palace to be built. This clearly coincides with the fall in popularity of the medieval gothic architectural style. People preferred classical styles and Palladian additions were made. Most notable, Sir John Soane demolished the medieval House of Lords chamber and rebuilt it in the neo-classical style.

This period saw a backlash against the neo-classical style and this destruction of medieval buildings. Several key thinkers began to mourn the loss of the older gothic parts of the Palace of Westminster. Some architectural writers appreciated the aesthetics of England’s gothic buildings. Horace Walpole built his gothic house at Strawberry Hill in 1747 and described the style as ‘venerable’ and ‘charming’.

The enthusiasm for the style among architectural writers increased and many illustration collections and studies were published, including the influential Essays on Gothic Architecture by Thomas Warton and others, published in 1800. The cause was taken up by Auguste Pugin, who published Specimens of Gothic Architecture (1821) and Examples of Gothic Architecture (1831).

The fire of 1834

The fire of 1834 at the Palace of Westminster

The devastating fire at the palace must therefore be seen in this context. The fire was caused by an overheated stove beneath the House of Lords Chamber and raged overnight destroying almost everything. Many people helped fight the fire, preserving some of the buildings, but many watched the fire with glee, seeing it as a punishment for unpopular politicians. If you want to learn more about the fire itself, I recommend a podcast from the House of Commons – listen here.

Architects saw the fire as an opportunity to get rid of the hodgepodge of architectural styles that cluttered up the gothic. After the fire, parliament decided they needed a building more fit for purpose, but that emphasised the governments historical origins. Therefore, a competition was held for architects to redesign the palace in ‘either Gothic or Elizabethan’ style, to lessen the shock of the destruction.

An architectural struggle raged through the nineteenth century between classic and gothic adherents. In 1884 Robert Kerr gave a paper to the General Conference of Architects detailing this ‘architectural civil war’, describing how

at the moment when Barry in his Club-houses offered us a new version of Wren’s Classic, we threw it over and reverted to Gothic; and at the moment when Street in his Law Courts had brought Pugin’s Gothic to a supremacy, we now cast that aside and return to Classic.

In February 1836, Charles Barry’s neo-gothic proposal for the palace was accepted and he employed Augustus Pugin to design the gothic interior. Construction was finally completed in 1870. It was designed to look medieval and fit into the surrounding medieval buildings, while still providing space appropriate for the running of parliament.

The Palace of Westminster, 19th century

The Palace of Westminster, 19th century

I must have walked down Whitehall a hundred times, past one stone façade after another, and not realised that such an important building lay just beside me. I knew about the old Palace of Whitehall, which was a key royal residence until it was destroyed by fire in 1698. And I knew that the banqueting house was the only surviving building. However, somehow I failed to visit it before now!

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So much has been built around the Banqueting House, designed to match the Inigo Jones design, that you can barely tell the buildings apart and I am still pretty oblivious to which buildings are old and which new. I feel this is why the Banqueting House is often missed by tourists, travelling between the key sights at Westminster and Trafalgar Square. This is also not helped by its location opposite Horse Guards Parade and The Household Cavalry Museum, which means that tourists are drawn towards the guards on horseback for photographs.

I purchased membership to Historic Royal Palaces recently, so made a real effort to visit the last attraction on the list that I hadn’t been to. This isn’t always easy as the Banqueting House is used for a lot of corporate functions and so can close unexpectedly. They advise you to ring ahead if you wish to visit. It was closed when I arrived but I returned a few hours later and it was opened. I happened to be the BFI London Film Festival Awards happening there that night, so there was part of the stage set up there already.

The Banqueting House c. 1810

The Banqueting House c. 1810

When you arrive at the Banqueting House, you are treated to a short video explaining the history of the house, which is pretty useful. They also had some images on display of the Banqueting House surrounded by smaller buildings, which really makes you realise what an magnificent building it really is – something that gets missed now that it is surrounded by similarly grand buildings on Whitehall.

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Whitehall Palace was created by Henry VIII from a mansion owned by Cardinal Wolsey. The first permanent banqueting house was built for James I but was destroyed by fire in 1619. This prompted a brand new house to be built in a completed different style from the existing Tudor buildings. The Banqueting House was designed by Inigo Jones and completed in 1622. It was one of the first buildings built in the neo-classical style in London, a style which went on to transform London, particularly the west, from medieval and gothic structures to grand Palladian mansions.

Charles I succeeded James in 1625 and focused on the arts. He visited Spain and was an admirer of Titian, Rubens, and Velázquez. He commissioned Rubens to paint the magnificent ceiling of the Banqueting House, the main attraction for visitors today. This is the only room of the building open to the public now, apart from the basement area, and you will spend your entire visit looking at this painting.

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The painting is titled The Apotheosis of James I and is a glorification of James and an allegory of his son Charles’ birth. It is certainly a piece designed to promote the king to guests who attended events at the Banqueting House. However banquets became less common at the house after this point, to avoid candle smoke damaging the painting.

Charles I made the Banqueting House what it is today, not only in his artistic additions, but also in providing the most famous historical event that occured there. After Charles I was arrested and sentenced to death, he was brought to the Banqueting House to be executed. It is thought that the scaffold was erected outside the central window of the house, so that, on 30 January 1649, he stepped through the window to be beheaded in front of a crowd on Whitehall.

This is something that I feel Historic Royal Palaces should make more of in the visitor experience, since it is such a famous and important historical event. I would like to see some kind of monument on or outside the front of the house to indicate where Charles I was executed, so that even passers by not visiting the house are made aware of the pivotal event that took place where they walk.

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