Thursday, July 19, 2012

Whitehall Banquet Hall/St. James Palace/39 Steps

Sorry, no fancy title for this one, I couldn't think of anything.  It may look like I had a really busy day, but I didn't really, it's not as impressive as it sounds.

The Banquet Hall is all that remains of Whitehall Palace.  Alright, as always, a quick history lesson about my favorite man.  You guessed it, Henry VIII!  Whitehall was built in 1530 and was the main residence of English monarchs until it tragically burned down in 1698, destroying everything but the Banquet Hall.  Before the fire, however, Whitehall was the largest palace in Europe (even bigger than Versailles) with over 1,500 rooms.

This is a map of London today along the Thames River to give you an idea of how big the palace was.  It stretched from Trafalgar Square down Whitehall Road nearly to Parliament and Westminster Abbey and all the way over to the Thames River.  You really have to see for yourself in person how big that is, but it's absolutely huge (it's the area in red in the map above).

Whitehall Palace was full of all sorts of history.  This was where Henry VIII married two of his wives, Anne Boleyn in 1533 and Jane Seymour in 1536.  It was also where he got his infamous jousting injury that left him crippled for the rest of his life (for more on that, go back to like my first or second post while in London, there's tons more there), and it's also where Henry died in January of 1547.  Whitehall was also the location of the first known performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Whitehall Palace was also the location of the demise of another famous monarch, although his end was very different from Henry VIII's.  On January 30, 1649, Charles I stepped out of a window that used to be where this portrait now is and onto a scaffold put up outside the massive palace.  It was an incredibly cold day, and he wore two shirts so he didn't shiver and have people thinking he was shaking with fear.  He said a few words, which were only heard by those on the scaffolding, and put his head down on the block.  After a quick prayer, he thrust his arms out, the signal that he was ready, and he was beheaded by the axeman with one clean stroke.  The crowd gasped, they didn't think Charles was really going to die, never before had England beheaded a monarch.  Remember, this was before the French Revolution where Louis and his wife, Marie Antoinette, met the same fate.  The execution sent shock waves through Europe as England changed from a monarchy to a republic just like that.

During his reign,  Charles had commissioned the gorgeous artwork on the ceiling of the Banquet Hall.  The paintings were meant to glorify the monarchy (he, like his father, believed kings had the divine right to rule from God).  The paintings also portray the unification of Scotland and England under the crown (today, Scotland wants its independence from England).  It's a miracle these paintings survived under Oliver Cromwell, who destroyed as much as he could that glorified the monarchy, but they're on the ceiling, so they're a little out of his reach.

Before going to my show, I decided to swing by St. James Palace.  Now, you can't go inside, but I still wanted to at least take a look at it.  Because of the Olympics coming, certain parts of it were closed off, so I couldn't see the front unfortunately.  I did see it from the street though, and I saw part of one of the courtyards.  What amused me so much was that right there is this beautiful, old palace (commissioned, once again, by Henry VIII), and right there next to it is a busy street with cars, buses and taxis whisking by.  It just goes to show you what kind of city London is, the old and the new clash all the time.

Alright, a little about St. James Palace.  Like I said, it was commissioned by Henry VIII.  This is where his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, died at the age of 17 along with his oldest child, Mary I.  This was also the palace where Elizabeth I stayed the night before the dreaded Spanish Armada showed up to invade England (it didn't work).  Charles I also spent his last night here before his execution.  It's kind of disappointing that you can't go inside, but that's life I guess.  After the fire that destroyed Whitehall Palace, St. James became the principal home of the monarchy under William III and Mary II.  After George III bought Buckingham House, which would eventually become Buckingham Palace, St. James Palace progressively fell into disuse.  On June 12, 1941, representatives from a wide array of countries met here to sign the Declaration of St. James Palace, the first of six treaties that went into forming the United Nations.  There's so much history there.  Even today, St. James Palace has a link to the monarchy.  This is where the Accession Council meets to proclaim a new monarch after the old one has died.  So, there you go, St. James Palace.  Even though I didn't get to go inside, it was still really cool to see, and it has so much history attached to it.

My last adventure for the night was seeing the play "The 39 Steps" at the Criterion Theatre with the University of Westminster.  "The 39 Steps" was originally published as a play by John Buchanan in 1915.  Alfred Hitchcock made it into a movie in 1935, and it spawned 2 movie remakes that weren't very good apparently.  The plot revolves around Richard Hannay, who, unknowingly, invites a very sexy secret agent to his flat for the night after a trip to the theater.  When she is murdered, he's drawn into the the chaos and intrigue of England at the dawn of World War II.  Perhaps what makes this show the most interesting is that there is a cast of 4, and they play all the roles.  Two of the actors actually play a multitude of roles sometimes several at once.  And to show that it's windy or something, the actors will literally just shake their clothes with their hands to make it look like the wind is blowing them around.  The props and sets were incredibly simple, but they seemed like they were right there, you could easily picture everything they were doing.  It's something I really can't explain, so check out the video below to see what I'm talking about.

The actors broke character a lot too, to interact with the audience.  They wanted you to cheer for them, to show them that you were right there with them and having as much fun as they were with the show.  It was definitely fun, and pretty funny.  What made it the best for me was that the actor who played Richard could have been Carey Elwes' twin from Princess Bride, he even had a few lines that reminded me of Westley (there's a scene where Richard and Margaret are escaping in a swamp, gee, doesn't this sound like the Fire Swamp?).  It was a fairly funny show, I'm not a play person really, mostly musicals, so it takes a lot for a play to really impress me.


  1. Wow!I like the peaceful location near this banquet hall. Can you please tell me the booking prices?
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  2. Thanks for sharing about Whitehall Banquet Hall/St. James Palace/39 Steps................