Royal Palace or Hellish Temple? Using Architectural Style as a Source

By Atlanta R. Neudorf  //

When one pictures the historian undertaking their archival research, it is common to conjure up an image of the scholar poring over sources of the written word: newspapers, letters, pamphlets, or book manuscripts. Few would imagine this dusty figure staring at a building.

In the last few decades, there has been a ‘cultural turn’ within historical methodologies, focusing on understanding how people perceived and participated in the world around them. Accompanying this shift in historical study has been a search for new types of sources through which to gain an insight into this aspect of the past. Part of this work has focused on the relationships between space and power, particularly in urban environments.[1] While this is undoubtedly an important area of research, I would like to draw attention to the often-overlooked approach taken by architectural history, which seeks to understand how building styles reflect, parallel, and contend with contemporary cultural norms. Sometimes scoffed at by traditional academics, this type of historical research focuses not just on architectural treatises and correspondence, but upon buildings themselves and the styles chosen for them.

The controversy surrounding the Italian-Renaissance style Banqueting House at Whitehall, designed by Inigo Jones, illustrates the benefits of using buildings as sources.

Jones, the Surveyor-General of the King’s Works, began to design the new Banqueting House for James I’s Whitehall Palace in 1619 when the previous one burned down during repairs. Intended as a ceremonial space for the Stuart monarchy, the building was required to be grand in order to proclaim the majesty of both the king and his authority. After its completion, the Banqueting House was used to receive distinguished foreign ambassadors, as in 1622 with the visit of the Spanish diplomat Don Carlos Coloma; it was also used as a space for feasts and the performance of royal masques, again to display the wealth and grandeur of the Stuarts. It needed an impressive design.

The exterior of the building was finished with expensive stone: a light brown Northamptonshire for the top two storeys, highlighted by columns and balustrades in white Portland stone. The rich materials used further highlighted the splendour of the monarchy. The façade echoes the classical Roman triumphal arch, as the four raised central columns on each storey emphasise the central three window bays. The proportions chosen by Inigo Jones for the Banqueting House fit into the ‘double cube’ ratio of many Italian Renaissance palazzos, again reflecting the classical influence.

The height, striking colour, and boldness of the ordered façade were very different from the surrounding architecture. The Banqueting House stood out from the jumbled styles of Tudor and Gothic buildings that made up the palace complex as well as from the wider architectural irregularity of Stuart London, and it is clear that this lack of harmony upset the wider public, who evidently did not appreciate the encroachment of a ‘foreign’ style in the capital. While James I intended the Banqueting House to stand as a representation of the civil order and justice inherent in the monarchy, many saw the antique style as representative of ‘popish’ ideas, for Rome was linked to the Catholic faith in the English Protestant mind-set of the early seventeenth century. In Milton’s 1667 poem Paradise Lost, Pandæmonium – the capital of Hell – is described thus: ‘built like a temple / where pilasters round / were set, and Doric pillars overlaid / with golden architrave…’.[2] This definition of Hell in classical terms is indicative of a continuing suspicion of the full use of the antique style even several decades after the Banqueting House was constructed.

The Banqueting House also stood as a symbol of James’s resented building laws of 1615 and 1622. These required any new construction in the capital to be made in stone (rather than the traditional timber), regulated the size of windows and bricks used in construction, and were intended to create a new face for the city that would proclaim the control and civility of the Stuarts. The House of Commons openly opposed the uniformity that James desired for London, indicating that a great number of influential men were opposed to the new, regular style of the antique in this period. This ‘conservative resistance’ to the classical style continued, with many complaining that the antique style was ‘incompatible with English notions of liberty’, expressed in traditional irregular architecture.[3] Jones’s design as a symbol of James I’s vision of a uniform London was evidently not widely favoured.

It is clear from this snapshot of Jacobean English reactions to a new architectural style that information relating to religious worldviews, tensions between Crown and Parliament, royal pronouncements of dynastic glory, and the spread of information through transnational channels is easily gleaned from looking at this building as a source in and of itself.




[1] See, for example: Fiona Williamson, Locating Agency: Space, Power and Popular Politics (Cambridge, 2000).

[2] Quoted in Keith Thomas, ‘English Protestantism and Classical Art’, in in Lucy Gent (ed.), Albion’s Classicism: The Visual Arts in Britain, 1550-1660 (London, 1995), p. 225.

[3] Ibid.


Image: Hendrick Danckerts, ‘Whitehall from St. James’s Park’, 1675. Wikipedia Commons,

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