Twelfth Night at the Banqueting House, 1617

Here’s a party with everything: romance, international diplomacy, heartbreak, money, power, you name it. It was the annual Twelfth Night masque at the Banqueting House on Whitehall, on January 6, 1617.

The Banqueting House

Historic Royal Palaces operates the Banqueting House now, and you can buy a ticket to explore it. This one is on the same spot as earlier Banqueting Houses, less grand, had been. They were part of the vanished Palace of Whitehall.

The Old Banqueting House burned down in 1619. The current one was designed by Inigo Jones and to this day is quite an opulent building. The crowning glory is the ceiling, by Sir Peter Paul Rubens.

The ceiling painting shows King James VI and I (VI of Scotland, I of England and Ireland) in Biblical glory. James believed in the Divine Right of Kings: as King, he was above other mortals, getting his authority straight from God.

On the way up the stairs to the grand hall, there is a landing. This is approximately where James’s son King Charles I was beheaded in 1649. Having been taught kingship by his father, Charles never mastered the art of dealing with Parliament and didn’t really get the whole idea of sharing power. Thus ended the life of Charles and for a time, the position of King.

Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch oil on canvas, circa 1617 18 1/2 in. x 16 1/2 in. (470 mm x 419 mm) Purchased, 1935 Primary Collection NPG 2752, Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch, oil on canvas, circa 1617 18 1/2 in. x 16 1/2 in. (470 mm x 419 mm) Purchased, 1935 Primary Collection NPG 2752, Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

The current Banqueting House has another connection to the 1617 party. Inigo Jones, architect of the new Banqueting House, designed the masque. Masques were visually stunning theatrical performances with elaborate sets, masks, and costumes. There was music, dancing, and a script written to flatter the King and his chosen favourites. For years, the poet Ben Jonson had written the masque. In 1617, the title of his script was The Vision of Delight.

Inigo Jones after Sir Anthony van Dyck oil on canvas, feigned oval 25 1/4 in. x 21 in. (641 mm x 533 mm) Given by J. Fuller Russell, 1880 NPG 603

Inigo Jones after Sir Anthony van Dyck, oil on canvas, feigned oval
25 1/4 in. x 21 in. (641 mm x 533 mm). Given by J. Fuller Russell, 1880
NPG 603, Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

Some of the people at the masque

Pocahontas, visiting from America, was a guest. She had probably met both the King and Queen earlier. At the masque, she and her companion, Uttamatomakkin, were given good seats with important people (“well-placed”). Some say she didn’t recognize the King and had to be told later which gentleman he was. I wonder about that. Pocahontas was quite smart and socially gifted. She may not have wanted to show great excitement about the King, but she must have known who he was.

The French Ambassador had his nose out of joint because the Spanish and Venetian Ambassadors were invited and he got no special treatment compared to them.

The King and Queen hosted the masque. Officially a couple, they were living separately. By this point, the Queen had had 10 or more pregnancies. Of the seven children who survived birth, only three made it through childhood. These three were Henry, Prince of Wales, his brother Charles, and their sister Elizabeth.

King James I of England and VI of Scotland; Henry, Prince of Wales; Anne of Denmark after Unknown artists etching, 1603-1612 7 7/8 in. x 11 in. (200 mm x 278 mm) plate size; 8 7/8 in. x 11 7/8 in. (226 mm x 303 mm) paper size NPG D18233

King James I of England and VI of Scotland; Henry, Prince of Wales; Anne of Denmark after Unknown artists, etching, 1603-1612
7 7/8 in. x 11 in. (200 mm x 278 mm) plate size; 8 7/8 in. x 11 7/8 in. (226 mm x 303 mm) paper size
NPG D18233  Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth had been married off and sent away to live with her husband.

Charles was present, not the centre of attention, but coming into his own after a sickly childhood and years of playing second fiddle to his brother.

Absent was the former Prince of Wales, Henry, who had been raised to be the next king. He died suddenly in 1612 when he was 18 years old. His parents never got over it. The King wept and the Queen couldn’t bear to be reminded of her lost son. With her health declining and having experienced so much sadness, Anne withdrew from social life. She used to be the first one up dancing, but those days were few and far between.

As well as the other guests, I expect Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones would have been nervously watching the performance to make sure all went well. Whether they recognized it at the time or not, the composer, Nicholas Lanier, was about to create a milestone in English music history. He is often credited with bringing the forerunner of Italian opera into England in this masque.

And then there was Mr. Vision of Delight himself, George Villiers.

George Villiers, Vision of Delight

George Villiers was born a year and a half before Prince Henry. He became a long-time friend of Prince, later King, Charles, but first he was a special friend of King James.

The King was infatuated with George, giving him one favour after another. On this particular day, before the masque, the King made George the Earl of Buckingham. The fresh Earl then took to the dance floor, where he was the star of the show. It had been written and choreographed to show off his exceptional dancing and shapely calves. If Pocahontas, the Queen, and the French Ambassador all felt a lack of royal attention from James, it must have been because he was busy enjoying the vision of delightful George capering about the Old Banqueting House en masque.

As an Earl, George was entitled to dance with the queen. He asked her, and she said yes. They had fun.

Even though Queen Anne may have had reason to dislike the man who held her husband’s heart, I prefer to think that he made a sad woman forget her woes.

Kind of makes Twelfth Night around here seem kind of tame.

What do you think?