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Tudor Banqueting Houses – Then AND NOW (!)

The Banqueting house at Melford Hall, photo by Robert Edwards (via Wikimedia Commons)

A banqueting house was a “separate pavilion-like building reached through the gardens from the main residence.” They became very popular during the Tudor era – even memorialized by Henry VIII in fanciful structures at Hampton Court and Nonsuch Palaces. But most of the time, they were temporary – tents atop platforms (lavish tents atop massive platforms to be sure!).

We have extensive details of royal tents from reports and paintings of the Field of the Cloth of Gold and its fabulous array of golden pavilions. We also have a wonderful description of the temporary banqueting house that Elizabeth built at Whitehall in 1581 ahead of negotiations for her potential marriage to the Duc of Alencon. The 332-foot-long structure, which took almost 400 people a little over three weeks to build, was held up with 30 masts; its canvas walls were painted to look like stone; its roof was painted with stars, clouds and sunbeams to look like the sky and the insides were decorated with “292 glass lights… and… all manner of strang[e] flowers… garnished with spangs of gould [and fruits like] pomegarnetts, orrnges, pompions, cowcumbers, grapes, carettes, peas and such like”. The structure lasted for 25 years – and then James VI built a more permanent building that we can (and do!) still visit today.

Courtiers, too, built these structures – especially in the “prodigy houses” that Wikipedia defines as “large and showy English country houses built by courtiers and other wealthy families, either ‘noble palaces of an awesome scale’ or ‘proud, ambitious heaps’ according to taste.” They also note that many of the grandest “were built with a view to housing Elizabeth I and her large retinue as they made their annual royal progress around her realm.”

So little has remained for us today of these ephemeral places. We have a few – like the one at Hampton Court, the one at Melford Hall in Suffolk. We might be about to have another.

There is a grassy hump in the Sudeley Castle grounds that went ignored for more than 400 years…and that is now believed to cover the remains of the banqueting house built to in 1592 to welcome Elizabeth and her retinue who came for a three-day celebration of the fourth anniversary of the victory over the Spanish Armada. Sudeley has crowdfunded a dig that begins on Monday (May 21) and runs through June 2 (I’m going to be there on the last two days, digging on one and cleaning and cataloguing on the next). It may be too late to sign up to dig or clean (or it may not, if you’re local!), but it’s NOT too late to sign up to watch it online. DigVentures, who’s running the project, is planning on uploading photos and videos from the dig team, as well as interactive 3D models of the trenches. They will also be adding details of all the artifacts, layers and discoveries they make, and they’ve created communities on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The best part: according to Maiya Pina-Dacier, their Head of Community, if the wifi signal is good enough they even hope to do a livestream video (everybody start crossing your fingers now).

Regardless, I am just thrilled to be a part of this. Sudeley is near and dear to my heart – not just because of its connection to Anne Boleyn and Katherine Parr, but even more because it’s where I found the portrait of Edward Seymour that graces the cover of The Path to Somerset. I am so hoping that the courtiers were so tired after the celebration that they just left everything in place…my secret (not so secret anymore!) is to see the structure re-created where it once stood…But that’s getting ahead of things. For now, I hope you will join me, physically or online, to help DigVentures unearth this amazing piece of history. Even though they’ve hit their funding goal, your fee will not go to waste – there is a lot more potential in the ground (go poke around their site to see what I mean!).

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If you like my posts, you’ll love my books! The Path to Somerset came out on August 24 – have you ordered your copy yet? Click on the photo to be taken to Amazon.Com:

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Published inTudor Tidbits

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