Article

Westminster Hall

View of the Inside of Westminster Hall

Almost one thousand years of the Nation’s history are contained within the ancient walls of Westminster Hall at the Palace of Westminster. The tall grey walls of the hall give little away today of the pomp and ceremony of the past. There is no trace of the glittering coronation banquets which once filled the hall with colour and pageant. Gone also are the Law Courts which functioned for centuries as separate removable buildings within the hall, determining the fate of men, whilst adjacent to them were rows of narrow stalls selling books and inexpensive trinkets.

The hall was built for William Rufus and was completed in time for him to celebrate Whitsun on 29 May 1099. The purpose of the new hall was to provide a place for feasting and for the entertainment of foreign heads of state on a prodigious scale. On the dais at the southern end, the king's throne behind the table faced down the length of the hall; here new monarchs were seated for the coronation breakfast at which they received the acclamation by the peers. From the twelfth century onwards, following the service in Westminster Abbey, the hall was also used for the coronation banquets of every monarch from King Richard I (1189) until King George IV (1821). The close ties between Church and State have continued to be maintained at Westminster for centuries.

Westminster Hall was gradually appropriated by the judiciary, with the first judges sitting there by 1178. It was the place in which the English legal system was developed over several centuries. The king’s council, or Curia Regis, developed over time to include three common law courts: the exchequer, the common pleas and the king’s (or queen’s) bench. The judges sat on stone benches fixed to the south wall, hence the name. The hall witnessed many state trials including those of King Charles I (1649) and Sir Thomas More (1535) who were tried for treason, subsequently found guilty and executed. St Thomas More was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935, the 400th anniversary of his death. The courts continued to sit inside, or adjacent to the Hall, until 1883.

A major remodelling of the hall in the Gothic style took place between 1394 and 1401. Stone towers were added to the north façade to give the entrance greater prominence and the walls were raised by 2 feet – the master mason was Henry Yevele. Inside the hall the string course decoration beneath the windows bears the arms and symbols of the king who commissioned it, Richard II, the chained White Hart and the Helm, together with the arms of Edward the Confessor. Over six hundred tons of oak were brought for the creation of a new and spectacular roof by the king’s master carpenter, Hugh Herland. The hammer beam construction was a masterpiece of medieval English carpentry and design which succeeded in spanning at high level the full interior space of the hall – 73 metres (239.5 feet) in length by 21 metres (67.5 feet) in width.

Thirteen roof trusses were made in total, and almost certainly represent Christ and the twelve Apostles, the authority of the holy judges represented by the king on earth. The carved angels at the end of each hammer beam hold shields bearing the coat of arms of the king.

The Hall has been used for the Lying in State of monarchs and queen consorts since King Edward VII, and of two statesmen, William Ewart Gladstone (1898) and Sir Winston Churchill (1965).

Amongst the many ceremonies and commemorations held here over the years, addresses to Parliament have been made by Her Majesty the Queen, and by three Presidents: President Lebrun of France on 23 March 1939, President de Gaulle of France on 7 April 1960, and President Mandela of South Africa on 11 July 1996.