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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Westminster Hall, the Jewel in the Crown of Britain’s Parliament

Westminster Hall, the Jewel in the Crown of Britain’s Parliament

Westminster Hall, from the South - Tagishsimon

For 900 years, the Hall has been a focal point in British democratic history, and today it’s a priceless, unique tourist, political and cultural attraction.

Built in 1097 on orders of William (Rufus) II, son of William the Conqueror, to show his new subjects the majesty of his authority, it was, and still is, a magnificent architectural achievement. But even more significant has been its role in some pivotal historical moments in British history.

Architectural Wonders

It was Europe’s largest, 73 x 20 metres, so large that the royal household usually ate elsewhere. The outside stone walls were at least two metres (6 feet) thick, and slightly curved making it thicker in the centre. They were plastered, painted and hung with drapes.

The roof was the most impressive. It was centrally unsupported, hammer-beams of English oak, resting on wall buttresses, commissioned in 1393. The lanterns to let smoke out came four years later, and the roof was finished in 1401, with 176 tons of lead.

A feat of design and engineering, it still impresses today as visitors gaze at the massive structure 28 metres above them. Fragments of the ‘King’s High Table’, used by monarchs up to Elizabeth I, were found in 2006 under the south end steps. This was originally another symbol of royal authority, and was used for coronation breakfasts and presenting crown and sceptre to the new monarch.

The King’s Champion rode in full armour and challenged anyone minded to question the King’s succession. For six centuries, the Dymock family have held that function and still hold the right!

Home of the Courts of the Land

Four principle courts, Common Pleas, King’s Bench, Chancery and Exchequer, sat in Westminster. Gradually the separation of courts from King evolved, though all courts sat in his name. Westminster Hall thus provided the birthplace of the English legal system, which travelled through most world democracies.

It was an achievement as profound as Parliamentary democracy itself, birthed in the same chamber. Only later did the monarchy develop as non-divine. The White Hart, personal emblem of King Richard was put in extensively in decoration, and the fleur-de-lys, the French royal symbol was quartered with the three lions of England.

Between courts, it was the home of shops and stalls, the full bustle of a medieval street market, a mix of common and royal, secular and religious. It was also the place for ‘disguisings,’ forerunners of masques and entertainments, musicians and jousting tournaments. In the 1500s it was used for ‘real’ tennis.

The Parliamentary website described images, crowns and robes painted red and green, all on an altar to ‘emphasise the quasi-divine status of the King.’ Such displays in a building were unprecedented, but led to the green of the benches in the Commons and the royal reds and purples in the Lords, adjacent.

Changes, Reforms and Reconstructions

Over the centuries Westminster Hall has received major reconstructions. From the 1740s onwards, the roof had to be supported by props. The lead was stripped to reveal decay, then sold to pay for Westmoreland slates. Rebuilding of the north facade was done between 1819-1822 to the original style.

In 1834, two stoves used to destroy Exchequer wooden tally sticks set fire to the Lords and much of the remaining buildings. Popular voices at the time said it was God’s punishment on Parliament for passing the Great Reform Act of 1832. Firefighters saved Westminster Hall.

Architect Charles Barry built a new Parliament, and replaced the Hall’s great south window with the present stairs, arch and window set back, a new St Stephen’s Hall. Westminster Hall was no longer the main entrance to the whole Palace. In 1885, there was an Irish Fenian bomb, necessitating repairs near the Chapel.

Death-watch beetle was found in the beams in 1913, and concealed steelwork was employed. The next danger came from fire bombs dropped by the Germans during the blitzkrieg attacks on London in the Second World War. 10 May 1941 in the night, Westminster was hit.

The Commons chamber burned, and Westminster Hall was threatened. Former Cabinet Minister Walter Elliot, who lived nearby, ordered firemen to save the Hall, and let the Commons burn, as they couldn’t save both.

Trials and State Occasions

In its capacity as a high court, Westminster Hall heard hearings of impeachment, spying and treason. Thomas Turberville, William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, John Cardinal Fisher, the Protector Somerset and King Charles 1 stood trial in the Hall. At the end of the English Civil War, January 1649, Charles was tried for tyranny and treason and condemned to death while he was still king.

It was a momentous event in English history in a turbulent time. His beheading took place a few hundred yards down Whitehall. In 1660, after the Interregnum (Oliver Cromwell had taken his oath as Lord Protector there) and the restoration of Charles II, many of the regicides who had signed the death warrant were themselves tried and condemned in the Hall.

There were other notable trials there over the next 200 years, including Guy Fawkes and Gunpowder Plot conspirators. It has been used for rallies and events of a purely political nature. After the First World War it was ruled that events should have ‘a legal, parliamentary or national significance.’ 48 coffins for R101 airship victims rested there in 1930.

Ceremonial addresses to the Monarch from Parliament are presented there. South African President Nelson Mandela addressed both Houses in 1996. The late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother was the most recent royal to lie-in-state in 2002, and 200,000 people filed past to pay respects; her husband in 1952 drew 800,000. Winston Churchill’s saw a million in 1965.

The Hall Chapel can be used by MPs for weddings. Off it are rooms for staff dining, committees, speeches, meetings. Guided tour parties gather in the hall and can buy souvenirs. Sometimes visiting lobby groups are marshalled in it. It’s a living part of the Westminster village, a piece of history that has seen so much of the cultural life of Britain. It is to be treasured.

First published on Suite 101, 12 March 2011.

Image: Westminster Hall, from the South – Tagishsimon

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