Westminster Hall: Stand in some of Britain’s most famous footsteps at Parliament’s oldest building
The history of a Medieval remnant of the old Palace of Westminster.
Whatever your taste in architecture, few Brits would deny the Palace Of Westminster is one of our greatest architectural treasures. While the current buildings mostly date back to the mid 1800s during Sir Charles Barry‘s reconstruction, the oldest part of the building, Westminster Hall, has been there since Medieval times. There has been a palace on the site since the 11th century, although the royals have chosen other properties as their main residences from around the 16th century.
The Hall was first built in 1097 under King William II (1056-1100) and was the biggest hall in England, measuring 73 by 20 metres. However, the stunning hammer-beam roof you see today wasn’t added until 1393. Commissioned by King Richard II (1367-1400) in 1393, it was created by Chief Mason Henry Yevele and carpenter Hugh Herland. The roof is made of oak farmed in Surrey and weighs an impressive 600 tons. Aside from its practical use, the roof also featured decorative angels, with 13 statues of kings dating from Richard back to Edward The Confessor placed in niches along the walls. Six years later, it was under the very roof he commissioned that King Richard was deposed by Henry of Bolingbroke, who went on to become King Henry IV (1367-1413). The deposition went on to be immortalised in Act IV of Shakespeare‘s play Richard II. King Richard later died in prison.
Over the centuries, the Hall was primarily used for early Parliament, legal matters and court cases, with Court of King’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Chancery based there. The 1875, these courts merged to become the High Court of Justice and met at the Hall until moving to the Royal Courts of Justice in 1882. Notable historical figures to have undergone trial in Westminster Hall included King Charles I, William Wallace, Guy Fawkes and Thomas More. The building has also hosted the lyings-in-state for members of the royal family, such as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 2002, but also a few notable state figures such as Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.
However, the Hall wasn’t just the location for serious functions, many monarchs’ coronation banquets took place between the 12th and 19th century. Addresses during the monarch’s jubilees and during foreign leader’s visits, such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, have also been heard within the Hall.
By the early 19th century, the ageing Hall wasn’t looking too great so architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) oversaw the dilapidated north façade being completely rebuilt between 1819-1822. Over a decade later, there was more work needed to maintain the crumbling building under Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867), who replaced the wall facings with a layer of Huddlestone stone and lowered the floor between 1834-1837. During the building works in October 1834, a fire broke out at the Palace of Westminster’s House of Lords Chamber due to an overheated stove. A majority of the 11th century palace complex was destroyed, but the Hall was fortunately saved thanks to a change of direction in the wind and fire-fighting efforts.
After much discussion, a Royal Commission settled on Sir Charles Barry’s (1795-1860) Neo-Gothic design in 1836. The designs incorporated Westminster Hall, with the Palace eventually completed in 1870 – 10 years after Barry died. Under his plans, the grand south window was removed and was replaced by an arch and stairs to St Stephen’s Hall, which remain today. Between 1914-23, the roof was in dire need of repair after the discovery of damage by death-watch beetle, with many trusses replaced and the structure strengthened by hidden steelwork.
A few decades later, Westminster Hall was under attack again when Nazi bombs hit the House of Commons and the roof of the Hall in May 1941. Fire-fighters couldn’t save both so decided to rescue the much older Hall. Barry’s windows on the south wall, which had been destroyed by another raid a year earlier, were replaced by memorial windows to members of the Houses who had died during World War II.
As part of Open House London (although there are other ways to arrange a visit) in September, I finally got a chance to see inside some of Parliament, including Westminster Hall, St Stephen’s Hall and the Central Lobby. I was particularly impressed with St Stephen’s Hall, which was built on the site of the Royal Chapel of St Stephen’s – where the House of Commons used to sit – during Barry’s rebuilding. The Hall is full of visual treats, with statues of past parliamentarians, tapestries, mosaics and stained glass windows. Among the statues include John Hampden (1595–1643), Robert Walpole (1676-1745), William Pitt (1759-1806), Charles James Fox (1749-1806) and former monarchs. Studs in the floor represent where the Speaker’s Chair used to be.
Passing through the south doors of St Stephen’s Hall you come to the Central Lobby, with corridors leading west to the House of Lords and east to the House of Commons. Considered the heart of Parliament, this is where Members of both houses can meet, as well as MPs and their constituents. The octagonal building features a high roof and windows with a stunning gold vaulted roof. Over the four main doors are mosaics of each of the countries of the United Kingdom. Statues of former kings and queens also decorate the Lobby. There’s even a post office which has been integrated to blend in with the 19th century décor.
- Westminster Hall, the Palace of Westminster, SW1A 0AA. Nearest station: Westminster. For more information about visiting Parliament, click here.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.