The Palace of Westminster, or the Houses of Parliament as it is more generally known, is one of the most famous landmarks in the world and the symbolic heart of British politics.
The Palace of Westminster, which can be found in Westminster in the heart of London, has a long and illustrious history and has been at the center of numerous significant and momentous events throughout the history of the United Kingdom. The building houses both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which together make up the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
Westminster Hall is the oldest structure in Parliament and the only section of the historic Palace of Westminster that has been preserved in almost its original state. The hall is one of the biggest medieval halls in Europe to have an unsupported ceiling, and it was constructed around 1097. It is the only portion of the palace that has retained almost its original appearance, despite being destroyed by fire in October 1834 and damaged by an incendiary bomb during World War II. Westminster Hall is one of England’s most significant and recognizable structures, and it is especially significant for the English legal system.
Built to Impress
The construction of the Hall began in 1097 under the reign of William II (Rufus), the son of William the Conqueror, and was finished two years later. He created the plan in an effort to impress his new people with his authority and might.
For its time, the Hall was undoubtedly the biggest hall in all of England, and maybe all of Europe. Floor space was 1,547 square meters (17,000 square feet), and its dimensions were 73 meters (240 feet) by 20 meters (67 feet) (that’s practically four cricket fields laid end to end).
The impressive ceiling of Westminster Hall is the biggest medieval wood ceiling in Northern Europe. It has 13 oak hammer-beams weighing about 660 tonnes that were fabricated off-site and carried by barges and horse-drawn carts to Westminster for assembly.
The Hall was originally surrounded by stone walls that were a full two meters, or six feet, thick; the majority of these walls still exist today, though they have been augmented and repaired. An arcade with massive arches and windows surrounded the inside of the Hall on all four sides. There was a checkerboard design made of bright and dark stones over the window openings. Plaster was applied to the inside walls, then they were painted and the arcade was decorated with hangings.
The Hall served as the Chancery’s headquarters by 1310. At one time, the Chancery served as the Crown’s primary secretariat and was engaged in all facets of government administration. From the mid-14th century forward, the Lord Chancellors sat in the royal seat in the Hall. It is stated that they utilized the large marble table of Henry III, probably for more formal functions such as affixing the great seal.
Four Main Courts
The Common Pleas Court, the King’s Bench Court, and the Chancery Court all met in the Hall itself, while the Exchequer Court was located in a separate structure.
Common Pleas Court
The Court of Common Pleas, housed in the Palace of Westminster, is depicted by Thomas Rowlandson. Since medieval times, the court has dealt with complicated situations involving unresolved debts and property disputes, and as such has been the country’s major center of common law.
King’s Bench Court
When the King’s Bench first opened, it had the power to hear any criminal case, any civil case that didn’t fall within the jurisdiction of any other court, and any case involving the king.
In England and Wales, the Court of Chancery was a court of equity that followed a set of flexible norms to avoid the sluggish pace of development and potential severity (or “inequity”) of the common law. The Chancery held authority over all equity concerns, including trusts, property law, the estates of lunatics, and the guardianship of newborns. As an extension of the lord chancellor’s position as Keeper of the King’s Conscience, the court was first mainly concerned with conscientious law as an administrative authority.
Court of Exchequer
The Exchequer of Pleas, also known as the Court of Exchequer, was an English and Welsh court that handled cases involving equity, a body of rules of law founded on common law and natural law.
Westminster Hall has hosted some of the finest state trials in English (and British) history for centuries.
The trial of Charles I
Charles I was put behind bars after his defeat by Parliament in the Civil Wars. He was placed on trial for treason on January 20, 1649, before Westminster Hall’s High Court of Justice. It was a controversial subject to put a monarch on trial. Those who were opposed to the trial were either turned away or imprisoned. The rump parliament was the surviving parliament. The King rejected cooperation. He neither entered a plea nor acknowledged the court’s authority. However, only seven days later, the judges rendered a guilty judgement and imposed the death penalty.
In 1295, the first special commission to sit in the Hall (on the dais) convicted Thomas Turberville of spying against the French and condemned him to death.
In 1305, a much more famous trial took place: that of William Wallace, who led the Scottish rebellion against Edward I of England from 1297 until his arrest. He sat on a seat at the south end of the Hall throughout his trial, wearing a laurel crown. His defense was that he could not have been Edward I’s traitor since he had never pledged personal devotion to him. In the majority of treason cases, the judgement and death sentence were never in dispute.
In 1788, the most significant trial of the 18th century was that of Warren Hastings. It was the longest trial in British history, lasting seven years despite the court only sitting for 142 days. During the time he was Governor-General of Bengal, Hastings was accused of sixteen different crimes, but he was found not guilty of all of them.
Ceremonies And Events
Since its foundation in 1097, Westminster Hall has hosted a wide range of ceremonies and events.
- Beginning with William Rufus’s Whitsun Feast in 1099, the primary use of Westminster Hall in its earlier days was for banqueting and entertainment.
- From 1189 through 1821, Westminster Hall served as the customary location for feasts honoring newly crowned kings and queens.
- In the 1300s, political events that were meant to be seen by as many people as possible were held in Westminster Hall.
- Like any other place where a lot of people gather, traders quickly set up shop in Westminster Hall. In the 1290s, goods were sold in the Hall, and by 1339–1340, shops were open.
Westminster Hall Today
Today, Westminster Hall is mostly used for state and major ceremonies: a provision from the interwar period specifies that events must have legal, legislative, or national importance. The Hall also hosts public exhibits. It has been estimated that 6,000 people can fit inside the Hall itself, and another 650 can stand on the stairs and platform above it, for events that don’t need seats.