The Daily Telegraph
Wonder of the world hosted events that shaped Britain
Late Queen will lie in state in building that links her long reign to more than a thousand years of history
Westminster Hall is one of the wonders of the world. Not only is it an incredible historic monument, but it has been the scene of some of the most remarkable events in British history. Anyone who has stepped inside cannot fail to be amazed by its colossal scale. If that is the reaction of a person living in the 2020s, how much more impressive must it have been when it was completed in around 1100, when most people lived in timber huts not much larger than a generous garden shed.
It was commissioned by William Rufus, the 27-year-old third son of William the Conqueror. William II, as he is also known, like his father, wanted to stamp the Norman triumph on Saxon soil by building big and bold. Out of his new country he squeezed every penny he could, and some of the Saxon silver went towards building this vast monument to Norman power and majesty, a great hall 240ft long and 67ft wide, a covered space larger than any in Europe. The walls of the original hall remain, although its high windows and original roof are gone. It was first used by Normans celebrating the spoils of victory. English kings presided over barons feasting there.
From 1393 King Richard II established a royal court, as we might recognise it today. Richard, at its centre, wearing a crown and festooned with jewels, wove a world of elegance and etiquette in which even the most powerful barons deferred to him. This required an architectural setting so Richard commissioned the best architects to transform Westminster Hall by constructing what remains the largest timber roof in Europe.
The original bills for its construction survive and note that the oak came from Herts and Surrey and that the whole thing was prefabricated near Farnham in Surrey before being floated upriver and installed.
The roof is a hammerbeam, a medieval engineering technique that enabled the 67ft width of the hall to be spanned without pillars in the middle. Each hammerbeam was carved with a lying angel so that the earthly court of King Richard could be compared with the heavenly court of God above. By the time Richard II’S hall was finished it was used only for ceremonial occasions. It then became the meeting place of the law courts and for nearly five hundred years, until new law courts were built on the Strand in 1882, it was the centre of English Justice. The roll call of famous trials is long. Sir Thomas More’s brilliant last speech was delivered from a spot in the hall now marked with a brass plate. He was not the only victim of Henry VIII to be tried there. Cardinal John Fisher was also condemned there.
After the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot on Nov 5 1605, Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were brought to Westminster Hall to be tried. But the most famous trial was of a king himself. After being captured in 1649, Charles stood trial in Westminster Hall in front of a specially constituted court. The King was positioned in such a place that nobody could hear anything he said and the verdict was a foregone conclusion.
The role of the hall as law court did not prevent its use for coronation banquets. After coronations in Westminster Abbey the sovereign would process to Westminster Hall to take their seat in front of hundreds of guests. Then entered the King’s champion, a mounted knight in armour. The champion challenged anyone to deny the king his title. No one ever did and the sovereign then drank to the champion and presented him with a gold cup.
The last entry of a champion was for George IV in 1820. Queen Victoria quietly dropped the spectacle.
The list of those who have addressed both houses in Westminster Hall is short, but impressive: Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama have been accorded the privilege. But it has been much more usual for the late Queen to speak there on great national occasions.
In 2002 Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother lay in state in Westminster Hall. The palace of Westminster is the senior royal residence and the sovereign resting there makes the link with some thousand years of continuity. And in the case of our late sovereign, as she lies beneath its wonderful ceiling, the words of the King echo in our ears: “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”