(A picture from Wikipedia Commons showing Westminster Hall (left) in the seventeenth century)
One of the most important and iconic buildings in England, and one particularly important for the English Legal system, is Westminster Hall. It is not often realised that this was built by the Norman King, William Rufus. Building started in 1097 and was completed two years later. Those Normans certainly knew how to get things done!
It is not known precisely why Rufus built such a large hall, although it probably had something to do with public display, or to put it another way, showing off. As can be seen from this story;
According to one story, when the King first inspected the Hall, one of his attendants remarked that it was much larger than needed. The King replied that the Hall was not half large enough, and that it was a mere bedchamber when compared to what he had in mind
William Rufus died a year after the hall was finished. Had he lived, goodness knows what else he would have built!
However the Hall he did build was almost certainly the largest in England, and probably in Western Europe at the time. It is believed that Rufus used the hall mainly for feasting and ceremonial occasions, but down the centuries it has held a central place in British national life. It has been used for
- The main courts of law from the reign of King Henry II – in particular the Court of King’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Chancery. After 1875, when the courts were amalgamated into the High Court of Justice, they continued to meet in Westminster Hall until it moved to the Royal Courts of Justice in 1882.
- Important trials, for example the trial of King Charles I at the end of the civil war
- Coronation banquets, the last being that of King George IV in 1821
- Lyings-in-state during state and ceremonial funerals, for example Sir Winston Churchill and most recently Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2002
- Ceremonial Addresses to the Crown in Westminster Hall on important public occasions, for example the Queens silver and golden jubilees. Also occasionally, as a rare privilege, foreign leaders are invited to address both houses in Westminster Hall. This happened most recently in 2011 with President Obama of the United States.
So the big hall that Rufus built to impress his subjects has had a very big place in our history.
To find out more about it and its history see the Living Heritage section on Westminster Hall in the UK Parliament site. However first, why not view this video reconstruction of what the Hall would have looked like when it was built.