Charles I of England and Scotland, coronation banquet, Henry III of England, Houses of Parliament, Pope Benedict XVI, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Trials, Westminster Hall, William II of England, William Wallace
The body of her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II is now lying in state at Westminster Hall.
Westminster Hall, the oldest existing part of the Palace of Westminster, was erected in 1097 by King William II (‘William Rufus’), at which point it was the largest hall in Europe. The roof was probably originally supported by pillars, giving three aisles, but during the reign of King Richard II, this was replaced by a hammerbeam roof by the royal carpenter Hugh Herland, “the greatest creation of medieval timber architecture”, which allowed the original three aisles to be replaced with a single huge open space, with a dais at the end.
The new roof was commissioned in 1393. Richard’s master builder Henry Yevele retained the original dimensions, refacing the walls, with fifteen life-size statues of kings placed in niches. The rebuilding had been begun by King Henry III in 1245, but by Richard’s time had been dormant for over a century. In Westminster Hall, the favourite heraldic badge of Richard II – a white hart, chained, and in an attitude of rest – is repeated eighty-three times, without any of them being an exact copy of another.
The largest clearspan medieval roof in England, Westminster Hall’s roof measures 20.7 by 73.2 metres (68 by 240 ft). Oak timbers for the roof came from royal woods in Hampshire and from parks in Hertfordshire and from that of William Crozier of Stoke d’Abernon, who supplied over 600 oaks in Surrey, among other sources; they were assembled near Farnham, Surrey, 56 kilometres (35 mi) away. Accounts record the large number of wagons and barges which delivered the jointed timbers to Westminster for assembly.
Westminster Hall has served numerous functions. Until the 19th century, it was regularly used for judicial purposes, housing three of the most important courts in the land: the Court of King’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Chancery. In the reign of Henry II (1154–89) a royal decree established a fixed siting of judges in the Hall.
In 1215, Magna Carta stipulated that these courts would sit regularly in the Hall for the convenience of litigants. In 1875, the courts were amalgamated into the High Court of Justice, which continued to have chambers adjacent to Westminster Hall until moved to the then new Royal Courts of Justice building in 1882.
In addition to regular courts, Westminster Hall also housed important state trials, including impeachment trials and the state trials of King Charles I at the end of the English Civil War, William Wallace, Thomas More, Cardinal John Fisher, Guy Fawkes, the Earl of Strafford, the rebel Scottish lords of the 1715 and 1745 uprisings, and Warren Hastings.
The St Stephen’s Porch end of the Hall displays under the stained glass window the Parliamentary War Memorial listing on eight panels the names of Members and staff of both Houses of Parliament and their sons killed serving in the First World War; the window itself, installed in 1952, commemorates members and staff of both Houses who died in the Second World War. In 2012, a new stained glass window commemorating Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee was installed opposite this window, at the other end of the hall.
George IV’s coronation banquet was held in Westminster Hall in 1821, the last of its kind; no such banquet has been held since.
Westminster Hall has also served ceremonial functions. From the twelfth century to the nineteenth, coronation banquets honouring new monarchs were held here. The last coronation banquet was that of King George IV, held in 1821; his successor, William IV, abandoned the idea because he deemed it too expensive.
The Hall has been used as a place for lying in state during state and ceremonial funerals. Such an honour is usually reserved for the Sovereign and for their consorts; the only non-royals to receive it in the twentieth century were Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts (1914) and Winston Churchill (1965). In 2002 the hall was used for the lying in state of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, and in 2022 the hall was used for the lying in state of Queen Elizabeth II.
The two Houses have presented ceremonial Addresses to the Crown in Westminster Hall on important public occasions. For example, Addresses were presented at Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee (1977), Golden Jubilee (2002) and Diamond Jubilee (2012), the Accession of Charles III (2022), the 300th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution (1988), and the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War (1995).
It is considered a rare privilege for a foreign leader to be invited to address both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall. Since the Second World War, the only leaders to have done so have been French president Charles de Gaulle in 1960, South African president Nelson Mandela in 1996, Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, U.S. president Barack Obama in 2011 and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012.
President Obama was the first US president to be invited to use the Hall for an address to Parliament and Aung San Suu Kyi was the first non-head of state to be given the accolade of addressing MPs and peers in Westminster Hall.