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All Change at the Palace of Westminster

By Jacqueline Riding
The Great Hall

Image of the Norman Great Hall at Westminister
The Norman Great Hall at Westminster ©
The first major change to the Palace after the Norman invasion was the building of a new, magnificent hall between 1097 and 1099 by the second son of William the Conqueror, William II (known as Rufus).

The Great Hall was an important element and focus of any noble residence. But Rufus’s Hall was larger than any comparable building in England at that time. Rufus’s plans were so grandiose that, due to its length, the new hall had to stand parallel to the banks of the Thames in order to fit on the narrow, isolated plot of land upon which the palace stood.

'The 11th-century Great Hall was retained and remodelled by Richard II in the late 14th century ...'

Intriguingly, it has been recorded that Rufus intended to create a much larger hall - the king allegedly commenting that it was ‘... a mere bedchamber compared with what I had intended to build'. Even so, as built the Hall stood a mighty 240ft long, 67½ ft wide and with walls 40ft high and over 6½ ft thick.

On one level it was built to accommodate the large numbers of people who would gather for royal occasions. On another, it satisfied Rufus’s intention to create a sense of awe – both of his vision as an architectural patron and, by extension, of himself.

The 11th-century Great Hall was retained and remodelled by Richard II in the late 14th century (and to a much lesser extent by Sir Charles Barry in the 19th), and therefore, although visitors to Westminster Hall today are no longer able to see the original internal and external decorations, they can at least get a sense of the extraordinary dimensions of Rufus’s hall.

The first reference to an entertainment being held at Great Hall was by Rufus, at Whitsun, in 1099, and indeed its main function throughout the Middle Ages was as a place for feasting. Occasions as varied as the gathering of the King’s Council, or the visit by the king and queen of Scotland in 1260, were accompanied by a banquet in the Great Hall.

'... whilst Westminster was pre-eminent in architectural terms, its practical role in affairs of state was only evident when the king was in residence.'

A more unusual event occurred in 1237 when Henry III commanded the Treasurer ‘to fill the King’s Great Hall from Christmas Day to the Day of the Circumcision (1 January) with poor people, and feed them there'. The grandest of these entertainments was the coronation banquet, a lavish affair occurring after the coronation ceremony in the adjoining abbey, of which the first recorded was that of Richard I, in 1189.

But whilst Westminster was pre-eminent in architectural terms, its practical role in affairs of state was only evident when the king was in residence. The monarchy was still itinerant, and the crown’s continuing authority relied on the king being seen in all corners of the realm. As a result, under the Normans, the court and mechanisms of government assembled wherever he was.

As the king was on an almost perpetual progress around the kingdom, no one individual royal palace was more significant than another in regard to government. The only department with a fixed location was the Treasury, and that was still based at Winchester.

Published: 2005-02-02



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