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All Change at the Palace of Westminster

By Jacqueline Riding
A symbol of good kingship

Image of a line drawing of the New Palace Yard at Westminister
New Palace Yard at Westminster in 1647  ©
Throughout the 14th century the privy (or royal) residence aswell as the public parts of the Palace of Westminster, now called the Great Palace, continued to develop.

In addition to his patronage of St Stephen’s Chapel, Edward III built a high clock tower in the courtyard to the north of the Great Hall - now known as New Palace Yard - near to where the modern-day clock tower now stands, housing the great bell, Big Ben. He also built the Jewel Tower located at the south-west corner of the palace, which still exists today although separated from the new palace by Abingdon Street and Old Palace Yard.

By the reign of Edward’s grandson, Richard II, the palace, and particularly the Great Hall at Westminster, was established at the heart of English secular and, to an extent, ceremonial life. In an old manuscript entitled 'The Ancient Form of the Coronation of the Kings and Queens of England' it was stated that:

The king to be newly crowned, the day before his coronation, shall be brought forth in royal robes, and shall ride from the Tower of London to his Palace of Westminster with his head uncovered, being accompanied on horseback by his temporal lords, his nobles, the commons of London, and other his servants.

According to the 19th-century antiquarian AJ Kempe, Richard II, having arrived in the Great Hall:

then departed with his nobles and his household into his chamber and having supped in state, and undergone the accustomed formality of bathing, he retired to rest.

The following day, prior to his short journey to Westminster Abbey, the king sat in state, enthroned on a dais, in Great Hall, and after the ceremony, returned there for a coronation banquet, and entertainments - which may have included tournaments.

'Richard’s remodelling of the Hall was an attempt to visualise his belief in his divinely-appointed position ...'

Richard’s extensive remodelling of the Great Hall was an attempt to visualise his belief both in his divinely-appointed position and in his unquestionable authority within the kingdom, after successive personal humiliations at the hands of his opponents. His remodelling included the magnificent 'hammer-beam' roof, a feat of medieval design and craftsmanship, which spanned the extraordinary vastness of Rufus’s Hall.

A carved angel holding a shield with the king’s personal coat of arms impaled (or joined) with that of the Confessor terminated each hammer-beam. This was clearly intended to represent the divine nature of Richard’s office, and to stress his affinity with a monarch renowned for his piety and good kingship.

Below the roof, the interior was richly and emphatically decorated with Richard’s personal emblems, particularly the White Hart. To complete the scheme, a series of life-size, colourful statues of kings (possibly representative of the royal line from the Confessor) was commissioned.

It was probably Richard’s intention to appear enthroned beneath these statues as the living embodiment of the lawful succession. This outward show was to fail in its intent, when Richard was deposed and killed, in 1400. But his patronage at Westminster reveals the significance and resonance of architecture as an expression of ideas, ideals and kingly magnificence.

Ironically, Richard’s deposition was announced to an assembly in Westminster Hall. It is also recorded that Richard’s cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who subsequently reigned as Henry IV, symbolically assumed the throne in Great Hall after the announcement of Richard’s deposition. After centuries of hereditary monarchy, parliament had effectively elected a king.

Published: 2005-02-02



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