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18 September 2014
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All Change at the Palace of Westminster

By Jacqueline Riding
Show trials

Image of a drawing of New Palace Yard at Westminister
Joshua Bryant's depiction of New Palace Yard, Westminster  ©
Prior to the end of the 12th century, royal justice was administered, as with all mechanisms of government, where the king was. However, a series of reforms culminated in the signing of the Magna Carta, where it was decreed that common pleas should be heard in a fixed place. And that place was invariably Westminster Hall.

By the late 15th century, the main Courts of Law as they were now known - Kings Bench, the Court of Chancery and the Court of Commons Pleas - were all housed in Great Hall at Westminster whilst the Exchequer had been relocated to a building adjoining the Hall, thus increasing Westminster’s status as the centre of government.

'Such trials were concerned with matters of national importance such as treason.'

Indeed, the Courts of Law remained within the Hall and its environs until the late 19th century when they were removed to their new Gothic buildings in the Strand. By the end of the 18th century, in addition to the courts themselves, the interior of the Hall was populated by book and wig stalls and the exterior obscured by the surrounding ramshackle collection of buildings, including taverns and coffee houses. In the early 19th century, as part of the restoration of the Hall, the courts were re-housed in a new building adjoining the Hall, designed by Sir John Soane.

In addition to regular courts, it was within Westminster Hall that state trials were staged. Such trials were concerned with matters of national importance such as treason. At such trials, the interior of the Hall tended to be cleared to allow for temporary seating and perhaps to create a greater sense of occasion and import. Some of the most dramatic events in British history were played out here.

'... the most extraordinary trial was that of Charles I in 1649 ...'

William Wallace, after successfully challenging Edward I, was tried at Westminster Hall in 1305 and immediately taken to Smithfield, where he was hideously executed. Having failed to blow up James I - and Parliament with him - Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were tried in the Hall in 1606, and having been found guilty, were executed in Old Palace Yard.

But perhaps the most extraordinary trial was that of Charles I in 1649, who after the Civil War was charged as ‘a tyrant, traitor and murderer, and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth of England'. Never before had a king been tried and condemned whilst still king, and indeed no court had authority over him.

However, Charles was found guilty, and on 30 January 1649 was beheaded outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall. The last major trial was the impeachment of Lord Melville in 1806.

Published: 2005-02-02

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