- Original design
- Henry Yevele, 1380
The 2018 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2019 programme mid-August.
Westminster Hall is the oldest building in Parliament and almost the only part of the ancient Palace of Westminster which survives in almost its original form. It is occasionally used by a variety of prominent figures to give speeches. These have included President Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has addressed both Houses here.
The Hall was built in 1097 under William II (Rufus), the son of William the Conqueror, and was completed two years later. He had conceived the project to impress his new subjects with his power and the majesty of his authority. 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.
But the Hall was indeed by far the largest hall in England, and probably in Europe at that time. Measuring 73 by 20 metres (240 by 67 feet), it had a floor area covering 1,547 square metres (about 17,000 square feet), with a length of almost four cricket pitches end-to-end. Indeed, the Hall was so large that other halls were needed at Westminster for normal use, and the royal household usually ate in a smaller hall nearby.
The great mystery about the Hall is the form of its original roof. Not until the 13th or 14th century could carpenters create roofs significantly wider than the length of the available timber, and so it was assumed that a single or double row of columns was needed to support the Hall's roof. However, recent archaeological explorations found no evidence of these, and that the roof may have been self-supporting from the beginning.
The Hall was enclosed with stone walls fully two metres, or six feet thick; these largely remain today, though heightened and refaced.
Inside the Hall was an arcade with large arches and windows and a wall passage around all four sides. Above the windows was a chequer-work pattern of light and dark stones. The inside walls were plastered and painted, and decorative hangings were draped from the arcade.
Pieces of the medieval King's High Table, hidden for more than 300 years, were discovered when archaeologists working in Westminster Hall unearthed a rare find. A renovation project in 2006, which set out to level eight of the massive flight of stone steps across the south end of the hall, led to the archaeological dig. Beneath the steps, fragments of the King's Table – a symbol of royal authority and the power of law – were discovered.
Like the crown, the King's Table represented royal might, and was used by the Kings and Queens of England for more than 300 years. Among the 17 monarchs who used the table were King Henry V, King Richard III, King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I.
At this table the King or Queen took possession of their kingdom and were acclaimed by the lords before their Coronation in Westminster Abbey. The monarch was presented with the crown, sceptres and other symbols of royal power. The lavish coronation breakfasts and banquets were served to the King or Queen at the table. The early forms of English law were laid down by the judges, and from here the rule of law spread throughout the world.
The magnificent hammer-beam roof of Westminster Hall is the largest medieval timber roof in Northern Europe. Measuring 20.7 by 73.2 metres (68 by 240 feet), the roof was commissioned in 1393 by Richard II, and is a masterpiece of design.
The work was largely undertaken by the King's chief mason Henry Yevele and the carpenter Hugh Herland. Yevele had been involved in nearly all the great building projects of the late 14th century, such as the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral. He also built the Jewel Tower in 1365-66.
In redesigning the roof, Herland fashioned great oak beams to serve as horizontal supports fixed to the walls (which Yevele strengthened by massive buttresses). Wooden arches joined to the top of these beams met centrally in a span of 18 metres (60 feet) or more.
Onto these arches the craftsmen built the slopes of the roof, with its weight borne by the hammer-beams supported in their turn by the buttressed walls.
The construction of the roof was an exceedingly complex and dangerous operation, given the size and weight of the timber and the great heights they had to be lifted to (about 28 metres, or 92 feet). But the result, as we see it after nearly 600 years, is a vast, clear space unobstructed by a single column. The roof's timberwork was entirely framed near Farnham in Surrey. A large number of wagons and barges delivered the jointed timbers to Westminster, weighing some 660 tons, for assembly. The money for this project was raised by compelling those who had fled or been banished from the country, and wished to return to their native soil, to purchase a licence for that purpose for a considerable sum.
Two great lanterns on the ridge of the roof (to let smoke out and light and air in) were completed in 1397-98. The process of finishing the roof, including the decorative tracery, took somewhat longer, and was not quite complete when work stopped in 1401.
Outside, the roof was covered with lead, weighing about 176 tons.
Besides commissioning a new roof for Westminster Hall, King Richard II (1377-99) was also responsible for several other embellishments. Many of these emphasised the sacred character of his kingship.
The King's personal emblem, the white hart, was repeated along the Hall's string course, and the roof was decorated with 26 angels carved out of solid beam. They bore shields carved with the royal arms of the period: the fleur-de-lys of France quartered with the three lions, or leopards, of England. In 1385, 13 statues of Reigate stone representing each king from Edward the Confessor to Richard himself were commissioned for the Hall, and six of them were placed on the south wall. In the 1390s, the statues were placed into individual niches, where they have remained ever since.
The Kings' crowns were gilded and their robes were painted red and green. The intention was probably that the figures should resemble an altarpiece, thereby emphasising the quasi-divine status of the King seated on his throne below. Five more statues in poorer condition, originally from the north front, can now be seen on window sills inside the Hall. The King also commissioned new corbels for the south window (which depicted his white hart). It is also possible that the floor of Purbeck stone (later discovered by 19th century restorers) was laid around this time.
The intensive use of the King's emblems in a royal building was unprecedented, and must have been approved by him. The walls of the Hall were heightened, re-faced and buttressed, while large windows with decorative tracery replaced the old openings, and a porch and two flanking towers were built at the north end.
By a strange twist of fate, the first event in the remodelled Hall was Richard II's own deposition on 30 September 1399.
Major restorations were made to Westminster Hall from the 1740s onwards, revealing much about changes in attitudes to historic buildings. For most of the 1740s, the hall's hammer-beams were supported by props because of the poor state of the roof.
No repairs were made until someone decided to sell the lead from the roof to defray the cost of the work and replace it with Westmorland slates. To the Treasury's dismay, removing the lead revealed such extensive decay that the repairs cost nearly twice as much as estimated. The Hall has been roofed with slate ever since.
In 1818, John Soane declared the north façade to be in a dangerous state of dilapidation and completely rebuilt it between 1819 and 1822. He was nevertheless instructed to adhere strictly to the original style of architecture wherever practicable, indicating the reverence already felt for the Hall. Between 1834 and 1837, Sir Robert Smirke removed the wall refacings inside the Hall and substituted a layer of Huddlestone stone which forms the facing today.
He also lowered the floor to the level of a Purbeck stone floor (discovered by excavation and believed to be of Richard II's time), and laid the present York stone paving. During these works, on 16 October 1834, the Hall survived one of the greatest threats it had ever faced, when a fire broke out in the Palace of Westminster. Two underfloor stoves used to destroy the Exchequer's stockpile of tally sticks had ignited panelling in the Lords Chamber.
When the fire engines arrived, the House of Lords was already destroyed and the Commons was ablaze. By then, the flames had also spread close to the wooden roof of Westminster Hall.
The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, quickly directed efforts to douse the roof with water, which saved the Hall although much of the rest of the Palace was lost. The fire fighters in the Hall were aided by scaffolding which had been erected for repairs, the thickness of the medieval walls and a slight but sufficient change in the direction of the wind during the night.
When the Palace was rebuilt after the fire of 1834, Westminster Hall was regarded by the architect Charles Barry as part of his greater design for the Palace.
In about 1850, he replaced the Hall's great south window with the present stairs and arch while moving this end of the Hall several yards further back, as part of the entrance to his new St Stephen's Hall. He also reconstructed the niches for the statues of the kings on the south wall. The changes introduced by Barry nevertheless altered the historic character of the Hall – from a large enclosed room to what was effectively a corridor (though a grand one) leading elsewhere. They were also somewhat ineffectual, because the Hall did not form the approach to the rest of the building as Barry originally intended, either for Members or the public, until very recently.
Several other reconstruction projects took place after Barry's time. In 1883, J L Pearson rebuilt the flying buttresses on the west side of the hall due to their bad condition, and repairs were also undertaken following a Fenian attack in 1885 which damaged an area by the Undercroft Chapel's stairs.
In 1913, an inspection of the Hall's roof beams revealed that they were seriously affected by death-watch beetle, so much so that four out of the thirteen trusses were in danger of collapse. The wall-posts were almost all useless and some cavities were so excavated by beetles that a full-grown man could lie in them completely hidden from sight.
Extensive repairs were carried out to the Hall's roof by Frank Baines in 1914-23. The entire roof was reinforced by concealed steelwork, and the decayed portions replaced with new oak from Wadhurst in Kent. Baines sought to preserve as much as possible of the original timber (less than 10 per cent was replaced), and even its unique golden-brown colour, which he identified as the result of a harmless fungus.
But he did not manage to eliminate the beetle completely; nor was it achieved in 1971 with canisters of pesticide in the form of smoke.
Having survived fire and death-watch beetles, the Hall's next enemy was incendiary bombs during the Second World War. The worst attack was on the night of 10 May 1941, when the Commons Chamber and Westminster Hall were both hit by bombs. The Chamber rapidly became an inferno, while flames began to spread to the hammer-beams of the Hall. The Hall was saved by the decisiveness of Walter Elliot, a former Cabinet minister, who had hurried over from his nearby home. He was told by the Fire Service that it would be impossible to save both the Hall and the Chamber – it had to be one or the other. He had no hesitation in advising them to concentrate on saving the medieval Hall.
After all, as he remarked to a friend years later, they could always build a new Commons Chamber, while the Hall was irreplaceable.
Not content with merely giving advice, Elliot personally smashed with an axe an opening through the locked doors of the Hall, so that hoses could be brought inside to play on the burning roof. The Hall was soon out of danger, but the Commons was reduced to ashes and rubble.
The south window of the Hall, built by Charles Barry, had been destroyed in an earlier raid in 1940. The new window now contains the coats-of-arm or monograms of the members and servants of both Houses who fell during the war, and below the window is a memorial to those who were killed during the First and Second World Wars. Another programme of repair in 1949-50 resulted in the replacement of another five per cent of the roof's timber, and the six statues of kings were conserved between 1988 and 1994.
A new phase of repairs to the Hall's floor and steps took place in 2005-06.