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Westminster Hall ;

We all know about Westminster Abbey – what about Westminster Hall?

King Charles III Coronation: A new chapter in British history
Dr David J Crankshaw

Lecturer in the History of Early Modern Christianity

27 April 2023

Poor Westminster Hall!

Queen Elizabeth II Lying In State Westminster Hall
The Lying-in-State of the late Queen Elizabeth II took place in Westminster Hall in 2022. (Howard Cheng/Shutterstock)

Nowadays we perhaps think of it most readily in connection with the ends of reigns – with the lying-in-state of sovereigns from Edward VII in 1910 (the first) to Elizabeth II in 2022, though it is sometimes used similarly for commoners (such as Sir Winston Churchill in 1965) and when distinguished visitors to the UK address both Houses of Parliament, examples being Nelson Mandela in 1996 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.

Otherwise, it is a vast awe-inspiring emptiness through which members of the public access parts of the Palace of Westminster beneath the building's glory: the largest medieval timber roof in northern Europe, commissioned by Richard II in 1393.

I say 'poor Westminster Hall' because it once had a starring role near the beginnings of reigns, in Coronations, and in much besides – roles easily forgotten today. There it was, for instance, that Sir Thomas More was tried in 1535 and Charles I in 1649. That was because, for centuries before the opening of the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, certain of the central law courts – Common Pleas, King's Bench and Chancery – occupied portions of the interior. But to concentrate on Coronations, for which the law courts were briefly dismantled: the Hall conventionally came into play both before and after the momentous events occurring inside Westminster Abbey.

Illustration of Westminster Hall
An illustration of Westminster Hall.

Beforehand, during the Middle Ages and for at least some of the early modern period, it witnessed a secular inauguration ritual, a sign of the Anglo-Saxon elective tradition before primogeniture (the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child, males given preference over females) became the norm. Back then, the sovereign was elected by the magnates and placed in the built-in ancient marble throne ('The King's Bench') situated up a short flight of steps in the centre at the south end. He/she was invested with a sceptre from his/her personal set of regalia as symbol of taking possession of the realm. Incidentally, that throne was the throne of England – far more important than any throne elsewhere; it was demolished in 1661.

Having been enthroned, the sovereign distributed the Coronation regalia to the noblemen and bishops who were to bear the objects into the Abbey. The procession then formed up inside the Hall and slowly moved off through the great door on the northern side. It went along a raised, cloth-covered walkway that had been erected between Westminster Hall and Westminster Abbey. The Monarch processed under a canopy carried by selected barons of the Cinque Ports; the Cinque Ports is a medieval confederation (originally comprising Dover, Hastings, Hythe, New Romney and Sandwich) that has lasted into the 21st Century.

Several observers of the procession of George IV in 1821 were much struck by the King's herb-woman and her six youthful lady assistants, who strewed flowers before the royal canopy as it advanced. Onlookers were further alerted to the sovereign's imminent arrival by bell-ringing, for there was a little bell mounted towards the top of each of the staves supporting the canopy.

Westminster Hall
The exterior of Westminster Hall today.

At the close of a Coronation service, and in preparation for the ceremonial exit from Westminster Abbey, the sovereign would privately exchange the heavy St Edward's Crown (if that had been used) for the lighter Imperial State Crown.

Up to and including George IV's Coronation in 1821, the procession wound its way back by the same route into Westminster Hall for a banquet. The Monarch once again sat on the marble throne, in front of which stood a long marble table, sadly also destroyed in 1661. Between 1661 and 1821, therefore, a portable throne and dining table were placed temporarily on the raised platform at the Hall's southern end.

Illustrations indicate that, perpendicular to this platform, and running down the length of the Hall, was one wide table on either side of a broad central aisle. Specially constructed tiered galleries lined the Hall’s long walls, so that (presumably famished) non-dining guests could look down, no doubt enviously, upon the diners – a curious arrangement!

As food history has become a very active field of research, scholars are particularly interested in Coronation fare. We know a lot about the three-course meal provided after Henry VI's Coronation in 1429. For the most part, the menu offered the standard 15th Century range of meat, fish and fowl, including beef, boar, venison, carp, crab, pike, chicken, crane and swan. Out of the ordinary, however, were the 'subtleties' – elaborate confections deploying heraldic emblems, geometric shapes and, in some cases, gold – that came with sophisticated verses composed by the poet John Lydgate. During the banquet, the Champion – by hereditary right, the head of the Dymoke family – rode into the Hall's central aisle and dramatically threw down the gauntlet, declaring his willingness to fight anyone who denied the Monarch's title to the crown.

Buckingham Palace
His Majesty King Charles III is expected to host his Coronation banquet at Buckingham Palace.

In 1821, the highlight, for some, lay in the fact that Mr Dymoke was accompanied by the Duke of Wellington, the victor of the recent Battle of Waterloo, on horseback too. The exorbitant cost of George IV's Coronation meant the end of several venerable customs; the Westminster Hall banquet was one casualty. After William IV's comparatively modest Coronation in 1831, just 100 guests were entertained to dinner at St James's Palace. There was a Buckingham Palace banquet following Elizabeth II's Coronation in 1953. One can expect the same thing to happen next month.

In this story

David Crankshaw

David Crankshaw

Lecturer in the History of Early Modern Christianity

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