23rd August 1305. Westminster Hall and Justice.
‘Men of Straw’ put straw in their shoes to advertise the fact that false evidence would be given for a fee.
Until the reign of Henry II (1154-89) Law Courts followed the king as he moved round his realm, but then a Royal Ordinance, for the convenience of litigants, by 1178, placed five judges in a central place.
When the walls of Westminster Hall were first built supervised by Ranulph Flambard a financial administrator under William Rufus, it was one of the biggest halls in Europe and the site of the Royal Throne.
It is 240ft long and 67ft wide and a reminder of wealth and ambition of Norman kings.(1)
Becoming the centre for the judiciary, the Hall saw many major trials as Today in 1305 when William Wallace was convicted, later to be put to death at Smithfield.(2)
Fifteen years later an Inventory for 1320 shows that judges sat on raised benches of 8m (27 ft) with senior clerks at their feet. A bar of oak-thus barristers- defined each court with benches-judge sit on ‘benches’ today- within for litigants.
Back in 1215 Magna Carta stipulated that the Court of Common Pleas (for Civil Cases) separate from The Curia Regis, and be held in one place, usually Westminster Hall, along with the King’s Bench for criminal cases.
King’s Bench used the south end of the Hall with the King when officiating sitting on a marble chair. Common Pleas was near the chief (north) door.
In the late 15thc Edward IV and Richard III were keen to hear cases in King’s Bench with Chancery becoming a separate court where the Lord Chancellor provided redress under the Common Law. Both Courts were established in opposite corners of the south end of the Hall with the Court of Exchequer adjoining.
By the 18thc some kind of enclosure for the courts were deemed necessary when William Kent in 1739 designed a pair of Gothic Law Courts within the Hall and the old board structures of King’s Bench and Chancery was replaced by a screen.
In the 1820.s Sir John Soane built seven new courts between the buttresses on the West Side of Westminster Hall, which with the Crypt and some Tudor buildings, were some of the few structures to survive the 1834 fire which destroyed parliament.
When the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand were opened in 1882 Westminster Hall was cleared of all legal clutter to become the wide open space of today.
(1) It was made even more impressive between 1394 and 1401 when Richard II commissioned his master builder Henry Yevele to remodel the hall and ordered the royal carpenter Hugo Harland (or Herland), to span it with the first Hammer Beam Roof in England.
Yevele was also responsible for the nave of Westminster Abbey.
It covered the hall in a single leap allowing three aisles to be replaced by a single open space with a dais at the end for Richard who had fifteen life-sized statues of kings placed in niches in the walls.
(2) He became the first to be Hanged Drawn and Quartered at Smithfield.
parliament.uk/living-heritage.Pic of Kent’s Screen.
8late.wordpress.com/Pic of Soane’s Courts.