A Christmas Feast at Westminster Hall

In the year that William Langland made the first mention of ‘rymes of Robyn hode’ in English literature, (1377) the ten year old Richard II ascended the English throne. The grandest and most famous of young Richard’s commissions was the rebuilding of Westminster Hall. The 11th century original, built for William Rufus-son of William the Conqueror, had been the largest hall in Europe. With a floor size of about 1850 square yards the Hall was the traditional venue for coronation banquets. It had also been the scene of the trial of William Wallace and the historic assembly of Henry III’s barons and bishops in 1265 when England’s first parliament was called.

The mason/architect of the re-building, Henry Yevele, reused much of the original masonry and was responsible for the gable walls, with their vast windows which provided the only source of external light. But it was the royal carpenter, Hugh Herland’s fine timbered roof, unsupported by pillars, that became an architectural masterpiece. The early wooden one, like the roofs of other vast halls, had been supported by twin arcades of columns. Herland boldly dispensed with the supportive arcades and covered the vast span of the hall with the present magnificent, braced hammerbeam roof. This largest medieval unsupported timber roof can still be seen today.

An account survives of the first banquet at Westminster Hall held after the re-building work was finished:

“This hall being finished in the year 1399, the same King [Henry IV] kept a most royal Christmas there, with daily jousting, and runnings at tilt, whereunto resorted such a number of people that there was every day spent twenty-eight or twenty-six oxen, and three hundred sheep, besides fowl without number: he caused a gown for himself to be made of gold, garnished with pearl and precious stones, to the value of 3000 marks: he was guarded by Cheshire men, and had about him commonly thirteen bishops, besides barons, knights, squires and other more than needed: insomuch, that to the household came every day to meat 10,000 people, as appeareth by the messes told out from the Kitchen to 300 servitors.”

Stow’s Survey of London (ed. Kingsford), II, 116.

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