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Thursday, 4 April, 2002, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK
Westminster Hall: Cradle of Parliament
Centre of the national stage: Westminster Hall
Westminster Hall, where the Queen Mother will lie in state, has enjoyed a 900-year history filled with political intrigue and drama. BBC News Online looks at one of the most significant buildings in Britain.

Lying in the heart of London, Westminster is the spiritual, judicial and political centre of the nation.

Traffic queues and tourists mean that the poet William Wordsworth's lyrical description of "A sight so touching in its majesty: This City now doth, like a garment, wear, the beauty of the morning, silent, bare," may not ring as true today as when he penned it in 1807.

But, even so, there is no doubting that with Westminster Abbey, Whitehall and Downing Street, it is still an impressive sight.


George VI lies in state in 1952
George VI lies in state in 1952

The public will be able to pay their respects to the Queen Mother by entering Westminster Hall between Friday afternoon and Monday evening.


But Westminster Hall, stark and austere beside the Gothic excess that characterises Sir Charles Barry's Houses of Parliament, wears its history lightly. And what a history it is.

Built by William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, and first opened in 1099, it is the only remaining part of the ancient Palace of Westminster.

More than 300 feet long, 68 feet wide and 92 feet high, the hall was, for a time, the largest in Europe and was initially used for feasting and entertaining. Its proximity to the royal palace invested the building with more than purely functional significance.

The hall has often been the pivotal point of conflict between legislature and sovereign. Simon de Monfort's parliament of 1265, the first to represent commoners as well as barons, was held there briefly.

Though de Montfort was killed and dismembered by royalists at the battle of Evesham later that year, the idea of a House of Commons, which he established, flourished.

Richard II, subsequently deposed and murdered - the first casualty of the Wars of the Roses - added the hammer-beam roof in 1394.

King Charles I
Charles I was tried in the hall in 1649
The Gunpowder Plot conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, were tried and condemned there in 1603 and the state trial of Charles I, which ended with his execution, was held there in 1649. Indeed, the Royal Courts of Justice were based in the building until 1882.

But the hall's history is not all so dramatic. From the reign of Edward III to the beginning of the 19th century it was also used as a one of London's most popular market places.

Judges from the King's Bench and Chancery found themselves cheek by jowl with shops and stalls selling legal stationery, haberdashery and toys. The hall even boasted two coffee houses and a pub.

And monarchs from King Stephen in 1135 to George IV in 1821 held their Coronation Banquets there, the final one being so extravagant and riotous that subsequent monarchs abandoned them.

Sir Winston Churchill making a V-sign
Sir Winston Churchill lay in state in Westminster Hall
The tradition of using the hall for lying-in-state is a relatively recent one which began with the former Liberal prime minister, William Gladstone, in 1898, followed by King Edward VII in 1910.

Most recently, Sir Winston Churchill's coffin rested there prior to his state funeral in January 1965.

It is entirely fitting, then, that this most historic of all buildings should play its part in the final journey of one of the best-loved of all Britons.


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