Parliament in a portacabin: the routine maintenance of Westminster Hall in the Middle Ages

During the summer recess staff at Parliament take the opportunity to undertake repair work on the Palace. This is a practice that was undertaken throughout the ages, as Dr Hannes Kleineke, Senior Research Fellow on the Commons 1422-1504 section, discusses…

Complaints over the length of the parliamentary summer recess (much like teachers’ summer holidays) are a time-honoured staple of the political commentariate struggling to fill the summer hole with anything more exciting than a couple of party leadership elections. Nevertheless, the temporary absence of the Lords and Commons does provide an opportunity for the long-suffering support staff of Parliament to make at least minor repairs to the fabric, fixtures and fittings of the Palace of Westminster. Those charged with this task in the summer of 2015 may take some comfort, however limited, from the knowledge that they are following in the footsteps of generations of others faced with similar chores, dating all the way back to the early centuries of Parliament.

In the later middle ages, care for the chambers of the lords and commons and their preparation for the sessions fell to their porters (or ushers). While these men were Crown servants of considerable status, who clearly carried out their duties by using a staff of menials, the tasks they oversaw included the routine (such as the provision of fresh straw on the stone floor of the chambers) as well as the whimsical (like a chair for the king to sit in, which was required in the absence of a throne for Parliament’s meeting at Leicester in 1450).

While not a normal meeting place of the medieval parliament, William Rufus’s great hall, today very much an integral part of the post-1834 Palace of Westminster, deserves a mention here. In the middle ages, the hall provided the venue for three of the principal law courts of England – the courts of King’s bench, common pleas, and Chancery, which sat in wooden structures partitioned off the main hall. The care of these structures and their furnishings was the responsibility of the undersheriff of Middlesex, an officer who in the fifteenth century was usually drawn from the ranks of the clerks of one of the benches. The works he carried out were funded from some of the fines imposed by the justices, and the undersheriff in his turn compiled short accounts detailing them.

Wear and tear was considerable in the courts. In the summer of 1459, as on an almost annual basis, the undersheriff accounted for the ‘mendynge and ioynynge togedir of the bordis of the … Kynges bench’, as well as the cleaning of the courts. New benches and tables for the justices and clerks of the courts had to be procured on a regular basis, and the cushions for the justices’ comfort were also renewed from time to time. Routine consumables included, apart from candles and ink, the matting that covered the stone floor, which had to be replaced on a quarterly basis at a not inconsiderable cost of about 2s. per term. The various cloths that covered some of the furnishings and stonework around the courts suffered both from wear and from the smoke of the candles and torches used for lighting the courts. They periodically had to be repaired, and more frequently laundered, a task which in 1466 provided a modest additional income for the cryer of the King’s bench.

On occasion, the fabric of the building itself required attention. In 1504 the stairs between the King’s bench and the court of Chancery had to be repaired; in 1605 various workmen were paid for brickwork, making windows and carrying away rubbish; while a year later exceptional expenditure was incurred for the repair of both the ‘great window’ and a further window on the south side of the hall.

Not all of these works could wait until the law courts were out of session. In 1499 Undersheriff Richard Coton not only had to pay five carpenters for working after noon and at night, but also had to find 6d. for the keeper of the hall to let them in after dark.

The story of the annual refurbishment of the Westminster law courts and their surroundings has a footnote that resonates in the light of the major works that the present Palace of Westminster needs to undergo in the near future. In the 1390s, Richard II ordered a complete remodelling of Westminster Hall, covering up some of the surviving Norman features in the masonry, and installing the splendid hammer-beam roof that forms one of the hall’s most striking features to the present day. This, of course, meant that the hall was unavailable for use when Richard’s final Parliament (not counting the aborted assembly of 1399) gathered at Westminster in September 1397. While the lords and commons might have met in their normal meeting places, a bigger venue was needed for the state trial of the earl of Arundel. To overcome this problem, a ‘longe and large house of tymbur…that wasse called an hall, keuerde with tiles and open atte bothe sidez and atte the endez’ was constructed in the courtyard between the north end of the Great Hall and Edward III’s clock tower, and it was here that the earl was tried.

According to several chronicle accounts, King Richard, himself seated on an elevated throne, had deliberately left the sides of the building open to provide a clear field for the Cheshire archers with whom he had surrounded the structure. Intended as a hardly veiled threat to anybody who should defy the royal will, the archers nearly caused an unplanned bloodbath (with the monarch caught up in the middle of it) when they wrongly assumed that a quarrel had broken out in the assembly, and began to prepare to shoot. Only the King’s hurried personal intervention prevented a further escalation.

In spite of the inauspicious nature of the precedent of 1397, the special construction of a temporary building to house parliament was a device to which Henry V took recourse at Leicester in 1414 (when the buildings of the Franciscan friary were evidently found wanting).

HK

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