Early state trials

Westminster Hall has been for centuries the setting for some of the greatest state trials in English (and British) history.

Many medieval trials

Many medieval state trials took place in the House of Lords, and it was perhaps the desire for greater publicity which later made Westminster Hall the usual setting.

These trials in the Hall often took place before the Court of King's Bench. Stands were erected for spectators, but even then the number able to see or hear the proceedings must have been small and most people in the Hall would have relied on information being passed back by word of mouth.

Two sorts of trials commonly took place in the Hall: impeachments, in which the Commons acted as prosecutors and the Lords as judges, and trials of peers by other members of the House of Lords.

Thomas Turberville

The first special commission which sat in the Hall (on the dais) sentenced Thomas Turberville to death in 1295 for spying against the French.

William Wallace

A much more famous trial, in 1305, was that of William Wallace who had led the Scottish resistance to Edward I of England from 1297 until his capture. During his trial, he sat on a bench at the south end of the Hall, wearing a crown of laurels.

His defence was that he could not have been a traitor to Edward I since he had never sworn personal allegiance to him. However in most treason trials, the verdict and sentence of death were never in doubt.

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More's trial took place in 1535; like anyone tried for treason at that time, he had no copy of the indictment, no witnesses of his own and no counsel.

Other notable trials of the 16th century included those of John Cardinal Fisher (1535), the Protector Somerset (1551) and Edmund Campion and other Jesuits (1581).

Biographies

You can access biographies of

Thomas Turberville
William Wallace
Sir Thomas More

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.

Also within Living Heritage