Later law courts

Work of art showing William Kent designed Gothic screen and partitions which were erected in 1739 when the Law Courts were sitting at the south end of the Hall

As the King's throne remained permanently in Westminster Hall, it emphasised the source of the courts' authority, especially in the case of the King's Bench.

Work of art showing the William Kent Gothic screen in Westminster Hall

King's Bench

Edward IV and Richard III both made a point of hearing cases in the King's Bench, to revive the symbolism of the monarch as righteous judge, but they were the last monarchs to do so.

It was also considered desirable for the courts to sit in the most public and accessible part of the Palace.

Filling the Hall

Thus, for nearly seven centuries, the courts filled the Hall with life during term time with lawyers, litigants, spectators and the infamous 'men of straw', who wore a straw in their shoes to indicate willingness to provide false evidence for a fee.

Various legal customs were associated with the Hall. On the first day of term, the Lord Chancellor and the judges rode in procession to the Hall (until Mary's reign on mules and thereafter on horseback). This tradition, however, was discontinued in the 1660s.

The Lord Chancellor passed down the Hall to his Court, and bowed to the justices of Common Pleas and the King's Bench. In medieval and in later times, penances were also occasionally performed in the Hall.

In 1739, the old boarded enclosures of King's Bench and Chancery were replaced by a Gothic screen designed by William Kent; in 1740-41, Common Pleas obtained a new courtroom just outside the Hall to the west, while the screen was doubled in height and the courts were roofed over.

Seven new courts

Between 1822 and 1827, John Soane constructed seven new courts and other accommodation between Westminster Hall and St Margaret's Street.

The Hall continued to be a sort of ante-chamber, where lawyers would pace up and down with their clients or kill time between appearances.

New law courts

When Soane's accommodation proved too small, new law courts were consequently built in the Strand. These were completed in 1882, and the lawyers departed from Westminster Hall after using it for 700 years.

The one reminder of their presence is the Lord Chancellor's procession and breakfast in October each year.

Biographies

You can access biographies of

Edward IV
Richard III
John Soane

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.

Did you know?

The Czar of Russia, Peter the Great, was taken into the Hall when the Courts were in session, and was much amused to see what he described as €˜busy people with long black gowns and wigs with tails€™.

Upon hearing that they were lawyers, he replied that he only had two such men in all his dominions, and he would probably hang one of them when he got home.