Guildhall has been part of London’s history since it was first alluded to in the writings of the chronicler Gerald of Wales in the mid-twelfth century. The Guildhall that can be seen today, however, is mostly composed of rebuilt sections and extended wings. It is unknown exactly when the original Guildhall was built, but from 1411 to around 1440 London’s Guildhall underwent a makeover that transformed it from what was supposedly a “little cottage” into a “great house,” as described by Thomas Knoles, who was the mayor of London at the time. John Croxtone was the Master Mason and Architect of the project, and he designed and built the new Guildhall in the Gothic style, using oak for its frame, and lime, freestone, and ragstone as building material.
Since this fifteenth-century rebuilding of Guildhall, only a small fraction of the original medieval structure has survived the various demolitions and reconstructions over the years, the only visible medieval masonry being on the south wall. The east and west crypts of Guildhall, both of which still stand, were actually constructed before the 1411 rebuilding effort (both crypts date back to the twelfth century).
Located in the north-central area of the old medieval city next to the parishes of St. Michael Bassishaw and St. Lawrence Jewry, Guildhall was mainly used as London’s city hall. There are references to the pre-1411 Guildhall that mention the meetings of the city’s officials that occurred in its chambers, as well as sessions of the Mayor’s and Sheriff’s Courts that took place there. The Common Council routinely gathered in the upper chamber while the Aldermen met in its inner chamber so that they could privately conduct their business. London’s records and funds were kept in this inner chamber. In the Great Hall during a period of about sixty years, the commonalty of London congregated to vote for the city’s mayor and for other major decisions, and the Hustings Court was held at the dais at the west end. The east and west crypts under the Great Hall were used as one great undercroft, used to store things such as building materials and banquet items.
Changes naturally came with the fifteenth century rebuilding of Guildhall. In the Great Hall, the Hustings Court took place on the eastern dais and the Sheriff’s court on the western dais, both under a large stained-glass window. The Mayor’s Court was held in its own building that was attached to the great hall. In this same building, the Court of Aldermen also met to deliberate on cases pertaining to the Law Merchant. The Guildhall Library was built between 1423 and 1425 and, though it was considered to be a public library, the priests of the Guildhall College and Chapel mainly used it. The College and Chapel were rebuilt in 1427 and 1440, respectively, and became part of the medieval Guildhall complex. The Chapel was regarded highly because Mass was held there, preceding all mayoral elections each year after 1406.
As the city hall of medieval London, Guildhall not only served as an administrative and civic center for the city, but also as a stage for political, religious, and social drama. Guildhall was where the English kings conferred with the Mayor and where extravagant banquets were held for the nobility. Many important hearings took place in Guildhall, like the trial of the Protestant martyr Anne Askew in 1546, who was condemned as a heretic during Henry VIII’s push for an alliance with the Catholic Emperor Charles V, and the trial of the Lady Jane Grey in 1553, who was Queen of England for only nine days and was convicted of treason while Mary Tudor took her place on the throne. Today, the modern Guildhall complex is still used as the center of government for the City of London, and remains one of the oldest surviving structures from the medieval era.
- Lorraine de Silva