The Guildhall is the seat of municipal power in the City of London, and probably dates from Saxon times. The Saxons would have met to pay the gilds to the landowner – giving the place its name – but the first documentary evidence for a building on the site comes a lot later – in 1128.
Nothing remains of that earlier time today – what you see was built in 1411–39. It seems to be strangely fire-proof, as the insides were gutted during the Great Fire of London. But its walls all stood firm, however, and even flicked a finger at the Blitz – who managed to set them ablaze again but failed to bring them down.
Christopher Wren was believed to have installed a flat roof in 1670, but this was deemed out of keeping in 1862, and replaced with a hammerbeam version similar in style to the one in Westminster Hall. They also introduced the Minstrel’s Gallery, where you can see today the statues of legendary giants Gog and Magog.
Giles Gilbert Scott was brought in to repair the damage from German bombs, and added stones arches to the ceiling, along with a new stained-glass window to complete the effect. Take a careful look at this because it tells the story of the City’s history, and includes a picture of its most famous Mayor – Dick Whittington. (You can spot him by looking for his famous black cat.)
Later building work even revealed the remains of an old Roman amphitheatre in the basement. You can view this with a visit to the Guildhall Art Gallery next door.
The most imposing feature at the Guildhall is the Great Hall, 150-feet long and 89-feet high. It is still one of the largest halls in the country even today, and a favourite place for the government dinners and set-piece speeches.
It also served for a while as the country’s highest court – both Lady Jane Grey, the pretender Queen dethroned by Bloody Mary, and Thomas Cranmer defended themselves against charges of treason here. Needless to say, they lost.
All traces of intrigue had been wiped away these days (they might put you off your dinner), and the surroundings glory the great and good of British history. There are statues to Horatio Nelson, Prime Ministers Pitt (Elder and Younger), the Duke of Wellington and Winston Churchill.
Also on display are the banners and shields of London’s original guilds – Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Tailors, Haberdashers, Salters, Ironmongers, Vintners and Clothworkers.
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