The Palce of the City – Guildhall

In the city of London lies a magnificent building steeped in history and tradition. It has seen banquets, royalty, trials and disasters. It has been developed and changed with the architecture of times gone by but what it has stood for and is a symbol for is still as strong today as it has been for over 800 years. It is a symbol of the power of the people, this building is the Guildhall.

The word guildhall may have derived from the Anglo Saxon work guild – payment/to pay. And a guildhall would be where citizens would pay their taxes. The City of London’s guildhall became so much more than this. It was designed to reflect the power of the City and its leaders. It is the ceremonial and administrative centre of the City of London Corporation. In addition it is the only secular building to survive the Great Fire of London. It was damaged in the Blitz but still stated upright as a symbol of the might of the City and its people.

Today it has a number of administrative functions as well as having its own art gallery and being open to the public to visit the Roman amphitheatre underneath. It is still a working building. The court of Common council meet every month there; the liverymen elect the new Lord Mayor each year. It is used to host a number of functions including the Lord Mayors Banquet each year.

The original Guildhall no longer exists, the one that we see today has its beginnings in the 1411 but the first guildhall was probably similar to the great hall of Oakham castle in Rutland which was built in the 1180s and is a rare surviving example of an early medieval great hall. The guildhall we know most about is the one that was developed later and became the powerhouse to the city of London.  Its great hall was second to only Westminster Hall in design and size. Westminster hall may have been for the ruling family of the country but the Guildhall was for the ruling classes, those who made the City go round and function.

everything beneath window-height is to the design of the original master mason, John Croxton, who built the Great Hall between 1411 and 1430. It is Gothic perpendicular in style, and an impressive 151 feet long, 48 feet wide and 89 feet high. “(p.39, Lipscomb, S)

I keep mentioning the City of London and the Guilds. Let me sidetrack a moment and talk about their importance and how they link in to the Guildhall and its history.

The City of London is a square mile and was known as Londinium. It was once the Roman capital of Britain and was surrounded by a great hall, gatehouses and barracks (part of the London wall still survive today). The Guildhall lies in the Centre of the City. From its origins in Roman Britain the City of London would develop and thrive. Eventually the City of London Corporation was formed and would develop a mode of municipal democracy that would be copied by many other towns and cities. As the years went by so did the power of the corporation, to the point when the Lord Mayor would rival the monarch for power in the city. In times of dispute and war the crown has actually been dependant on the City’s merchants for financial support and they certainly took advantage of this.


At the head of the Corporation lies the Lord Mayor. He is based for his year in office as Mansion House and is elected in by the City’s citizens. This right was given to them in 1215 by a charter issue by King John, and not because he actually wanted too!

The Lord Mayor of London is not just head of the Corporation he is also Chief Magistrate and head of the city’s two governing bodies.  He sits at the head of the oldest municipal corporation in the world and ranks above everybody except the Monarch. The first mention of a mayor of the City was in 1189 and its first post holder was Henry Fitzailwyn (1189-1212).

It is at the guildhall where the Mayor holds his banquet every year. Over 700 distinguished guests are invited into the guildhalls great hall for a magnificent feast. Guest includes the Prime minister who gives a speech, along with representatives from the Commonwealth, leaders of church and state and commanders of the armed services. This banquet has been going on for over four centuries (with the exception of wartime).

What has allowed the Mayor and the City the power they have is a result of the guilds that have allowed the City to run and function. The guilds are the traders and businesses who worked in the city. The guilds have their roots in the medieval trades and crafts of England. Wandering the City today one can still find traces of the companies that worked and lived there, road names such as Milk Street, Ironmonger Lane and Masons Avenue all mark where these trades used to be based and function. People would tend to live near their place of work and eventually the workers made informal arrangements which evolved into professional standards with one another which remain today.

The earliest record of a guild was in a Royal Charter which was given to the Weavers Company in 1155. However, by that time there were already many guilds already in existence and trading in the City.

These guilds eventually controlled “the provision of services and manufacture and selling of goods and food in the city of London. This prevented unlimited competition and helped keep wages and working conditions steady in unstable times. The guilds protected their customers, employers and reomplotyrr….” (City livery companies, pg3) Each guild was closely linked with a local church or monastery and would have a patron saint.

The term livery came to mean distinctive clothing with a badge which symbolised privilege and protection.  Each guild had their own identity to distinguish themselves from other people they eventually became known as livery companies.

To enter a trade and guild craft one would have to become an apprentice for about 7 years. They would live with master tradesmen who were a member of the guild of their craft and learn the trade. Once completed they could them claim their freedom which allowed them to serve under any master or even set up on their own. It was much sought after and if one wanted to make it in the City you had to be a freeman.

There would be a Master of a guild who is usually elected, followed by up to four wardens, there would be assistants, a clerk to organise meetings and a beadle who assisted the clerk. Eventually many of the companies would acquire a permanent meeting place know as halls many of which have now been lost through disasters in the city, although newer ones have been built and can be found today.

Getting back to the Guildhall its redesign by Croxton in the 1140s would make it more incredible than before. This new hall would be steeped in tradition and symbolism in its design. A great hall was a key building of any set of buildings, whether they be a manor estate or part of a Palacial building. Since the Saxon times the great hall has held an importance in English architecture. It would be the centre for those that lived there.

Simon Thurley suggests that Croxton and Richard Whittington, the Mayor of London at the time took their inspiration from Westminster’s Great Hall, and why not! Westminster hall was the largest great hall in all of England and the most spectacular. It was for the King, and therefore, Thurley states, the Guildhall was to be the City’s Mayors Palace. There were similarities in their design he continues. “Both had huge great halls containing courts, both had chapels, both had a college of priests, both were walled, both were entered by two gatehouses and both entrance facades conveyed messages about the nature of power. No other civic building in the land was so endowed. The Guildhall complex was a deliberate and direct recreation of Westminster Palace.”(Thurley, 2015)

All of the buildings within the Guildhalls ‘precinct’ would have around them some gardens of trees and flowers. There was also a chapel and a chancery with five priests in 1356.

Along with the great hall of which the majority still survives from the medieval period under the great hall there are two magnificent crypts which date back to Edward the Confessor. The east crypt is the largest medieval crypt in the City of London and has vaulted ceiling with carved bosses of head, shields and flowers. The west crypt was sealed off after the roof collapsed in after the great fire in 1666 and was not re open until 1973 after a large scale restoration. There are stained glass windows which depict the Guildhall in flames and five famous Londoner.

This would not be Guildhalls only architectural change in its history. During 1666 a fire started in a small bakery in Pudding Lane which would spread through most of the city, destroying much in its path. This fire was known as the Great fire of London. The Guildhall was lucky to survive nearly fully intact, and is the only secular building to survive the fire. During the fire , “…the site of the Guildhall was a fearful spectacle, which stood the whole body of it together in view for several hours together, after the fire had taken it, without flame…like a bright shining coal, as if it had been a palace of gold, or a great building of burnish brass’” (Mr Vincent, 1667) A great restoration project was started in 1670 which involved replacing the roof which had collapsed in as a result of the fire.

In the 1860s there was further development when Sir Horace Jones, who was the city architect, started to revert the Guildhall back to its medieval roots and making it gothic again. In addition, a museum and library were also added and finished in 1872. He also added a gothic chapter house which was a 12 sided chamber however this was part of the building which was lost in the 1940s.

In 1873 the Guildhall Library was opened. It held over 40000 volumes and manuscripts and was designed by Horace Jones and is a grade ii listed building. However this was not the first library at the Guildhall. The mayor Richard Whittington opened a library at the Guildhall in 1425 and it was the world’s largest collection of materials devoted to a single city. However the first Duke of Somerset borrowed the books for his new home at Somerset house and never returned them. It would be 300 years for the library to re open again.

As I have mentioned the Guildhall was damaged during the Blitz, this included the roof collapsing and the re building of the Guildhalls forth roof in hits history. This time the Guildhalls architect would be Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and after his death his son. Scott was the architect of Bankside Power Station, now the Tate Modern. Although the guildhall great hall was restored a lot of the other buildings connected to the great hall were dismantled and administrative offices took their place. It was “an elegant fusion of classical and Georgian styles built without frills, as frills were not to be had in 1955-8 – building materials were in short supply.”(Thurley, 2015)  His son made the very small entrance to the Guildhall larger, enabling the Guildhall Yard that we see today.

The most recent developments of the Guildhall was those undertaken in 1997 when Richard Gilbert Scott built what is now the City’s art gallery. It lies on the site of the bomb damaged Victorian art gallery, courts of law and the chapel. It was during the building of the new gallery when the Roman Amphitheatre was discovered, an amazing find.

As we have seen the Guildhall was a building of great importance and power, steeped in tradition and pageantry. Such a building needed protection from those who wished it harm and the guardians of the Guildhall were two giants called Gog and Magog. They have stood as guardians from the reign of Henry V. Legend has it that the two giants were defeated by the roman emperor Brutus who then chained them to the gates of his palace which Guildhall is now on the site of.

Originally the giants were located outside the entrance to the Guildhall. They would have been made of wood and stood very tall. From 1708 the statues of the giants were designed by Captain Richard Saunders and stood until they were destroyed in the bombing in 1940. The current statues are now located within the hall itself and were designed by David Evans in 1953.

The story of the two giants varies depending on where you look but the first record of them being linked with giants is from the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey Monmouth in 1136.

“Corineus and Gogmagog were two brave giants who richly valued their honour and exerted their whole strength and force in the defence of their liberty and country; so the City of London, by placing these, their representatives in their Guildhall, emblematically declare, that they will, like mighty giants defend the honour of their country and liberties of this their City; which excels all others, as much as those huge giants exceed in stature the common bulk of mankind.” the words of Thomas Boreman in his “Gigantick History” of 1741.

So the Guildhall holds a number of roles for the City of London and none more infamous than being the site of a number of historic trails from 1548-1615 to supposed traitors of the country and the City. Recognisable names from our history jump out at us – Anne Askew who rumour has it was tortured before her trail, Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper for having relations with Henry VIII’s fifth queen Catherine Howard, Nicolas Thorckmorton for his role in a plot to kill Elizabeth I, Thomas Cranmer and Guildford Dudley for conspiring against Queen ‘bloody’ Mary and also Jane the ‘nine days queen’ Grey.

After the death of Edward VI in 1553 it was found that he had made a Device for the Succession naming his cousin Lady Jane Grey as his heir rather than the catholic Mary Tudor, his eldest sister. For a time it seemed that his wishes were accepted but eventually England’s people rose up and decide the rightful heir was Henry VIII eldest daughter Mary, as she did too. Jane, her husband and others were captured and imprisoned at the Tower (Jane was still there from the original declaration). She was eventually put on trial, but not at the Tower which is what was expected but at the Guildhall instead. It is believed that the location was set to demean Jane and her followers. Jane, her husband and Thomas Cranmer who was also arrested were made to walk a mile from the Tower to the Guildhall. The streets were open with all of London’s citizens to watch this procession. They were accompanied by four hundred halberdiers to show the strength of the new and rightful queen and at their head was the officer carrying a great axe with the blade turned away from the prisoners to show that they had not yet been condemned by law.

De Lisle describes how ‘Guildford was dressed dashingly in a black velvet suit slashed with white satin. Jane, behind him, had chosen plain black, and strikingly, she was carrying an open prayer book in her hands with another, covered in black velvet, hanging from her waist. It was a public statement of Protestant piety.”(p.282, de Lisle)

Jane, her husband and the rest were all declared guilty and traitors. For Jane the sentence was burning at the stake which was the norm for someone in her situation. However this sentence as not carried out. Mary did not want to execute this young girl. Tragically though for Jane another uprising broke out in her name and gave Mary no option but to have the sentence carried out on Jane and her husband. They were both executed, Jane within the confines of the Tower as befitted her royal statues (she was the granddaughter to Henry VIII sister Mary Tudor). She is buried in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincular at the Tower of London.

The guildhall can be visited today and I highly urge people to see it. Always check first before visiting as it can be closed to the public for private functions. It is a beautiful building inside and out and its walls have witnessed so much history and ceremony. It is a building which stands proud on what it has represented and what it still represents today. An icon that the monarch is not always the one who has the power.


Barber, E (2014) Blue guide London, London-Blue guide

Ives, E. (2009) Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery, Wiley-Blackwell.

Lipscomb, S. (2012) A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England, Ebury Press.

Round, S (2010) London lore, -Arrow

Weinreb, B and Hibbert, C [Ed] (1988) London encyclopaedia, London – Papermac

City Livery Companies

Thurley, S (2015) Envy of Kings: The Guildhall of London and the Power of the Medieval Corporation Transcript Date: Wednesday, 18 November 2015 – 6:00PM

Location: Museum of London. Accessed 10/04/2018

Websites: accessed 12/04/2018

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