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Guildhall is a municipal building in the Moorgate area of the City of London, England. It is off Gresham and Basinghall streets, in the wards of Bassishaw and Cheap. The building has been used as a town hall for several hundred years, and is still the ceremonial and administrative centre of the City of London and its Corporation. It should not be confused with London’s City Hall, the administrative centre for Greater London. The term “Guildhall” refers both to the whole building and to its main room, which is a medieval great hall.
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The current building began construction in 1411 and completed in 1440. The Great Hall did not completely escape damage in the Great Fire of London in 1666; it was partially restored (with a flat roof) in 1670. The present grand entrance (the east wing of the south front), in “Hindoostani Gothic”, was added in 1788 by George Dance. A more extensive restoration than that in 1670 was completed in 1866 by the City of London architect Sir Horace Jones, who added a new timber roof in close keeping with the original hammerbeam ceiling. This replacement was destroyed during the Second Great Fire of London on the night of 29/30 December 1940, the result of a Luftwaffe fire-raid. It was replaced in 1954 during works designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, though the original hammerbeam design was not retained.
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. . . . 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. . . . 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. . . .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.
Though the Guildhall was heavily damaged in the Great Fire of 1666, the walls survived, and the interior was rebuilt. How did the Guildhall survive, when so much of London was destroyed in the blaze? One theory is that the hall was framed in solid oak, which was able to resist the worst effects of the fire. An eyewitness to the Great Fire described the Guildhall as standing amid the flames ‘like a bright shining coal, as if it had been a palace of gold, or a great building of burnished brass’. The medieval ceiling had been lost to the fire, and in its place was a flat panelled ceiling thought to have been the work of Sir Christopher Wren.
The Royal Banquet in Guildhall, 1761, from “Old and New London”, George Walter Thornbury, 1879-85, p. 325
After half an hour’s stay in the council chamber, the royal party returned into the hall, and were conducted to the upper end of it, called the hustings, where a table was provided for them, at which they sat by themselves. There had been, it seems, a knotty little question of etiquette. The ladies. in-waiting on the Queen had claimed the right of custom to dine at the same table with her Majesty, but this was disallowed ; so they dined at the table of the Lady Mayoress in the Court of King’s Bench. The royal table “was set off with a variety of emblematic ornaments, beyond description elegant,” and a superb canopy was placed over their Majesties’ heads at the upper end. For the Lord Mayor, aldermen, and their ladies, there was a table on the lower hustings. The privy councillors, ministers of state, and great nobles dined at a table on the right of this ; the foreign ministers at one on the left. For the mazarines and the general company there were eight tables laid out in the body of the hall, while the judges, serjeants, and other legal celebrities, dined in the old council chamber, and the attendants of the distinguished visitors were regaled in the Court of Common Pleas.
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FIRST SERVICE. Venison, turtle soups, fish of every sort, viz dorys, mullets, turbots, tench, soles, &c., nine dishes.
SECOND SERVICE. A fine roast, ortolans, teals, quails, ruffs, knotts, pea-chicks, snipes, partridges, pheasants, &c., nine dishes.
THIRD SERVICE. Vegetables and made dishes, green peas, green morelles, green truffles, cardoons, artichokes, ducks’ tongues, fat &c., eleven dishes.
FOURTH SERVICE. Curious ornaments in pastry and makes, jellies, blomonges, in variety of shapes, figures, and colours, nine dishes.
In all, not including the dessert, there were placed on the tables four hundred and fourteen dishes, hot and cold. Wine was varied and copious. In the language of the chronicler, ” champagne, burgundy, and other valuable wines were to be had everywhere, and nothing was so scarce as water.” When the second course was being laid on, the toasts began. The common crier, standing before the royal table, demanded silence, then proclaimed aloud that their Majesties drank to the health and prosperity of the Lord Mayor, aldermen, and common council of the City of London. Then the common crier, in the name of the civic dignitaries, gave the toast of health, long life, and prosperity to their most gracious Majesties. . After dinner there was no tarrying over the wine-cup. The royal party retired at once to the council chamber, ” where they had their tea.” What became of the rest of the company is not men-tioned, but clearly the Guildhall could have been no place for them. That was summarily occupied by an army of carpenters. The tables were struck and carried out. The hustings, where the great folks had dined, and the floor of which had been covered with rich carpeting, was covered afresh, and the whole hall rapidly got ready for the ball, with which the festivities were to conclude.
“Old and New London”, George Walter Thornbury, 1879-85, pp. 326-7
The Court of Aldermen, Guildhall, from “Old and New London”, George Walter Thornbury, 1879-85, p. 390
The Court of Aldermen is a richly-gilded room with a stucco ceiling, painted with allegorical figures of the hereditary virtues of the City of London—Justice, Prudence, Temperance, and Fortitude—by that over-rated painter, Hogarth’s father-in-law, Sir James Thornhill, who was presented by the Corporation with a gold cup, value £225 7s. In the cornices are emblazoned the arms of all the mayors since 1780 (the year of the Gordon riots). Each alderman’s chair bears his name and arms. The apartment, says a writer in Knight’s “London,” as its name tells us, is used for the sittings of the Court of Aldermen, who, in judicial matters, form the bench of magistrates for the City, and in their more directly corporate capacity try the validity of ward elections, and claims to freedom who admit and swear brokers, superintend prisons, order prosecutions, and perform a variety of other analogous duties ; a descent, certainly, from the high position of the ancient “ealdormen,” or superior Saxon nobility, from whom they derive their name and partly their functions.
“Old and New London”, George Walter Thornbury, 1879-85, p. 388