The disastrous fire at Westminster Palace in 1298 had devastated many of the buildings and rendered it practically useless as a place of government. Edward I had already been rather profligate in pursuing his wars against the Welsh and the Scots and his coffers were too bare to effect any repairs. In consequence, he moved much of his administrative departments, such as chancery, up to York, where the Archbishop’s Palace provided a much more functional and livable environment. Plus it had the added advantage that he was nearer to the Scottish border!
Thus, when Edward I died in 1307, his son was left with the prospect of repairing Westminster Palace before the occasion of his coronation at Westminster Abbey. Of course, the royal finances were still in crisis, so Edward was left with no choice but to borrow huge sums of money from Italian bankers in order to make the place once more worthy of a royal residence and the focus of government. Luckily records of the expenditure and details of the repairs and improvements still exist in manuscripts, so an idea can be gained of what was achieved.
As well as the fire damage, it appears that the water systems had become neglected over a period of time:
The Conduit of water coming into the Palace, and into the King’s Mews, for the falcons, which in various places was obstructed and injured, and the underground pipes stolen, was completely repaired, and the water returned to its proper course and issues, both at the Palace and at the Mews.
The buildings that were either destroyed or badly damaged by the fire, such as the lesser hall and the queen’s chamber, as well as many chambers used by the various clerks and officials of the palace were also repaired, and, in the case of the lesser hall, completely rebuilt. The floor of the queen’s chamber (it was on the first floor) had suffered terrible damage, with most of it being burned away and the rest being in a dilapidated condition. It was, says the records, “repaired and raised, and ceiled underneath.”
The interesting thing about the account is that it details what chambers and departments could be found at the palace. As well as the usual halls and butleries, pantries and kitchens (note in plural), it also had some interesting sounding buildings such as the ‘nursery chambers’ in the ‘Maydenhalle’, a plumber’s shop, a chandlery (where candles were made), Marculf’s Chamber and a hall called ‘Stanneyn’. These, and other places and houses within the court appear to have been connected by ‘various inner cloisters, ways, and passage,’ all of which also needed repair.
The Great Hall itself, which still exists as part of the modern Houses of Parliament at Westminster, does not seem to have been as badly damaged by the fire as the other buildings. Nevertheless, it still needed some attention:
Of the reparation, emendation, and painting of the Great Hall against the coronation. –The roof, which is on either side was dilapidated and decayed, was now in some measure amended; and the great exchequer [chamber] was repaired and amended in like manner.
Later on, there is a record of a workman being paid to carry shingles (wooden tiles) to the roof of the Great Hall, among other locations. This raises the possibility that the entire roof was covered thus and not by tiles as in the case of other, smaller buildings. By this period, tile were usually preferred to shingle as they lasted longer. However, shingle roofs were lighter in weight, and this, in relation to the roof of the Great Hall, is quite interesting. It has long been thought that the Great Hall, before its reworking by Richard II, had a roof supported by pillars as its span was so wide. Certainly, there are no other examples of an unsupported roof of this width anywhere else at this period of history. However, recent excavations did not find any evidence of pillars from pre-Richard II times. Of course, there might be other reasons why there is no trace of them, but it is tempting to speculate that if the Great Hall’s roof during Edward II’s time was unsupported by pillars, then it would make sense to have the lightest roofing material possible (i.e. shingles) to cover it.
As well as the conduits, the outdoor spaces at Westminster also merited some improvements.
All the stew-ponds, –“vivariis,” — of the palace were scoured, cleansed, and repaired, prior to the coronation…
These stews were important for the rearing of fish for the table, although it appears from other accounts that the ‘pond’ frequently mentioned in accounts of the palace as filled with pike, was actually the moat. As for the gardens, they, the herbaries and the vines which likely lined the paths, providing a sheltered walkway, were spruced up, being “propped or trelliced, turfed, cleaned, and repaired”.
All in all, every part of the palace was brought back to its former splendour. And that wasn’t all: further money was spent on preparing the palace for the actual coronation day. But those details are for my next post.
The History of the Ancient Palace and Late Houses of Parliament at Westminster: Embracing Accounts and Illustrations of St. Stephens Chapel, and Its Cloisters, – Westminster Hall, – The Court of Requests, – The Painted Chamber, &c – Edward Wedlake Brayley, John Britton