London’s Guildhall is the administrative and ceremonial centre for the City of London, and amongst other things, is where the Corporation and Liverymen elect and swear in the City of London’s new Lord Mayor.
Guildhall (and not The Guildhall by the way), comprises a number of buildings, but for the purposes of this review I shall just be talking about the Great Hall which can be regarded as the City of London’s town hall and is the third largest civic hall in England.
This Grade I listed building is the only medieval secular building in the Square Mile and is built over the top of the Roman Amphitheatre, the location of which is marked by a circle of block paving in Guildhall Yard, and the remains of which can be seen under Guildhall Art Gallery (see Londinium).
Guild derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘gild’ meaning payment, and a Gild Hall would have been where people had to pay their taxes, and there is evidence to suggest that there has been a tax office or Guildhall on this site since at least the 13th century.
Construction on the current building began in 1411 and was completed in 1440. It measures 150ft (45.7m) long, 50ft (4.57m) wide and 88ft (26.8) high, and those figures must be right because just inside the entrance to the hall is one of three copies of the standard unit of imperial measurement (the other two are at Trafalgar Square and the Royal Greenwich Observatory).
Statues of some of Britain’s national heroes and statesmen are placed around the hall – people like Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and Sir Winston Churchill, and above them hang banners of London’s twelve great Livery Companies.
During its history the Great Hall has witnessed the trials of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Lady Jane Grey, survived the Great Fire of London and The Blitz, and even enjoyed Chopin’s last public performance. One thing I mustn’t forget though is the feast held here by Sir John Shaw in 1502. This was the first Lord Mayor’s Banquet, a tradition that continues to this day when each year the Prime Minister delivers a keynote speech on world affairs.
Before you exit, look up, and you’ll see two carved figures looking down on proceedings. On the right-hand side is Gog and on the left is Magog – so who are Gog and Magog?
Well, the legend involves Brutus, the legendary first king of Britain. He forced the two giants to guard the gates of his palace (which is supposedly where Guildhall now stands) and act as guardians of his city – which they have done since the 15th century.
Neither of the original characters survived the Great Fire of London, and their successors never managed to escape The Blitz either. The latest incarnations were sculpted by David Evans in 1953 and shows a phoenix on Magog’s shield indicating that they’ve risen from the ashes once again.
The Great Hall is free to visit but functions are regularly held, so it’s best to find out if there’s anything on before you make a special effort to come here, but come here you most definitely should.