16. The Great Hall
The material and workmanship of the Great Hall, built by John of Gaunt in the late 14th century, was probably the finest example of the perpendicular style of the period. John could afford to employ the best craftsmen to create the fashionable gothic style windows of the day. He was able to install fixed glazing for the uppermost openings, although the lower openings were merely barred and shuttered.
The single spanned roof is of hammer beam construction, using timber corbels, and measures 90 by 45 feet. It was the most ambitious until the new roof of Westminster Hall, and the Great Hall remained the largest private structure without aisles for 200 years. The unique use of partial wall posts helped to lower the effective point at which the roof was supported by the walls and buttresses.
It is believed that Henry V received the French ambassador in the Great Hall, during the time of a territorial dispute with France. The ambassador presented Henry with a gift of a chest full of tennis balls, implying that Henry might wish to content himself with such games. Henry was prompted by this insult to invade France, which led to the famous victory over the French at Agincourt. This account may have been contemporary propaganda, but was revived after featuring in a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry V. Later, Henry VII built one of the first ever tennis courts, somewhere in the grounds of the Castle.
At the northern end of the Hall, there was a minstrel’s gallery, below which there are doors to the kitchens, buttery and pantry. At the southern end of the Hall was the dais, a raised platform for the table of those of the highest status, and the Saintlowe Tower, which provided superior lodgings above, and access to the cellars below.
As part of the Elizabethan trend for more privacy and a withdrawal from the public life of the household, the custom of dining together with inferiors in a medieval great hall fell out of favour. It is recorded that Robert Dudley typically dined by himself. A small room, known as a cabinet, solar or closet, was also easier to heat in winter.