The medieval Vicars’ Hall

The medieval Vicars’ Hall

1871 plan of the east face of the Vicars' Hall, by H. Poole and Sons, builders. Signed by Harry Poole and Canon Frederick Anson.
Plan of the east face of the Vicars’ Hall, H. Poole & Sons, 1871. ©Dean and Canons of Windsor

The Vicars’ Hall is pictured from the east in a plan drawn in pencil on tracing paper in 1871 by Harry Poole & Sons, the builders who worked on the restoration of the Horseshoe Cloister under architect George Gilbert Scott. The ground level, known as the Undercroft, is home to the College’s archival and rare book collections. The upper floor is known to many who have attended lectures, dinners, recitals and St George’s House consultations there.

The building long predates the Archives and Chapter Library’s move to it in 1999 and the foundation of St George’s House in 1966. The hall of yellowish-grey limestone was first constructed in 1415, the work is recorded in an account roll still held in the Archives [SGC XV.34.28]. Parts of it are older still: the north wall is part of Windsor Castle’s thirteenth-century curtain wall and the brick south wall was constructed when the building was shortened in the 1470s to accommodate the semi-circle of houses for Lay Clerks known as the Horseshoe Cloister.

The hall was commissioned as a communal space for the Minor Canons of St George’s to meet and to dine. At that time the Minor Canons were called Priest Vicars, hence it became known as the Vicars’ Hall. It was the Dean and Canons, who governed St George’s through Chapter, who felt that this communal space was necessary to prevent the Vicars (or Minor Canons) from going out into Windsor town to get their food and entertainment, where they might drink too much and misbehave.

The hall was in use for the Vicars until about 1550, when it was subdivided into lodgings for the Master of Grammar and the Master of Music. From 1692, the main hall upstairs was in use to house the Chapter’s library. It kept that function for three hundred years until the library was moved into the Undercroft and the hall took on its present use.

The interior bears some notable features. One is the impressive king-strut roof; a timber framework with six tie-beams which dates from at least the fifteenth century and possibly even earlier. The second is the grand stone surround of the fire place. This is not an original feature of the building, but instead comes from a sixteenth-century hall built in the Lower Ward with a similar purpose to the Vicars’ Hall. This was Denton’s Commons, built on the instructions of Canon James Denton to provide accommodation and dining space for the Chapel’s choristers and chantry priests, and after which the land outside the north of St George’s Chapel is still named. When that building was demolished in 1859 the fire place was saved and reinstalled in the Vicars’ Hall.

The outside of the building, meanwhile, looks much as it must have in the fifteenth century. The depiction in the plan included here, however, bears one unusual and short-lived feature: the onion dome towers. They were built up in this period by George Gilbert Scott to top the hexagonal stair towers on either side of the south window, but were taken down again in 1952.

Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.