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Moot Hall - Bedfordshire 


The Moot Hall was originally called Green House, and was built by the nuns of Elstow Abbey as a storage building for stalls associated with the annual Elstow Fair. The Abbess of Elstow gained a royal charter for a fair running 4 days from 2-5 May, and the hall also functioned as a court house for hearing disputes arising from the fair. 

The Elstow Fair was not like a local village fete, but a large public event, drawing both sellers and buyers from all around the surrounding area. The Abbey earned a lot of money by charging merchants to have a stall, and charging an entrance fee for visitors. It is very likely that the nuns also had a stall, selling produce from the abbey gardens and fishponds. 

The hall is a sign of just how prosperous the fair became; permanent storage was needed for market stalls throughout the rest of the year. The upper floor was used to try petty offences during the fair, such as minor thievery and trading regulation (i.e. sellers breaking official weights and measures standards). During the rest of the year the upper floor was used to hold the Manor Court, dealing with more serious criminal cases. 

The Hall was made from green timber, hence the name Green House. The fresh-cut timber formed the building's frame, which was then infilled with red brick. Interior partition walls were made from wattle and daub, and the roof was topped with clay tiles. In the 16th century the Hall was extended to provide a pair of extra bays on the ground floor, providing both extra shop space and 'hospitum', or accommodation for abbey visitors. 

Bedford Gaol cell door

When Henry VIII dissolved Elstow Abbey at the Reformation, the Moot Hall was purchased by Sir Humphrey Radcliffe, then passed to Sir Thomas Hillersden, who built the mansion that bears his name beside the abbey church. Then in 1792 the brewer Samuel Whitbread bough the hall as part of the abbey's estates.

For a time in the 19th century the hall was used as a chapel and a schoolroom before being restored by the the Bedfordshire County Council for the 1951 Festival of Britain. It was opened to the public as a museum of 17th century life at the Festival. Today the interior has extensive collections on the life and times of John Bunyan, a native of Elstow, including two doors from Bedford Gaol, where Bunyan was held prisoner and began his writing, and the ancient pulpit from the nearby abbey church where Bunyan worshipped. In addition to the Bunyan exhibits there is a wealth of material on the local area, including furniture and household objects. One of the most interesting objects is a Saxon cross shaft discovered set into the east wall of the abbey church in 1967. 

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