Palace of Westminster in London
The Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Palace, is the meeting place of the two houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom—the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It lies on the north bank of the River Thames in the heart of the London borough of the City of Westminster, close to the historic Westminster Abbey and the government buildings of Whitehall and Downing Street. The name may refer to either of two structures: the Old Palace, a medieval building complex, most of which was destroyed in 1834, and its replacement New Palace that stands today. The palace retains its original style and status as a royal residence for ceremonial purposes.
The first royal palace was built on the site in the eleventh century, and Westminster was the primary London residence of the Kings of England until a fire destroyed much of the complex in 1512. After that, it served as the home of Parliament, which had been meeting there since the thirteenth century, and the seat of the Royal Courts of Justice, based in and around Westminster Hall. In 1834, an even greater fire ravaged the heavily rebuilt Houses of Parliament, and the only structures of significance to survive were Westminster Hall, the Cloisters of St Stephen's, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft and the Jewel Tower.
The subsequent competition for the reconstruction of the Palace was won by architect Charles Barry and his design for a building in the Perpendicular Gothic style. The remains of the Old Palace (with the exception of the detached Jewel Tower) were incorporated in its much larger replacement, which contains over 1,100 rooms organised symmetrically around two series of courtyards. Part of the New Palace's area of was reclaimed from the Thames, which is the setting of its principal façade, the river front. Barry was assisted by Augustus W. N. Pugin, a leading authority on Gothic architecture and style, who provided designs for the decoration and furnishings of the Palace. Construction started in 1840 and lasted for thirty years, suffering great delays and cost overruns, as well as the death of both leading architects; works for the interior decoration continued intermittently well into the twentieth century. Major conservation work has been carried out since, due to the effects of London's air pollution, and extensive repairs took place after the Second World War, including the reconstruction of the Commons Chamber following its bombing in 1941.
The Palace is one of the centres of political life in the United Kingdom; "Westminster" has become a metonym for the UK Parliament, and the Westminster system of government has taken its name after it. Its Clock Tower, in particular, which has become known as "Big Ben" after its main bell, is an iconic landmark of London and the United Kingdom in general, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city and an emblem of parliamentary democracy. The Palace of Westminster has been a Grade I listed building since 1970 and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.
The Palace of Westminster site was strategically important during the Middle Ages, as it was located on the banks of the River Thames. Known in medieval times as Thorney Island, the site may have been first-used for a royal residence by Cnut the Great during his reign from 1016 to 1035. St Edward the Confessor, the penultimate Saxon monarch of England, built a royal palace on Thorney Island just west of the City of London at about the same time as he built Westminster Abbey (1045–50). Thorney Island and the surrounding area soon became known as Westminster (a contraction of the words West Minster). Neither the buildings used by the Saxons nor those used by William I survive. The oldest existing part of the Palace (Westminster Hall) dates from the reign of William I's successor, King William II.
The Palace of Westminster was the monarch's principal residence in the late Medieval period. The predecessor of Parliament, the Curia Regis (Royal Council), met in Westminster Hall (although it followed the King when he moved to other palaces). The Model Parliament, the first official Parliament of England, met in the Palace in 1295; almost all subsequent Parliaments have met there.
In 1530, King Henry VIII acquired York Place from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a powerful minister who had lost the King's favour. Renaming it the Palace of Whitehall, Henry used it as his principal residence. Although Westminster officially remained a royal palace, it was used by the two Houses of Parliament and by the various royal law courts.
Because it was originally a royal residence, the Palace included no purpose-built chambers for the two Houses. Important state ceremonies were held in the Painted Chamber. The House of Lords originally met in the Queen's Chamber, a modest Medieval hall at the south end of the complex. In 1801 the Upper House moved into the larger White Chamber, which had formerly housed the Court of Requests; the expansion of the Peerage by King George III during the 18th century, along with the imminent Act of Union with Ireland, necessitated the move as the original chamber could not accommodate the increased number of peers.
The House of Commons, which did not have a chamber of its own, sometimes held its debates in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey. The Commons acquired a permanent home at the Palace in the form of St Stephen's Chapel, the former chapel of the royal palace, during the reign of Edward VI. In 1547 the building became available for the Commons' use following the disbanding of St Stephen's College. Alterations were made to St Stephen's Chapel over the following three centuries for the convenience of the lower House, gradually destroying its original mediaeval appearance.
The Palace of Westminster as a whole began to see significant alterations from the 18th century onwards, as Parliament struggled to carry out its business in the limited available space and ageing buildings. Calls for an entirely new palace went unheeded as instead more buildings were added. A new west façade facing onto St. Margaret's Street was built in the Palladian style between 1755 and 1770, providing more space for document storage and committee rooms. A new official residence for the Speaker of the House of Commons was built adjoining St. Stephen's Chapel and completed in 1795. The neo-Gothic architect James Wyatt also carried out works on both the House of Lords and Commons between 1799 and 1801.
The palace complex was substantially remodelled once again, this time by Sir John Soane, between 1824 and 1827. The mediaeval House of Lords chamber, which had been the target of the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, was demolished as part of this work in order to create a new Royal Gallery and ceremonial entrance at the southern end of the palace. Soane's work at the palace also included new library facilities for both Houses of Parliament and new law courts for the Chancery and King's Bench. Soane's alterations caused controversy due to his use of neo-classical architectural styles, which conflicted with the Gothic style of the original buildings.
Fire and reconstruction
On 16 October 1834, a fire broke out in the Palace after an overheated stove used to destroy the Exchequer's stockpile of tally sticks set fire to the House of Lords Chamber. In the resulting conflagration both Houses of Parliament were destroyed, along with most of the other buildings in the palace complex. Westminster Hall was saved thanks to heroic fire-fighting efforts and a change in the direction of the wind. The Jewel Tower, the Undercroft Chapel and the Cloisters and Chapter House of St. Stephen's were the only other parts of the Palace to survive.
Immediately after the fire, King William IV offered the almost-completed Buckingham Palace to Parliament, hoping to dispose of a residence he disliked. The building was considered unsuitable for parliamentary use, however, and the gift was rejected. Proposals to move to Charing Cross or St James's Park had a similar fate; the allure of tradition and the historical and political associations of Westminster proved too strong for relocation, despite the deficiencies of that site. In the meantime, the immediate priority was to provide accommodation for the next Parliament, and so the Painted Chamber and White Chamber were hastily repaired for temporary use by the Houses of Lords and Commons respectively, under the direction of the only remaining architect of the Metropolitan Board of Works, Sir Robert Smirke. Works proceeded quickly and the chambers were ready for use by February 1835.
A Royal Commission was appointed to study the rebuilding of the Palace and a heated public debate over the proposed styles ensued. The neo-Classical approach, similar to that of the White House and the federal Capitol in the United States, was popular at the time and had already been used by Soane in his additions to the old palace, but had connotations of revolution and republicanism, whereas Gothic design embodied conservative values. The Commission announced in June 1835 that "the style of the buildings would be either Gothic or Elizabethan". The Royal Commission decided to allow architects to submit proposals following these basic criteria.
In 1836, after studying 97 proposals, the Royal Commission chose Charles Barry's plan for a Gothic-style palace, awarding him. a prize - or “premium” - of £1300. Premiums of £500 each were given to Robert Hamilton, J.C. Buckler and William Railton. The Architectural Magazine summarised Barry’s winning plan as "a quadrangular pile, with the principal front facing the Thames, and a tower in the centre, 170ft. high".
The foundation stone was laid in 1840; the Lords Chamber was completed in 1847, and the Commons Chamber in 1852 (at which point Barry received a knighthood). Although most of the work had been carried out by 1860, construction was not finished until a decade afterwards. Barry, whose own architectural style was more classical than Gothic, built the new palace upon the neo-classical principle of symmetry. He relied heavily on Augustus Pugin for the sumptuous and distinctive Gothic interiors, including wallpapers, carvings, stained glass, floor tiles, metalwork and furniture.
In the course of the German bombing of London during the Second World War (see The Blitz), the Palace of Westminster was hit by bombs on fourteen separate occasions. One bomb fell into Old Palace Yard on 26 September 1940 and severely damaged the south wall of St Stephen's Porch and the west front. The statue of Richard the Lionheart was lifted from its pedestal by the force of the blast, and its upheld sword bent, an image that was used as a symbol of the strength of democracy, "which would bend but not break under attack". Another bomb destroyed much of the Cloisters on 8 December. An incendiary bomb hit the chamber of the House of Commons and set it on fire; another set the roof of Westminster Hall alight. The firefighters could not save both, and a decision was taken to try to rescue the Hall. In this they were successful; the abandoned Commons Chamber, on the other hand, was completely destroyed, as was the Members' Lobby. A bomb also struck the Lords Chamber, but went through the floor without exploding. The Clock Tower took a hit by a small bomb or anti-aircraft shell at the eaves of the roof, suffering much damage there. All the glass on the south dial was blown out, but the hands and bells were not affected, and the Great Clock continued to keep time accurately.
As the need for office space in the Palace increased, Parliament acquired office space in the nearby Norman Shaw Building in 1975, and more recently in the custom-built Portcullis House, completed in 2000. This increase has now allowed all MPs to have their own office facilities. The stone, however, soon began to decay due to pollution and the poor quality of some of the stone used. Although such defects were clear as early as 1849, nothing was done for the remainder of the 19th century. During the 1910s, however, it became clear that some of the stonework had to be replaced. In 1928 it was deemed necessary to use Clipsham Stone, a honey-coloured limestone from Rutland, to replace the decayed Anston. The project began in the 1930s but was halted due to the Second World War, and completed only during the 1950s. By the 1960s pollution had once again begun to take its toll. A stone conservation and restoration programme to the external elevations and towers began in 1981, and ended in 1994. The House Authorities have since been undertaking the external restoration of the many inner courtyards, a task due to continue until approximately 2011.
The Palace of Westminster features three main towers. Of these, the largest and tallest is the and Barry chose for it the form of a spire in order to balance the effect of the more massive lateral towers. In the end, the Central Tower failed completely to fulfill its stated purpose, but it is notable as "the first occasion when mechanical services had a real influence on architectural design".
Apart from the pinnacles which rise from between the window bays along the fronts of the Palace, numerous turrets enliven the building's skyline. Like the Central Tower, these have been added for practical reasons, and mask ventilation shafts.
Members of Parliament enter their part of the building from the Members' Entrance in the south side of New Palace Yard. Their route passes through a cloakroom in the lower level of the Cloisters and eventually reaches the Members' Lobby directly south of the Commons Chamber. From New Palace Yard, access can also be gained to the Speaker's Court and the main entrance of the Speaker's House, located in the pavilion at the north-east corner of the Palace.
St Stephen's Entrance, roughly in the middle of the building's western front, is the entrance for members of the public. From there, visitors walk through a series of hallways and flights of stairs which bring them to the level of the principal floor and to the octagonal Central Lobby, the hub of the Palace. This hall is flanked by symmetrical corridors decorated with fresco paintings, which lead to the ante-rooms and debating chambers of the two Houses: the Members' Lobby and Commons Chamber to the north, and the Peers' Lobby and Lords Chamber to the south. Another mural-lined corridor leads east to the Lower Waiting Hall and the staircase to the first floor, where the river front is occupied by a row of 16 committee rooms. Directly below them, the libraries of the two Houses overlook the Thames from the principal floor.
The grandest entrance to the Palace of Westminster is the Sovereign's Entrance beneath the Victoria Tower. It was designed for the use of the monarch, who travels from Buckingham Palace by carriage every year for the State Opening of Parliament. The Imperial State Crown, which is worn by the sovereign for the ceremony, as well as the Cap of Maintenance and the Sword of State, which are symbols of royal authority and are borne before the monarch during the procession, also travel to the Palace by coach, accompanied by members of the Royal Household; the regalia, as they are collectively known, arrive some time before the monarch and are exhibited in the Royal Gallery until they are needed. The Sovereign's Entrance is also the formal entrance used by visiting dignitaries, as well as the starting point of public tours of the Palace.
From there, the Royal Staircase leads up to the principal floor with a broad, unbroken flight of 26 steps made of grey granite. It is lined on state occasions by sword-wielding troopers of the two regiments of the Household Cavalry, the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals; these are the only troops allowed to bear arms inside the Palace of Westminster, which officially remains a royal residence.
The staircase is followed by the Norman Porch, a square landing distinguished by its central clustered column and the intricate ceiling it supports, which is made up of four groin vaults with lierne ribs and carved bosses. The Porch was named for its proposed decorative scheme, based on Norman history. In the event, neither the planned statues of Norman kings nor the frescoes were executed, and only the stained-glass window portraying William the Conqueror hints at this theme. Queen Victoria is depicted twice in the room: as a young woman in the other stained-glass window, and near the end of her life, sitting on the throne of the House of Lords, in a copy of a 1900 painting by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant which hangs on the eastern wall. The sixteen plinths intended for the statues now house busts of prime ministers who have sat in the House of Lords, such as the Earl Grey and the Marquess of Salisbury. A double door opposite the stairs leads to the Royal Gallery, and another to the right opens to the Robing Room. As its name indicates, it is where the Sovereign prepares for the State Opening of Parliament by donning official robes and wearing the Imperial State Crown. The focus of this richly decorated room is the Chair of State used by the monarch; it sits on a dais of three steps, under a canopy adorned with the arms and floral emblems of England, Scotland and Ireland. A panel of purple velvet forms the backdrop to the chair, embroidered by the Royal School of Needlework with the royal arms, surrounded by stars and VR monograms. Five frescos painted by William Dyce between 1848 and 1864 cover the walls, depicting allegorical scenes from the legend. Each scene represents a chivalric virtue; the largest, between the two doors, is entitled Admission of Sir Tristram to the Round Table and illustrates the virtue of Hospitality. Queen Victoria's portrait can be seen in the Parliamentary website.|group=note Other decorations in the room are also inspired by the Arthurian legend, namely a series of 18 bas-reliefs beneath the paintings, carved in oak by Henry Hugh Armstead, and more regularly for the Lord Chancellor's Breakfast; in the past it was the theatre of several trials of peers by the House of Lords. The frescoes were executed between 1856 and 1866, and each scene was "specifically chosen to depict the struggles through which national liberties were won".
The two red lines on the floor of the House of Commons are President Obama was the first ever US President to be allowed to use the Hall for an address to Parliament.
Under reforms made in 1999, the House of Commons uses the Grand Committee Room next to Westminster Hall as an additional debating chamber. (Although it is not part of the main hall, the room is usually spoken of as such.) The seating is laid out in a U-shape, in contrast with the main Chamber in which the benches are placed opposite each other. This pattern is meant to reflect the non-partisan nature of the debates held in Westminster Hall. Westminster Hall sittings occur thrice each week.
There are two suites of libraries on the Principal Floor, overlooking the river, for the House of Lords Library and House of Commons Library.
The Palace of Westminster also includes state apartments for the presiding officers of the two Houses. The official residence of the Speaker stands at the northern end of the Palace; the Lord Chancellor's apartments are at the southern end. Each day, the Speaker and Lord Speaker take part in formal processions from their apartments to their respective Chambers.
There are numerous bars, cafeterias and restaurants in the Palace of Westminster, with differing rules regarding who is allowed to use their facilities; many of them never close while the House is sitting. There is also a gymnasium, and even a hair salon; the rifle range closed in the 1990s. Parliament also has a souvenirs shop, where items on sale range from House of Commons key-rings and china to House of Commons Champagne.
The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod oversees security for the House of Lords, and the Serjeant at Arms does the same for the House of Commons. These officers, however, have primarily ceremonial roles outside the actual chambers of their respective Houses. Security is the responsibility of the Palace of Westminster Division of the Metropolitan Police, the police force for the Greater London area. Tradition still dictates that only the Serjeant at Arms may enter the Commons chamber armed.
With rising concern about the possibility that a full of explosives could be driven into the building, a series of concrete blocks was placed in the roadway in 2003. On the river, an exclusion zone extending from the bank exists, which no vessels are allowed to enter.
Despite recent security breaches, members of the public continue to have access to the Strangers' Gallery in the House of Commons. Visitors pass through metal detectors and their possessions are scanned. Police from the Palace of Westminster Division of the Metropolitan Police, supported by some armed police from the Diplomatic Protection Group, are always on duty in and around the Palace.
Under a provision of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, it has been illegal since 1 August 2005 to hold a protest, without the prior permission of the Metropolitan Police, within a designated area extending approximately around the Palace.
A famous attempt to breach the security of the Palace of Westminster was the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The plot was a conspiracy among a group of Roman Catholic gentry to re-establish Catholicism in England by assassinating the Protestant King James I and replacing him with a Catholic monarch. To this end, they placed large quantities of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords, which one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, would detonate during the State Opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605. If successful, the explosion would have destroyed the Palace, killing the King, his family and most of the aristocracy. However, the plot was discovered and most of the conspirators were either arrested or killed while trying to evade capture. The survivors were tried for high treason in Westminster Hall, convicted and gruesomely executed by hanging, drawing and quartering. Since then, the cellars of the Palace have been searched by the Yeomen of the Guard before every State Opening of Parliament, a traditional precaution against any similar attempts against the Sovereign.
The previous Palace of Westminster was also the site of a prime-ministerial assassination in 1812. While in the lobby of the House of Commons, on his way to a parliamentary inquiry, Spencer Perceval was shot and killed by a Liverpool merchant adventurer, John Bellingham. Perceval remains the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated.
The New Palace became the target of Fenian bombs on 24 January 1885, along with the Tower of London. The first bomb, a black bag containing dynamite, was discovered by a visitor on the steps towards the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. Police Constable (PC) William Cole attempted to carry it to New Palace Yard, but the bag became so hot that Cole dropped it and it exploded. The blast opened a crater in the floor in diameter, damaged the roof of the Chapel and shattered all the windows in the Hall, including the stained-glass South Window at St Stephen's Porch. Both Cole and PC Cox, a colleague who had joined him to offer assistance, were seriously injured. Concern about such attacks and a possible chemical or biological attack led to the construction of a glass screen across the Strangers' Gallery in early 2004.
The new barrier does not cover the gallery in front of the Strangers' Gallery, which is reserved for ambassadors, members of the House of Lords, guests of MPs and other dignitaries, and in May 2004 protesters from Fathers 4 Justice attacked Prime Minister Tony Blair with flour bombs from this part, after obtaining admission by bidding for a place in the visitors' gallery in a charity auction. Subsequently, rules on admission to the visitors' galleries were changed, and now individuals wishing to sit in the galleries must first obtain a written pass from a Member certifying that that individual is personally known to them. In September of the same year, five protesters opposed to the proposed ban on fox hunting disrupted the proceedings of the House of Commons by running into the Chamber.
Although the House of Lords has mostly avoided such incidents, it became a target in 1988. During the debate for the controversial Clause 28, which was a proposal to ban the promotion of homosexuality in schools, three lesbian demonstrators disrupted the proceedings by abseiling into the Chamber from the public gallery. As a result, Members may take snuff instead and the doorkeepers still keep a snuff-box for this purpose. Despite persistent media rumours, it has not been possible to smoke anywhere inside the Palace since 2005. Members may not eat or drink in the chamber; the exception to this rule is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who may have an alcoholic drink while delivering the Budget statement.
Hats must not be worn (although they formerly were when a point of order was being raised), and Members may not wear military decorations or insignia. Members are not allowed to have their hands in their pockets – Andrew Robathan was heckled by opposing MPs for doing this on 19 December 1994.
No animals may enter the Palace of Westminster, with the exception of guide dogs for the blind;<ref name="Factsheet G07"/> sniffer dogs, police horses, and horses from the Royal stables.
Speeches may not be read out during debate in the House of Commons, although notes may be referred to. Similarly, the reading of newspapers is not allowed. Visual aids are discouraged in the chamber. Applause is also not normally allowed in the Commons. Some notable exceptions to this were when Robin Cook gave his resignation speech in 2003, when Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared for the last time at Prime Minister's Questions and when Speaker Michael Martin gave his leaving speech on 17 June 2009. The status of the Palace as a royal palace raises legal questions – according to Halsbury's Laws of England, it is not possible to arrest a person within the "verges" of the Palace (the Palace itself and its immediate surroundings). However, according to a memorandum by the Clerk of the House of Commons, there is no prohibition on arrest within the Palace and such arrests have been effected in the past.
Culture and tourism
The exterior of the Palace of Westminster—especially the Clock Tower—is recognised worldwide, and is one of the most visited tourist attractions in London. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) classifies the Palace of Westminster, along with neighbouring Westminster Abbey and St Margaret's, as a World Heritage Site. It is also a Grade I listed building.
Although there is no casual access to the interior of the Palace, there are several ways to gain admittance. UK residents may obtain tickets from their local MP for a place in the viewing gallery of the House of Commons, or from a Lord for a seat in the gallery of the House of Lords. It is also possible for both UK residents and overseas visitors to queue for admission on the day, but capacity is limited and there is no guarantee of admission. Either House may exclude "strangers" if it desires to sit in private. Members of the public can also queue for a seat in a committee session, where admission is free and places cannot be booked, or they may visit the Parliamentary Archives for research purposes. Proof of identity is necessary in the latter case, but there is no requirement to contact a Parliamentarian in advance.
Free guided tours of the Palace are held throughout the parliamentary session for UK residents, who can apply through their MP or a member of the House of Lords. The tours last about 75 minutes and include the state rooms, the chambers of the two Houses and Westminster Hall. Paid-for tours (led by London Blue Badge Tourist Guides) are available to both UK and overseas visitors during the summer recess. UK residents may also tour the Clock Tower, by applying through their local Member of Parliament; overseas visitors and small children are not allowed.
Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank selected the Palace as one of his five choices for the 2006 BBC television documentary series Britain's Best Buildings. The nearest London Underground station is Westminster, on the District, Circle and Jubilee Lines.
- Official website of the Palace of Westminster
- Palace of Westminster Square 360 Image (Java)
- Westminster Hall – A Virtual Experience
- "A Victorian Novel in Stone" Rosemary Hill, The Wall Street Journal, 20 March 2009