The Palace of Westminster, known also as the Houses of Parliament, is the location at which the two Houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (the House of Lords and the House of Commons) conduct their sittings. The Palace lies on the west bank of the River Thames in the London borough of the City of Westminster.
The oldest extant part of the Palace, Westminster Hall, dates to 1097. The Palace originally served as a royal residence; however, no monarch has lived in it since the sixteenth century. Most of the present structure dates to the nineteenth century; the Palace was rebuilt after it was almost entirely destroyed by a fire in 1834. The architect responsible for rebuilding the Palace was Sir Charles Barry; the building is an example of Gothic architecture. One of the Palace's most famous features is the Clock Tower, a notable London tourist attraction that houses Big Ben and is often erroneously referred to by this name.
The Palace includes over one thousand rooms, the most important of which are the Chambers of the House of Lords and of the House of Commons. The Palace also includes committee rooms, libraries, lobbies, dining facilities, and other rooms. It is the site of important state ceremonies, most notably the State Opening of Parliament. The Palace is very closely associated with the two Houses, as evidenced by the use of "Westminster" as a metonym for "Parliament."
The site of the Palace of Westminster was of strategic importance during the Middle Ages, as it found itself on the banks of the River Thames. Buildings have occupied the site since at least the Saxon times. Known in mediĉval times as "Thorney," the site may have been first used for a royal residence by Canute the Great (reigned 1016–1035). The penultimate Saxon monarch of England, St Edward the Confessor, constructed a royal palace in Thorney, at about the same time as he built Westminster Abbey (1045–1050). Thorney and the surrounding area soon became known as Westminster (from the word minster, which refers to a type of cathedral). After the Norman Conquest (1066), King William I originally established himself at the Tower of London, but later moved to Westminster. Neither the buildings used by the Saxons nor those used by William I, however, survive. The oldest parts of the Palace still extant (Westminster Hall and the Great Hall) date from the reign of William I's successor, King William II.
The Palace of Westminster was, during the ensuing period, became the monarch's principal residence. As the government of England evolved, many public institutions arose in Westminster. For example, the predecessor of Parliament, the Curia Regis (Royal Council), met in Westminster Hall (though 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. Since then, almost all Parliaments have met in the Palace. (Some Parliaments have, for a variety of reasons, met in other locations.)
Westminster remained the monarch's chief London residence until a fire destroyed part of the structure in 1529. In 1530, King Henry VIII acquired York Palace from Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, a powerful minister who had lost the King's favour. Renaming it the Palace of Whitehall, Henry VIII used it as his principal residence. Although Westminster officially remained a royal palace, it primarily became associated with both Houses of Parliament.
As it was originally a royal residence, the Palace did not include any purpose-built chambers for the two Houses. Important state ceremonies, including the State Opening of Parliament, were held in the Painted Chamber. The House of Lords usually met in the White Chamber. The House of Commons, however, did not have a chamber of its own; it sometimes held its debates in Westminster Abbey. The Commons acquired a permanent home in the Palace—St Stephen's Chapel, a former royal chapel—only during the reign of Henry VIII's successor, King Edward VI. The Chantries Act 1547 (passed as a part of the Protestant Reformation) dissolved the religious order of the Canons of St Stephen's (among other institutions); thus, the Chapel was left for the Commons' use. Alterations were made to St Stephen's Chapel for the convenience of the Lower House.
On 16 October 1834, most of the Palace was destroyed by fire. Only Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, the crypt of St Stephen's Chapel, and the cloisters survived the conflagration. A Royal Commission was appointed to study the rebuilding of the Palace. The Commission decided that the Palace should be rebuilt on the same site, and that its style should be either Gothic or classical. A heated public debate over the proposed styles ensued. Those who preferred the classical style argued that Gothic architecture was too "crude," and therefore inappropriate for Parliament. However, many (including Augustus Pugin) held that Gothic architecture was the true Christian architecture; in contrast, they connected claccisism with the pagan Ancient Greeks and Romans. Furthermore, many held that Gothic architecture was Britain's "national" style, whereas they associated clacissism with France.
In 1836, after studying ninety-seven rival proposals, the Royal Commission chose Charles Barry's plan for a Gothic style palace. 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 completed by 1860, construction was only finished a decade afterwards.
The Palace of Westminster continued to function normally until 1941, when the Commons Chamber was destroyed by German bombs in the course of the Second World War. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was commissioned as architect; he chose to preserve the essential features of Sir Charles Barry's design. Work on the Commons Chamber was completed by 1950.
Sir Charles Barry's design for the Palace of Westminster uses the Perpendicular Gothic style, which was originally popular during the fifteenth century, but returned during the Gothic revival of the nineteenth century. Barry was himself a classical architect, but he was aided by the Gothic architect Augustus Pugin. Westminster Hall, which was built in the eleventh century and survived the Fire of 1834, was incorporated in Barry's design. Pugin was displeased with the result of the work, especially with the symmetrical layout designed by Barry; he famously remarked, "All Grecian, sir; Tudor details on a classic body."
The stonework of the building was originally Anstone, a sand-coloured magnesian limestone quarried in the village of Anston in South Yorkshire. The stone, however, soon began to decay due to pollution. Although such defects were clear as early as 1849, nothing was done for the remainder of the nineteenth 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 Anstone. The project began in the 1930s, but was halted due to the Second World War, and only completed during the 1950s. By the 1960s, however, pollution had once again begun to take its toll. A stone conservation and restoration programme began in 1981, and ended in 1994.
Sir Charles Barry's Palace of Westminster includes several towers. The tallest is the Victoria Tower (98.5 m, or 323 ft), a square tower at the southwestern end of the Palace. The tower was named for the reigning monarch at the time of the reconstruction of the Palace, Queen Victoria. The tower is home to the House of Lords' Record Office, which, despite its name, has custody of the records of both Houses of Parliament. Atop the Victoria Tower is an iron flagstaff, from which the Royal Standard (if the Sovereign is present in the Palace) or the Union Flag is flown. At the base of the Victoria Tower is the Sovereign's Entrance to the Palace. The monarch uses this entrance whenever he or she enters the Palace of Westminster for the State Opening of Parliament or for any other official ceremony.
Over the middle of the Palace lies the Central Tower. The Central Tower is 91.4 m (300 ft) tall, making it the shortest of the three principal towers of the Palace. Unlike the other towers, the Central Tower possesses a spire. It stands immediately above the Central Lobby, and is octagonally shaped.
At the northwestern end of the Palace is the most famous of the towers, the Clock Tower, which is 96.3 m (316 ft) tall. The tower houses a large clock known as the Great Clock of Westminster; on each of the four sides of the tower is a large clock face. The tower also houses five bells, which strike the Westminster Chimes every quarter hour. The largest and most famous of the bells is Big Ben (officially, the Great Bell of Westminster), which is the third heaviest bell in England, weighing about 13,800 kg (13 tons 10 cwt 99 lb). Although the term "Big Ben" properly appertains only to the bell, it is often colloquially applied to the whole tower.
There are a number of small gardens surrounding the Palace of Westminster. Victoria Tower Gardens is open as a public park along the side of the river south of the palace. Black Rod's Garden (named after the office of Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod) is closed to the public and is used as a private enterance. Old Palace Yard, in front of the palace is paved over and covered in concrete security blocks (see security below). Cromwell Green (also on the frontage), New Palace Yard (on the north side), and Speaker's Green (directly north of the Palace) are all fenced off and closed to the public.
The Palace of Westminster includes approximately 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, and 4.8 km (3 miles) of passageways. The building includes four floors; the ground floor includes offices, dining rooms, and bars. The first floor houses the principal rooms of the Palace, including the Chambers, the lobbies, and the libraries. The Robing Room, the Royal Gallery, the Prince's Chamber, the Lords Chamber, the Peers' Lobby, the Central Lobby, the Members' Lobby, and the Commons' Chamber all lie in a straight line from south to north, in the order noted. (Westminster Hall lies to a side at the Commons end of the Palace.) The third and fourth floors are used for committee rooms.
Formerly, the Palace was formally controlled by the Lord Great Chamberlain, as it was (and remains) a royal residence. In 1965, however, it was decided that each House should control its own rooms. The Speaker and Lord Chancellor exercise control on behalf of their respective Houses. The Lord Great Chamberlain, however, does retain custody of certain ceremonial rooms.
The Chamber of the House of Lords is located in the southern part of the Palace of Westminster. The lavishly decorated room measures 24.4 m by 13.7 m (80 ft by 25 ft). The benches in the Chamber, as well as other furnishings in the Lords side of the Palace, are coloured red. The upper part of the Chamber is decorated by stained glass windows and by six allegorical frescoes representing religion, chivalry, and law.
At one end of the Chamber are the ornate gold Canopy and Throne; although the Sovereign may theoretically occupy the Throne during any sitting, he or she only attends the State Opening of Parliament. Other members of the Royal Family who attend the State Opening use Chairs of State next to the Throne. In front of the Throne is the Woolsack, a backless and armless red cushion stuffed with wool (representing the historical importance of the wool trade). The Woolsack is used by the officer presiding over the House (the Lord Chancellor or a deputy). Moreover, the House's mace, which represents royal authority, is placed on the back of the Woolsack. In front of the Woolsack are the Judges' Woolsack (a larger red cushion occupied by the Law Lords during the State Opening) and the Table of the House (at which the clerks sit).
Members of the House occupy red benches on three sides of the Chamber. The benches on the right of the Woolsack form the Spiritual Side, and those to the right form the Temporal Side. The Lords Spiritual (archbishops and bishops of the established Church of England) all occupy the Spiritual Side. The Lords Temporal (nobles), however, sit according to party affiliation: members of the Government party sit on the Spiritual Side, whilst those of the Opposition sit on the Temporal Side. Some peers, who have no party affiliation, sit on the benches in the middle of the House opposite the Woolsack; they are accordingly known as cross-benchers.
The Lords Chamber is the site of many important ceremonies, the most important of which is the State Opening of Parliament, which occurs at the beginning of each new annual parliamentary session. The Sovereign, seated on the Throne, delivers the Speech from the Throne, outlining the Government's legislative agenda for the upcoming parliamentary session. The Commons do not enter the Chamber; instead, they watch the proceedings from the Bar of the House, immediately outside the Chamber. A similar ceremony is held at the end of a parliamentary session; the Sovereign, however, does not normally attend, and is instead represented by a group of Lords Commissioners.
The Chamber of the House of Commons is located at the northern end of the Palace of Westminster. The Chamber measures 20.7 m by 14 m (68 ft by 46 ft). It is far more austere than the grand Lords Chamber; the benches, as well as other furnishings in the Commons side of the Palace, are coloured green. Other parliaments in Commonwealth nations have copied the colour scheme under which the Lower House is associated with green, and the Upper House with red.
At one end of the Chamber is the Speaker's Chair, a present to Parliament from Australia. In front of the Speaker's Chair is the Table of the House, at which the clerks sit, and on which is placed the Commons' ceremonial mace. There are green benches on either side; members of the Government party occupy benches on the Speaker's right, whilst those of the Opposition occupy benches on the Speaker's right. There are no cross-benches as in the House of Lords. The Chamber is relatively small, and can only accommodate 437 of the 646 Members of Parliament. During Prime Minister's Questions and major debates, one can often notice Members of Parliament standing at either end of the House.
By tradition, the British Sovereign does not enter the Chamber of the House of Commons. The last monarch to enter the Chamber was King Charles I (in 1642); he sought to arrest five Members of Parliament on charges of high treason. When the King asked the Speaker, William Lenthall, if he had any knowledge of the whereabouts of these individuals, Lenthall famously replied: "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here." Since Charles I, no monarch has set foot in the House of Commons.
Westminster Hall, the oldest extant part of the Palace of Westminster, was erected in 1097. The roof was originally supported by pillars, but, during the reign of King Richard II, it was replaced by a hammerbeam roof designed by Henry Yevele and Hugh Herland . Westminster Hall is one of the largest European halls with an unsupported roof; it measures 73.2 m by 20.7 m (240 ft by 68 ft).
Historically, Westminster Hall has served numerous functions. It was primarily used for judicial purposes; it housed three of the most important courts in the land: the Court of King's Bench, the Court of Common Pleas, and the Court of Chancery. In 1873, these courts were amalgamated into the High Court of Justice, which continued to meet in Westminster Hall until it moved to the Royal Courts of Justice in 1882. In addition to regular courts, Westminster Hall also housed important state trials, including impeachment trials and the trial of King Charles I at the end of the English Civil War.
Westminster Hall has also served ceremonial functions. From the twelfth century to the nineteenth, coronation banquets honouring new monarchs were held here. The last coronation banquet was that of King George IV (1821); his successor, William IV, abandoned the idea because he deemed it too expensive. Westminster Hall has also been used for lyings-in-state during state funerals and ceremonial funerals. Such an honour is usually reserved for the Sovereign and for their consorts; the only non-royals to receive it in the twentieth century were Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts (1914) and Sir Winston Churchill (1965). The most recent lying-in-state was that of HM Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother in 2002.
Furthermore, the two Houses have presented ceremonial Addresses to the Crown in Westminster Hall on important public occasions. For example, Addresses have been presented on HM The Queen's Silver Jubilee (1977) and Golden Jubilee (2002), the four hundreth anniversary of the Glorious Revolution (1988), and the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War (1995).
Under reforms made in 1999, the House of Commons uses a specially converted room next to Westminster Hall (not the main hall) as an additional debating chamber. (Usually, however, the room is spoken of as a part of Westminster Hall.) The room is shaped like an elongated horseshoe; it stands 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; important or controversial matters are typically not discussed.
There are several other important rooms that lie on the first floor of the Palace. At the extreme southern end of the Palace is the Robing Room, the room in which the Sovereign prepares for the State Opening of Parliament by donning official robes and wearing the Imperial State Crown. Paintings in the Robing Room depict scenes from the legend of King Arthur. Immediately next to the Robing Room is the Royal Gallery, which is sometimes used by foreign dignitaries who wish to address both Houses. The walls are decorated by two enormous paintings by Daniel Maclise: "The Death of Nelson" (depicting Lord Nelson's demise at the Battle of Trafalgar) and "The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher" (showing the Duke of Wellington meeting Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher at the Battle of Waterloo).
To the immediate south of the Lords Chamber is the Prince's Chamber, a small ante-room used by Members of the Lords. The Prince's Chamber is decorated with paintings of members of the Tudor dynasty. To the immediate north of the Lord's Chamber, one finds the Peers' Lobby, where Lords informally discuss or negotiate matters during sittings of the House.
The centrepiece of the Palace of Westminster is the octagonal Central Lobby, which lies immediately beyond the Peers' Lobby. The lobby, which lies immediately below the Central Tower, is adorned with statues of statesmen and with mosaics representing the United Kingdom's constituent nations' patron saints: Saint George for England, Saint Andrew for Scotland, Saint David for Wales, and Saint Patrick for Northern Ireland. Constituents may meet their Members of Parliament in the Central Lobby. Beyond the Central Lobby, next to the Commons Chamber, lies the Members' Lobby, in which Members of Parliament hold discussions or negotiations. The Members' Lobby contains statues of several former Prime Ministers, including David Lloyd George, Sir Winston Churchill, and Clement Attlee.
The Palace of Westminster also includes state appartments for the presiding officers of the two Houses. The Speaker's apartments stand at the northern end of the Palace, whilst the Lord Chancellor's apartments are at the southern end. Each day, the Speaker and Lord Chancellor take part in formal processions from their apartments to their respective Chambers.
The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod oversees security for the House of Lords, whilst the Serjeant-at-Arms does the same for the House of Commons. These officers, however, have primarily ceremonial roles. Actual security services are the responsibility of the Palace of Westminster Division of the Metropolitan Police Service, the police force for the Greater London area.
One of the most famous historical attempts to breach the security of the Palace of Westminster was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The plot was an attempt by Roman Catholic extremists to cause an explosion in the Palace of Westminster during the State Opening of Parliament, thereby killing the Protestant King James I, his family, and most of the aristocracy. The plot was discovered, however, when a Roman Catholic nobleman, William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend the State Opening. The authorities conducted a search of the Palace, discovered the gunpowder, as well as one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes. The conspirators were later tried for high treason in Westminster Hall, and were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Since 1605, the Yeomen of the Guard have conducted a ceremonial search of the Palace's cellars prior to each State Opening of Parliament.
The Palace of Westminster was also the site of a prime ministerial assassination in 1812. Whilst in the lobby of the House of Commons, on his way to a parliamentary inquiry, Spencer Perceval was shot and killed by John Bellingham. Perceval remains the only British Prime Minister to have ever been assassinated. More recently, Airey Neave, a prominent Conservative politician, was killed by a car bomb as he drove out of the Palace's car park. Both the Irish National Liberation Army and the Provisional Irish Republican Army claimed responsibility for the murder; security forces believe the former were actually responsible. With rising concern about the possibility of a truck full of explosives being driven into the building, a series of concrete blocks were placed in the roadway in 2003.
The Palace has also been the site of a number of acts politically motivated "direct action". In 1970, for example, some individuals threw a canister of tear gass into the Chamber of the House of Commons to protest conditions in Northern Ireland, and in the same cause in 1978 manure was thrown by, among others, the daughter of Dom Mintoff. 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 did not cover the front three rows which are termed the "Distinguished Strangers Gallery" and in May of that year, protestors from Fathers 4 Justice attacked Prime Minister Tony Blair with flour bombs from this part. In September, five protestors opposed to a proposed ban on fox hunting disrupted the proceedings of the House of Commons by running onto the Chamber. Despite such disruptions, members of the public continue to have access to the Galleries.
Culture and tourism
The exterior of the Palace of Westminster—especially the Clock Tower—is one of the most visited tourist attractions in London. There is no casual access to the interior, but it may be viewed in a number of ways. The public may view debates from the public galleries of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Residents of the United Kingdom may obtain tickets from Members of Parliament or from peers in advance; overseas visitors may obtain tickets from their Embassies or High Commissions. It is also possible for both residents and visitors to queue for admission on the day, but capacity is very limited. Either House may choose to exclude "strangers" from its Chamber if it desires to debate in private. Furthermore, members of the public may take part in guided tours of the Palace with tickets from Members of Parliament or peers. Tours whilst Parliament is in session are limited; far more take place during the summer, when both Houses are in recess.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) classifies the Palace of Westminster as a World Heritage Site. It is also a Grade I listed building.
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Last updated: 06-02-2005 04:00:08