The Palace of Westminster, on the banks of the River Thames in Westminster, London, is the home of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which form the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It is also known as the Houses of Parliament.
Buildings have occupied the site since at least Saxon times, though the oldest buildings still in existence date from about 1097. Edward the Confessor established a royal palace on the site from 1050, and until 1529 Westminster was the main London residence of successive monarchs. A fire in that year caused Henry VIII to decamp from the Privy Palace at the south end of the site, to the Palace of Whitehall. Despite this, it remains a royal palace to this day.
The Palace of Westminster seen across the River Thames
is one of the iconic images of London
On January 20, 1265 the first meeting of the first English parliament, summoned by Simon de Montfort, was conducted here, and - with some short vacations - has sat here ever since, The House of Commons made its first permanent home in St Stephen's Chapel, a part of the palace. It has been at the centre of English and Union politics ever since. It has lent its name to the parliamentary system of government known as the Westminster System. For more than 900 years this impressive assemblage of Gothic buildings has been the home of the English government and more recently the seat of government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Indeed, it is arguable that no other place so potently symbolises democracy in the Western world as this old establishment.
Many of the ancient structures were destroyed by fire on October 16th, 1834 and rebuilt by 1870, when the Parliament moved into their current residences.
The current palace
The Palace of Westminster occupies a site of 32,400 mē (8 acres) on the west bank of the Thames as it runs from south to north on one of its serpentine diversions through the city. The site is bounded to the east by its 266 metres (872 ft) waterfront, and to the west by Westminster Abbey, Parliament Square and Millbank. To the north is Portcullis House, a modern office building for MPs and their staff, and beneath which is Westminster tube station. To the south is the Victoria Tower Gardens, a small triangle of park between Millbank and the Thames.
The building has approximately 1,000 rooms, 100 staircases, and two miles (3 km) of passageways. Although some parts of the building, such as Westminster Hall predate the 1834 fire, much of the present structure is from the 1870 construction. Some notable parts of the building include (from north to south):
- The 320 ft (98 m) high slim Clock Tower, undoubtedly the most famous feature, and housing the bell known as Big Ben, from which the Clock Tower is colloquially, but inaccurately named.
- The House of Commons and the House of Lords, separated by their respective Lobbies, and by a Central Lobby, are at the heart of the building.
- Above Central Lobby is what appears to be a smaller tower. This is, in fact, the extract chimney for the ventilation of the building and reaches 300 ft (91.4 m) above the lobby.
- Victoria Tower is the square tower to the south west of the building, the tallest part of the palace.
- Westminster Hall, erected 1097-1099 by William Rufus, is the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster. It measures 240 by 60 ft (73 by 18 m), and was the largest in Europe for many years. The roof (1394-1398), built on the orders of Richard II, is regarded as the world's finest and largest surviving hammer beam roof. The hall has served many functions, notably as the site of the highest court in the land until 1882. The United Kingdom's lyings-in-state take place here: William Gladstone (1898), King George VI (1952), Queen Mary (1953), Sir Winston Churchill (1965), Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (2002).
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Coronation banquet for George IV
at Westminster Hall, July 19, 1821, under the great hammerbeam roof
The design of the present buildings was the result of a national competition, which had spurred a great deal of debate about whether the building should be classical or gothic, the latter eventually chosen as it was felt that gothic was more English, and it would fit in better with the remaining fragments that hadn't been destroyed. The plan of the building was the work of Charles Barry, more used to designing the classical buildings. The gothic details were designed by Augustus Pugin, and, according to Pevsner, are in the Tudor Perpendicular style and combine Picturesque elements with Gothic detail. Pugin was not entirely satisfied by the result, having described it to a friend, while sailing past on the Thames as "All Grecian, Sir; Tudor details on a classic body."
The stonework of the building was originally Anstone, a sandy magnesian limestone quarried in the village of Anston near Rotherham, South Yorkshire selected by, amongst others, William Smith, regarded as the father of English Geology. Anstone proved to be unable to withstand the acid conditions of London's smogs, and within ten years of construction was derided as a disgrace. A number of stone replacement projects since then, notably in 1902, have replaced the vast majority of Anstone with Chipsham Stone, a honey-coloured limestone from Lincolnshire.
- See also: Gothic revival
On May 11, 1812, Prime Minster Spencer Perceval was assassinated by a bankrupt banker in the lobby of the House of Commons.
On March 30, 1979 Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Airey Neave was killed by a car bomb as he left the House of Commons car park.
During World War II the House of Commons was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in a May 10, 1941 air raid, but was rebuilt and resumed use on October 26, 1950. In the interim, the Commons sat in the Lords Chamber, with the Lords sitting in the adjacent Kings' Robing Room. Due to the noise of the refurbishments the Law Lords, who had previously used the Lords Chamber, temporarily moved to Committee Room I. Gaining the name 'Appellate Committee', this experiment proved so successful that they decided to remain there after refurbishments had been completed.
- Palace of Westminster (http://www.parliament.uk/parliament/guide/palace.htm) on the Parliament.uk website