The Palace of Westminster is now the home of the two houses of parliament that run the United Kingdom, but at one time was a Royal Palace. Very little of the current building exists from this time with the exception of Westminster Hall. It has been rebuilt and repaired many times over the years. Today it contains 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases and 3 miles (5 Km) of passageways.
It is located next to the River Thames, and at one end has the tower containing Big Ben recognised throughout the world. Together with Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret's Church, both very near, it is an area designated as a World Heritage Site.
The first Royal residence on this site was that of Canute the Great, King from 1016 to 1035. St Edward the Confessor (1003-1066) constructed Westminster Abbey and a new palace next to it in what was then known as Thorney Island, as it was to the west of the city of London it became known as 'The West Minster', shortened over time to Westminster. King William I initially used the Tower of London as his London base, but later moved to the Westminster Palace. Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the existing structure, was constructed by his successor William II. Through later mediaeval times the Palace of Westminster was the King or Queens London residence, and Westminster Hall was the London meeting place of the Royal Court (Curia Regis), when the King was in other parts of the country the court followed him as he moved to other palaces.
The Royal court was the predecessor of Parliament, and the first official Parliament of England met in the Westminster Hall in 1295. At this point it was a single house with 49 lords and 292 representatives, this was clergy, aristocracy, and representatives. Each county returned two knights, two burgesses were elected from each borough, and each city provided two citizens. Its main function was to raise taxes for the King, but it gained a second function of sorting out grievances and this became a money for agreements operation.
The Jewel Tower was built in 1365 to house the treasury of Edward III.
The main London residence of the King or Queen has been:-
Fire destroyed part of the structure of Westminster Palace in 1512, and at the same time Thomas Cardinal Woolsey had a new elaborate palace not far away known as York Place. Removing many church properties Henry VIII took York Place and renamed it Palace of Whitehall, extending it to become the largest of the Royal palaces ever. Westminster officially remained a Royal Palace, but was used by the two Houses of Parliament and as a law court.
The Westminster Palace as it was then, was not ideal for parliament, as it had no debating chamber as such for each of the houses. The House of Commons for example sometimes held its debates in the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey, and the House of Lords had its in the Queens Chamber. In 1547 the Chantries Act, a part of the protestant restoration, relived the Church of St Stephens Chapel and this conveniently allowed the development of a chamber for the commons. Sir Christopher Wren carried out major work on this in the 17thC. More seating was added over the years to accommodate the new MPs created by the Acts of Union with Scotland (1707) and Ireland (1800), including an upper-level gallery. The expansion of the peerage in the 18thC by George III made more changes necessary.
The palace was substantially remodelled by Sir John Soane during the early 19th Century. The Medieval 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 ceremonial entrance at the southern end of the palace.
On the 16th October 1834 a major fire destroyed both chambers and much of the palace. The fire starting in a stove used to destroy the exchequers tallysticks. This igniting panelling. Tally sticks were used to record taxes from the shires, there use is described in a document of the time:-
Later tally sticks were to become exchanged for and become the capital of the Bank of England.
Most of the palace was lost in the fire, but Westminster Hall was saved. After a lot of debate, designs and more a decision was made to rebuild in 1835 in Gothic or Elizabethan, 97 proposals in design were considered and a design by Charles Barry chosen in 1836 for a gothic style palace. Building started in 1840 and the Lords chamber completed in 1847 and Commons in 1852. Much of the interior design was by Augustus Pugin. Work continued well after this and was not completed before the next major mishap.
During the Second World War, the Palace of Westminster was hit 14 times by bombs. The worst of these was on 10 May 1941, when the Commons Chamber was destroyed. The chamber was re-built under the architect Giles Gilbert Scott with the work being completed in 1950.
The stone from Yorkshire used in the 1840 rebuild was not ideal for the London Pollution and although this was known by at least 1849, work with it continued. A lot of the stone was replaced with honey coloured stone from Rutland from the 1930's, delayed during the Second WW, and completed in the 1950's. By the 1960's some of the stone was again showing pollution damage and a stone restoration programme started in 1981.
Central Tower 316ft high, (96.3m) and is above the central lobby, it has a spire and was designed to provide a high level air intake for the palace.
St Stephen Tower is above the main entrance at the front of the palace.
Speakers Tower - North end of the river front.
Chancellors Tower - South end of the river front.
There are a number of other small towers.
The palace has a number of gardens, Victoria Tower Gardens is the only one open to the public. College Green, a triangular patch of grass over an underground car park opposite the House of Lords, is the point often seen in use by TV crews interviewing politicians.
You can see a more detailed description of the rooms, art, and more in the Wikipedia article and links from it.
Their websites are good, take the visiting tab and explore the options to see a vast amount of information on visits, rooms, layout, maps, images and far more.
It is used when overseas leaders speak to both Houses of Parliament, for lying is state, banquets. Westminster Hall also has, over time, housed important trials, including impeachment trials and the state trials of King Charles I at the end of the English Civil War, Sir William Wallace, Sir Thomas Moore, John Cardinal Fisher, Guy Fawkes, the Earl of Stratford, the rebel Scottish Lords of the 1715 and 1745 uprisings, and Warren Hastings.
Map and views: both Google and Multimap have good maps, the aerial view from Multimap I think is clearer. Multimap also has an interesting aerial or birds eye view that lets you look at an angle from the air and go around the building, while Google maps has a facility where you can place a person on the ground and move them about looking around from this point. I suggest you use both to get a good idea of the area and what you could see from individual points. In both mapping/aerial systems you can get rid of the left panel and using the f11 key on your keyboard, allow the full screen height.
Security Note: Nothing is contained in this article that is not on Wikipedia or on the Houses of Parliaments own website.
UK Residents:- Visitors can visit by arranging with their Member or Parliament or a member of the House of Lords. Clock Tower tours can also be arranged the same way. Both are popular and there may be a 6 month wait to get the opportunity to visit, alternatively you can book and pay for a visit in the summer recess. Some visits where you queue and pay on the day in the summer recess is also available. See their website page to see other options, like watching a debate.
Some MP's supplement their income by arranging diners in the dining rooms for groups/organisations within the commons and arranging meetings and some of these may allow access to parts of the palace.
Talk to your MP, or prospective MP's who will have other MPs in the house, who will be able to tell you more or visit the Houses of Parliament website, which gives a search facility to identify contact information for members of either house.
Non UK Residents. Overseas visitors can only tour parliament in the summer recess, but they can attend debates, committees and some other items through the year, see their website for details. Visits to the Clock Tower are not available to overseas visitors.
Guided tour in summer recess:- These last around 75 minutes and are led by a Guide, the tours follow the processional route taken by the Queen when she performs the State Opening of Parliament. Beginning in the Robing Room the tour proceeds past the red benches of the vast Royal Gallery to the tiny Princes Chamber, this is richly decorated on Prince Albert's orders with engravings of the Tudor dynasty.
The ornate Chamber of the House of Lords is next and it is dominated by the throne. In contrast to the throne, there is a large square cushion for the Lord Chancellor which is stuffed with wool from around the Commonwealth known as the woolsack.
Next is Central Lobby which marks the transition from the ornate Lords into the austere Commons. Members' Lobby is famous for a statue of Churchill where the famous leader's brass toe has been rubbed shiny by Tory MPs wanting luck in their maiden speeches.
The Chamber of the House of Commons is entered via a voting lobby. It's much smaller and more personal than it looks on television, and standing among the benches gives a new take on the confrontational layout of the space.
The Tour continues through St Stephen's Hall, the original site of the Commons and, as a former chapel, responsible for the way MPs face each other in the modern chamber - they originally took up seats in the choir stalls.
The Tour ends at Westminster Hall, which is 900 years old.
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