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Westminster Palace

Also Known as the Houses of Parliament and Palace of Westminster

Westminster, London

Featured Location Guide

"A World Heritage Site"

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.

The Palace of Westminster as seen from the London Eye 

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:-

  • Westminster Palace 1049-1530

  • York Palace - Palace of Whitehall (now Whitehall) from 1530-1698 (the banqueting hall remains)

  • St James' Palace 1702-1837

  • Buckingham Palace 1837 to today.

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:-

At the top of the tally a cut is made, the thickness of the palm of the hand, to represent a thousand pounds; then a hundred pounds by a cut the breadth of a thumb; twenty pounds, the breadth of the little finger; a single pound, the width of a swollen barleycorn; a shilling rather narrower than a penny is marked by a single cut without removing any wood.

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.

 

A plan of the Palace of Westminster .

From the collection of architectural drawings formed by Frederick Crace (died 1859), which is now in the possession of the British Library. It is probably an original drawing produced by Charles Barry's office.

It should be remembered that the palace has many floors and this represents the main floor only.

Key to plan:
  • A: Sovereign's entrance (Victoria Tower above)

  • B: Sovereign's robing room

  • C: Royal gallery

  • D: Chamber of the House of Lords

  • E: Central lobby

  • F: Chamber of the House of Commons

  • G: Westminster Hall

  • H: Clock Tower (containing Big Ben)

The Towers

Victoria Tower 323ft (98.5m) tall is the square tower at the southern end, it faces south and west into Black Rods garden.  All 14 floors were originally linked by a wrought iron Victorian staircase with 553 steps, of this 5 floors survive. 12 floors are now used for the parliamentary archives. After the fire had destroyed the old palace and most of their records, this was a purpose built tower that was designed with 12 floors to protect records against fire in the future, over the sovereigns entrance. When built it was called the Kings Tower. When the wrought iron flagstaff was erected in 1855, the Tower became the tallest square tower in the world, at 98.5 metres (323 ft) high to the base of the flagstaff, and a further 22.3 metres (73 ft) to the top of the Crown at its summit. The archive storage areas have since been modified to provide air conditioned archive storage to the latest standards. From the flagpole either the Royal Standard (if the Sovereign is present in the Palace) or the Union Flag is flown. At the base of the tower is the Sovereign's Entrance to the Palace, used by the monarch whenever entering the Palace of Westminster for the State Opening of Parliament or for any other official ceremony.

Victoria Tower Parliamentary Copyright

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Clock Tower 316ft (96.3m) tall and located at the opposite end, the North east end. It is the most recognisable feature having a large clock with four faces known after the main bell Big Ben. Getting to the top involved climbing the 334 limestone stairs. The clock faces are set in an iron frame 7 metres (23ft) in diameter, supporting 312 pieces of opal glass, rather like a stained-glass window. Some of the glass pieces may be removed for inspection of the hands. The surround of the dials is gilded. At the base of each clock face in gilt letters is the Latin inscription DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM, which means O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First. The bottom 61 metres (200ft) of the Clock Tower's structure consists of brickwork with sand coloured Anston limestone cladding. The remainder of the tower's height is a framed spire of cast iron. The tower is founded on a 15 metre (49ft) square raft, made of 3 metre (9.8ft) thick concrete, at a depth of 4 metres (13ft) below ground level. The four clock faces are 55 metres (180ft) above ground. It now leans slightly by 8.66 inches to the NW at the clock face, due to tunnelling for the Jubilee Line. There was a clock tower here from 1288 but the current tower was constructed as a part of the Barry rebuild.

 

Clock Tower - Parliamentary Copyright

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.

Gardens

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.

Interior

The building includes four floors. The ground floor includes offices, dining rooms and bars. The "first floor" (known as the principal floor) houses the main 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 on this floor, from south to north, in the order noted. (Westminster Hall lies to a side at the Commons end of the Palace). It is this floor that is shown in the plan further up this page. The top 2 floors are used for committee rooms and offices.

Central Lobby   Parliamentary Copyright

 

Commons Chamber

Lords Chamber

 

Although on TV we see the main Commons chamber and the Lords chamber, there are a number of other debating chambers and a variety of sized rooms available. There are two rooms referred to as the Westminster Hall, the large old hall used for ceremonial events and a second debating chamber next to it used by the commons for debates where there is no major conflict of opinions, this has seating arranged in a horseshoe arrangement, where the commons has two sides facing each other.

The lords chamber has seats covered in red leather and seating arranged on three sides, behind the speaker being the throne used in state openings etc. The commons chamber is the adversarial chamber with two sides only and seats in green leather.

All three chamber images Parliamentary Copyright

You can see a more detailed description of the rooms, art, and more in the Wikipedia article and links from it.

You can see what rooms are currently in use for the day debates and other uses from the commons website, section on this.

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.

Westminster Hall

Today used for ceremonial occasions, it was the original meeting chamber. Today we have 2 Westminster Halls in the Palace of Westminster (see above) here we are looking at the large ancient ceremonial hall not the extra debating chamber used by the commons.

Westminster Hall is the oldest part of the palace, built in 1097,  originally the roof was supported by two lines of pillars, but in the reign of Richard II in the late 15th century, changes were made, the pillars removed and a hamerbeam roof created by the royal carpenter. This was made at Farnham in Surrey, in pieces, and taken to Westminster on carts to put together. This provided the largest clearspan roof in England at the time measuring 240ft by 68ft.

Roof of Westminster Hall Parliamentary Copyright

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.


Visiting

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.


Further information Grid

 

Location:

Westminster Palace, London

Ceremonial County: London

Grid Reference:

TQ301795

Map Link:

Multimap   Google

Aerial photo:

Multimap       Multimap Birdseye       Google

Route(s):

 

Best Times to Visit:

When in session to see debates, summer recess to get a public ticket that you can buy.

E-mail:

 

Website:

parliament.uk/visiting/visitingandtours/tours.cfm

parliament.uk/visiting/visitingandtours/ukvisitors.cfm

Other useful websites:

Wikipedia

www.parliament.uk/parliament/guide/palace.htm

Nearby Locations: Westminster Abbey      Saint Margaret's Church
Other Relevant pages:

World Heritage Sites     

World Heritage Sites - Further Information

 

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Planning Grid

Location:

Westminster Palace, London

Grid Reference:

TQ301795

Getting there:

Located in Westminster London. Local tube station is Westminster on the Circle, Jubilee and District lines

Access:

 

Parking:

CONGESTION FEES APPLY, weekdays 7am-6pm, (pay it 8 per day) a form of additional toll, for travelling in London. Parking is also very expensive and the time taken to get in as long as the time taken to travel in by tube from one of the outer tube stations.

Facilities:

The palace has everything from large dining rooms, to bars to gift shops to its own post office, not all may be accessible to you.

Things To Do, See and Photograph:

Outside of building, possibly some inside shots ask if you are not sure.

What to take:

Due to need to go through airport level security checks as little as possible.

Nature highlights:

none except possibly on river.

Address:

House of Commons

London

Postcode:

SW1A 0AA

Telephone:

 

Opening times:

See the parliament website for details of public opening in the summer recess (2009 3rd Aug to 3rd Oct) or arrange visits through your MP or a member of the Lords at any time of year.

Charges:

UK visitors arranged through MP or member of the Lords - no charge but check this when arranging it.

Overseas visitors Ticketmaster have tickets Adults 11.70; Students/armed forces/seniors 7.80; children (5-15) 4.80; Family (2+2) 29.20. Tour is 75 minutes.

Photo Restrictions:

No restrictions photographing the outside, although in recent years some photographers have been harassed by police quoting security concerns, but this is thought to be to keep up targets. Far more can be seen in photographs on the Parliament website and the mapping services, than you can take. On the website it says 'Cameras cannot be used, except in Westminster Hall'.

Other Restrictions:

You need to check what you can take inside, some inside photography is allowed but check first. On the website site it now says 'Cameras cannot be used, except in Westminster Hall'.

Visitors pass through airport style security checks, no liquids allowed.

Special Needs Access:  
Special Needs Facilities:  
Children Facilities: Not a place to take children.
Dogs Allowed: Guide dogs only.

Please let us know any other information that we can add to the Further information and Planning Grids or page and any errors that you discover. Before making a long trip to any location it is always wise to double check the current information, websites like magazines may be correct at the time the information is written, but things change and it is of course impossible to double check all entries on a regular basis. If you have any good photographs that you feel would improve the illustration of this page then please let us have copies. In referring to this page it is helpful if you quote both the Page Ref and Topic or Section references from the Grid below. To print the planning grid select it then right click and print the selected area.

Please submit information on locations you discover so that this system continues to grow.

 


By: Keith Park  Section: Castles Section Key:
Page Ref: Westminster_Palace Topic: Castles  Last Updated: 07/2009

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