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Westminster Palace: One-Thousand Years of History

The Palace of Westminster is among the most iconic buildings in the world. With its picturesque location along the Thames and Big Ben piercing the sky, few structures evoke the same universal awe. After its completion, Westminster Palace was praised by foreign leaders as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Yet, its long history is also full of odd tales that led to the magnificent castle we see today. 

The first iteration of Westminster Palace was built almost one thousand years ago. Serving as a royal dwelling and the seat of many iterations of the British government, it grew in size and stature as the centuries progressed until a fire nearly burnt the entire thing to the ground. Only a fraction of the original building stands today. But, out of the ashes of its predecessor, the new Westminster Palace emerged. The result is something full of more history than almost anything else on earth. Some of the narratives are metaphorically ingrained in the walls, while other bits literally hang from them.

Today, Westminster Palace is home to the British legislature and retains the title of a royal palace. Few buildings contain such ornate design and rich history. Let’s get started.

Origins

Westminster Palace dates back to Anglo-Saxon rule when Canute the Great, ruling from 1016-1035, first established a royal palace was on the banks of the Thames. At the time, the strip of land was called Thorney Island. It’s unclear exactly why this site was chosen. Its location near the river made it easier to transport construction materials. Also, Westminster Abbey lay just down the street, making it an already prestigious area. No matter why, Canute’s residence became the home to British monarchs for the succeeding centuries. Many of them added to the structure, slowly expanding its size and role in government.

While little is known precisely what the early building looked like, it’s clear that it would have been grand. The earliest predecessors to Parliament met within the building, including the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot and the Norman Curia Regis. During these periods, the king sometimes moved residences, and Parliament would always follow. After the first official English Parliament in 1295, almost every single session of Parliament has sat within the building.

Despite its essential role in politics, the building struggled to fill its function throughout these early centuries. Given the primary role as a royal residence, there were no proper meeting chambers. This began to change in the 18th-century, as the old building was renovated and expanded to accommodate the growing Parliament. Many officials called for an entirely new facility in another part of London, though these calls always went unheeded. Instead, an architect named Sir John Soane oversaw the renovations, as the building was expanded with a royal gallery, ceremonial entrances, endless libraries, all in neo-classical style. The finished product was magnificent by all accounts, albeit criticized for its shunning traditional neo-gothic motifs. Unfortunately, the new structure wouldn’t last long.

Westminster Palace has always struggled immensely with fires. While there were several in the early days, the first large instance came in 1512, while King Henry VIII ruled. The fire destroyed the palace’s residential section. Several smaller fires followed in the subsequent centuries until 1834. On October 16th of that year, an overheated stove set fire to the House of Lords chamber. The flames spread throughout almost the entire building, destroying both chambers. The only surviving pieces were Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, and Undercroft Chapel. 

Reconstruction

William in dress uniform painted by Sir
Martin Archer Shee, c. 1800

With the house of Parliament almost entirely in ruin, several backup plans arose. King William IV offered Buckingham Palace. Others considered Charing Cross and St. James Park. But, driven by the history of the building that had stood for 700 years, Parliament determined to continue operating from the dilapidated building. Repairs began immediately, but it was clear that a long-term replacement was necessary.

In 1835, the king allowed Parliament to create plans for a new meeting house, which would be built around the remaining pieces. Over the next two years, debates raged on about how to design the building. Neo-classical government buildings were trendy, including in the recently completed White House and US Capitol. However, the wounds of the American Revolution and the War of 1812 were still fresh, so the Brits decided to shun this style for something that reflected their conservative values. They settled on a neo-gothic form. Parliament held a design competition in which a man named Charles Barry won unanimously. His design was favored for its monumentality and use of the surviving structures. Throughout the process, Barry enlisted the help of another architect named Augustus Pugin.

Work began in 1840, and, of course, the organizers were far too optimistic. Barry suggested that the building would take 6 years to build and cost £725,000, or about 100 million 2021 US dollars. Of course, that prediction was way off. The first critical portion, the House of Lords, was ready for use in 1847, with the House of Commons reaching completion in 1852. At that time, Barry received a knighthood for his efforts. By 1870, most of the building was complete, though continuous decorative work continued on the interior and exterior for the next several decades. Altogether, the total cost for the project was over £2 million, which is roughly 284 million dollars today.

Unfortunately, by the time the work was declared complete in 1870, neither architect was alive to see it. Both men dedicated their lives and, possibly, their health and sanity to the project. While Barry received praise for his design, onlookers questioned whether Pugin deserved more credit. After all, the perpendicular gothic design was much closer to Pugin’s typical style. Regardless, Pugin was placed in Bedlam Asylum near the end of his life, passing away in 1952. Barry would follow just 8 years later, in 1860.

Though not as blatantly ornate as its predecessor, it dwarfed the original palace. The building contained over 1,100 rooms and covered 112,500 square meters (1,210,680 sq ft). In fact, the new palace was even larger than the once small Thorney Island could handle. In the years since the Canute the Great’s rule, Thorney Island was physically incorporated into Central London, receiving the name Westminster. Yet, the project required 3.25 hectares of land reclaimed from the Thames. This allowed Barry to construct the 300-meter long (980 ft) façade that the building is lauded for today. Since its completion, every session of Parliament has taken place within the palace.

Exterior

Upon completion, the new Westminster Palace was hailed as a masterpiece. The exterior received international acclaim for its’ intense gothic figure and imposing towers. Tsar Nicholas I of Russia called it “a dream in stone,” and he was not the only ruler to sing its praises. Yet, construction was not all smooth sailing. Barry decided to build the exterior with sandy-colored Anston limestone. While aesthetically pleasing, it struggled to provide the necessary structural integrity. Early industrial London was full of pollution, and the smoggy air quickly decayed the lower-quality stone. As early as 1849, Barry and his team saw that the Anston limestone was not holding up well. By that point, it was too late to make any changes.

In the early 20th-century, officials decided to replace the stone with the sturdier Clipsham stone, but this project also saw delays. The replacement project wasn’t completed until the 1950s, though disaster was averted throughout that time.

The most impressive engineering feat for Westminster Palace was its three ambitious towers. The smallest of the three is the octagonal Central Tower, at 91 meters (299 ft) tall. The tallest is Victoria Tower, which stands 98.5-meters (323 ft) high. Rising above the Sovereign’s Entrance, the spire is more than just a decorative flourish. It contains the Parliamentary Archives, home to three million documents, and 8.8 kilometers (5.5 mi) of shelves. At the time of its completion, Victoria Tower made Westminster Palace the world’s tallest secular building. But this wasn’t always going to be the case. The steeple was redesigned countless times throughout the process, as Barry continuously sought to push the limits. He had always intended Victoria Tower to be the building’s most impressive feature. As a result, each redesign included more ambitious plans. However, today, it’s the third tower that the building is best known for.

Sitting on the palace’s north end, Elizabeth Tower is only slightly shorter than its neighbor, at 96 meters (315 feet). Originally called the Clock Tower, the structure houses the Great Clock of Westminster. 7 meters in diameter, the clock was famous for its precise timekeeping. The tower contains a series of bells, with the largest 14-ton bell striking on the hour. After several decades in use, a large crack appeared in the bell. However, instead of repairing it, officials left the damage, as locals had grown fond of the bell’s unique sound. Officially called The Great Bell of Westminster, it was eventually nicknamed Big Ben. Over the years, this monicker has been applied to the entire tower, becoming one of the most famous sites in England.

Interior

Westminster Hall interior.
Westminster Hall interior.By Tristan Surtel, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Much like the exterior, Westminster Palace’s interior is ornate and meticulous. The building contains 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, and almost 5 kilometers of passageways. Excluding the towers, the building has four floors. The majority of the formal legislative process occurs on the first floor, where you can also find offices, dining rooms, and bars. Upper floors are dedicated to committee rooms and offices.

While looking at a blueprint, the layout may not seem too complicated. However, due to its role as a royal palace, the site is full of rules regarding who can use what entrance and what pathway they walk. Most visitors enter through St. Stephen’s Entrance, while Members of Parliament come in through the Members’ Entrance. The protocol is most important for the annual State Opening of Parliament. On the day of the proceedings, members of the House of Lords use the Peers’ Entrance before going to their meeting chamber. The most crucial protocol, though, is for the queen. She must first take a carriage from Buckingham Palace to Westminster’s Sovereign Entrance at the base of Victoria Tower. From there, she must follow a path through six rooms before entering the House of Lords. Because of this, many of the most ornately decorated rooms are explicitly meant for this occasion, though members and visitors can enjoy the wall-art at other times of the year.

The Lords Chamber is home to England’s upper parliamentary house. The lavishly decorated room is 13 by 24 meters, with red benches running along three walls. The pews are separated into a “Spiritual Side” and a “Temporal Side.” Members of the ruling party sit on the Spiritual Side besides arch-bishops and bishops from the Church of England, while the opposition party is relegated to the temporal side. At the chamber’s south end is the royal canopy and throne. At the end of her parade through the palace, the queen sits on the elaborate gold chair and delivers the Speech from the Throne, which launches the government’s annual legislative agenda.

Across the hall from the Lords Chamber is the Commons Chamber. The slightly smaller room has a much plainer style to reflect its inferior position to the Lords. While there are 650 members of the Commons, the chamber only has seats for 427. Unlike the Lords, the Commons is decorated entirely with green benches and furniture. This tradition has permeated throughout the former British empire with bicameral legislatures, as the upper house is decorated in red and the lower house in green. The Commons Chamber is among the newest at Westminster, as it was seriously damaged by German bombs during World War Two. Unlike the Lords Chamber, the sovereign is not allowed to enter the Commons Chamber. The last monarch to do so while the house was in session was King Charles the First in 1642.

There are countless other beautiful, decadent rooms throughout the building, but the last one worth diving into is Westminster Hall. That’s because it’s the oldest surviving piece of the original palace. King William the Second had it built in 1097. Its most striking feature is the massive hammer-beam roof, which supports the entire structure without a single column, and was constructed in 1397. The hall has served various purposes over the centuries, including hosting England’s three highest courts until the 1800s. Today, it’s primarily used for ceremonial purposes and significant public addresses. Only five foreign leaders have ever been invited to speak in the hall, including Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. It’s also used as a place for lying in state during ceremonial funerals. Though this honor is usually reserved for royalty, the last non-royal to do so was Winston Churchill in 1965.

History

Given its thousand-year lifespan as a seat of political power, Westminster Palace is full of history and tradition. Its status as a royal palace and center for prominent politicians has made it a target for terrorists, invaders, and would-be assassins. Perhaps the most infamous of these attacks was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Organized by a group of Roman-Catholic gentry, the plot aimed to assassinate the Protestant King James the First and the rest of the royal line. The conspirators placed tons of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords. The notorious Guy Fawkes was charged with detonating it while the government was in session. However, local security uncovered the plot, arresting, torturing, and killing nearly everyone involved. In retrospect, most historians believe that the explosion would have wholly destroyed Westminster Palace. In slightly more recent history, the only assassination of a British Prime Minister occurred within Westminster Palace in 1812, when Spencer Perceval was shot while in the House of Commons.

Of course, despite the previous attacks, the most existential crisis for Westminster Palace was, without a doubt, World War Two and the German Blitz. The palace was hit by bombs on at least fourteen different occasions throughout the attacks. During the worst of the raids, Westminster was struck twelve times in a single day, killing at least three people. Incendiary bombs hit the building, setting the House of Commons and Westminster Hall ablaze. Firefighters could only save one of the structures, and they successfully put out Westminster Hall. The House of Commons was rebuilt in the following years.

Threats to the palace have continued in recent decades, though they are considerably less existential. Throughout the 20th-century, Westminster was a common setting for IRA bombs, some of which had deadly consequences. More recently, Islamist fundamentalist groups have focused attacks on the area, though not the building. Despite the seemingly constant threat, Parliament has continued to operate within, even after explosions. Throughout its history, construction has gone on while officials continued to work inside. However, the centuries-long run of holding Parliament inside the building will soon come to an end.

A 2015 report estimated that restoring the entire palace could cost as much as 10 billion dollars. Officials will vacate starting in 2025, and the rebuild should take approximately six years. With Westminster Palace approaching its one-thousandth anniversary, it’s certainly earned itself a renovation. 

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