The Palace of Westminster was established by King Canute in the early-11th century and much expanded by Edward the Confessor after his coronation in 1042. After the Norman Conquest, William I adopted Westminster to help validate his new regime and his son, William Rufus, built the great hall (Westminster Hall). At the time of its construction, this hall was the largest of its kind in Europe and remains so to this day.
Under King Henry III Westminster became increasingly important as a central hub of royal power. He had a set of splendid apartments built which included the Painted Chamber, an enormous rectangular room which housed the monarch’s state bed. The bedroom’s decoration was so detailed that it took over 60 years to paint. Although much degraded and damaged over the centuries, the Painted Chamber survived for more than 600 years until it was demolished in the catastrophic fire of 1834.
The medieval palace’s other focal point was the magnificent St Stephen’s Chapel. First mentioned in 1184, it was rebuilt by Edward I in the mid-13th century to rival the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, before being remodelled by Edward III.
It was finally completed in 1363. Thought to be the first building constructed in the English Perpendicular Gothic style, the chapel was served by the canons of St Stephen’s College. Westminster remained the English monarchy’s principal royal residence throughout the medieval period until 1512, when Henry VIII abandoned it in favour of the nearby Palace of Whitehall.
In the Middle Ages parliament frequently met in Westminster Abbey’s octagonal Chapter House – close to the Palace of Westminster -but in 1547 Edward VI closed St Stephen’s College and gave the Commons the chapel as their permanent home. When the MPs moved in, they sat in the choir stalls and made speeches to each other across the chapel’s central aisle. This arrangement may have encouraged the development of the two-party system of government versus opposition with which we are familiar today.
During the 17th and 18th centuries the medieval palace was gradually lost as various buildings were converted for new uses and its interiors redecorated. ‘Improvements’ were undertaken by architects such as Sir Christopher Wren, James Wyatt and Sir John Soane, which resulted in the palace gradually being transformed into a complex tangle of buildings. Then, on the night of 16 October 1834, a devastating fire broke out which destroyed the whole palace apart from Westminster Hall and a few minor buildings.
After the fire a competition was held for a new design and Sir Charles Barry’s was chosen from a total of 97 entries. Barry’s vision for Westminster in a Perpendicular Gothic style was in harmony with the surviving buildings and was also carefully designed to serve the day-to-day needs and workings of parliament. All in all the construction of the new palace took some 30 years. Its sumptuous interior decoration was the work of Augustus Welby Pugin, a gifted 23-year-old Roman Catholic architect and draughtsman. Westminster’s new design was so successful that it not only influenced the designs of town halls, law courts and schools throughout the British Empire, but it also came to be recognized globally as an architectural masterpiece.
Today, after all these centuries, the Palace of Westminster remains at the heart of UK government. It contains over 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases and some 4.8 kilometres (three miles) of passageways which are spread over four floors. Despite being over 170 years old, the palace still functions smoothly, acting as a backdrop for both the cut and thrust of modern politics and royal ceremonial life, such as the state opening of parliament. Still officially a royal residence after almost a thousand years, the Palace of Westminster was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, as a seminal example of neo-Gothic architecture.
The two-house system
The Westminster parliament comprises two ‘houses’: the House of Commons (the lower house), consisting of 650 members (MPs) elected by their constituencies, and the House of Lords (the upper house), consisting of life peers, hereditary peers and Lords Spiritual (bishops of the Church of England). At present the House of Lords has 775 members.
The purpose of parliament is to govern the country in the monarch’s name and this falls to the largest party in the Commons (or a coalition of parties as at present). Legislation once passed by the Commons goes on to the Lords. The upper house can scrutinize and delay legislation, but since the Parliament Act of 1911, the Lords cannot reject it. The government is primarily responsible to the House of Commons and the prime minister stays in office only so long as he or she retains its support.
Big Ben in focus
Although the name ‘Big Ben’ is often used to describe Westminster’s clock tower, it is actually called the Elizabeth Tower. While the bell is officially called the Great Bell of Westminster, it’s generally referred to as Big Ben – a nickname of uncertain origin now known all over the world. The Elizabeth Tower was designed by the architect Augustus Pugin and completed in 1859; it contains 11 floors and there are 334 steps to the belfry. The belfry houses the Great Clock of Westminster, built by Edward John Dent and his sons. Striking the hour to within a second of the time, the Great Clock has remained reliable since it entered service in 1859. The time is shown on four dials, each seven metres (23 feet) in diameter, which are made of opalescent milk glass and can be lit from behind at night. The hour hand is 2.7 metres (8.9 feet) long, while the minute hand measures 4.2 metres (13.7 feet). The Great Clock started ticking on 31 May 1859, with the Great Bell’s strikes heard for the first time on 11 July the same year. The Great Bell weighs 13.7 tons, is 2.2 metres (7.2 feet) in height and produces the note ‘E’ when tolled. Big Ben is fixed and struck by hammers from outside rather than swinging and being struck from inside by clappers. There are four other bells in the belfry and, when rung together, they produce the ‘Westminster chimes’.
Surviving the Blitz
During the course of World War II, the Palace of Westminster was hit by German bombs on 14 separate occasions. The worst raid took place on the night of 10 May 1941, when the palace took at least 12 hits and three people were killed. An incendiary bomb struck the chamber of the House of Commons and set it on fire, while another set the roof of Westminster Hall alight. The firefighters could not save both and so the decision was taken to rescue the historically important hall. In this they were successful, but the abandoned Commons Chamber was completely gutted, as was the Members’ Lobby. A bomb also struck the Lords Chamber, but luckily it went through the floor without exploding. The Elizabeth Tower (which houses Big Ben) was hit by a small bomb or shell just below the roof line and it suffered much damage as a result. All the glass in the south dial was blown out, but the hands and bells were not affected – amazingly, despite the explosion, the clock continued to keep time accurately. The Commons Chamber was rebuilt after the war by the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The reconstruction was in a simplified version of the old chamber’s style, and it is Scott’s chamber -not Augustus Pugin’s – that we know today.