Palace of Westminster

Architecture – Perpendicular Gothic Revival

The Palace of Westminster is better known today as the British Parliament or the Houses of Parliament. It was first built by Canute the Great as far back as the 11th century. The Westminster Palace is the meeting place of the two houses of Parliament of the United Kingdom – The House of Lords and the House of Commons – and is the ‘Heart of British Politics’.

The Palace of Westminster lies on the northern bank of River Thames in the City of Westminster, in central London. Its name has been derived from the neighbouring Westminster Abbey which is a Gothic abbey church and represents two structures – The Old Palace, a medieval building constructed first during the 11th century and destroyed by fire in 1834; and the New Palace, which was rebuilt later and stands today.

The Palace still retains its own Gothic style and status as a royal residence for ceremonial purposes and is the property of the crown.

Westminster Palace was the primary residence of the Kings of England and has served as the home of the Parliament of England and later on as the seat of Royal Courts of Justice.

The palace has been in continuous use since the 11th century and has been listed as Grade I building since 1970 and is also a part of UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.

THE TIMELINE

1050 – Canute the Great built the Palace of Westminster

1265 – Representatives of major towns met at the Palace

1295 – As this was also the Royal residence, the Model parliament, the oldest in England met here which established the first official parliament of England

1512 – Fire destroyed the Royal residential area of the palace during the reign of King Henry VIII

1605 – Guy Fawkes setup a Gunpowder plot to destroy the House of Lords; however, it was discovered in time and the attempt failed badly.

1834 – A fire broke out in the Palace by an overheated stove which lit up the House of Lords chamber. Both the houses of Parliament were destroyed including almost all of the other buildings in the Palace. The Westminster Hall was saved, owing to the firefighters’ efforts and a change in the wind direction.

1836 – As a result of the damage caused, a public competition was introduced, inviting ideas to design the Palace in either Gothic or Elizabethan style. Charles Barry was unanimously selected for his design. Construction began in 1840 and neared completion by 1860.

1941 – Bombing during the WW-II destroyed the House of Commons chamber entirely and the roof of the Members’ Lobby collapsed.

1945 – The House of Commons had to be rebuilt. Construction began in 1945 by Giles Gilbert Scott, and adhered to its original shape, and was completed by 1950.

THE LAYOUT

The Palace of Westminster contains a total of 6 entrances, 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases and over 4.8 kilometres of passageways. The building is on four main levels. The ground floor river-front houses offices, private dining rooms, bars and meeting rooms; the first or principal floor, the chambers, libraries, and dining rooms.

The second or the Committee floor’s river-front is given over to the Committee rooms, as is the third or the Upper Committee floor. At each end of the building are apartments for the Speaker and the Lord Chancellor and there are two great towers: the Clock Tower, that is, the Big Ben and the Victoria Tower.

VAASTU EYEEven number of entrances – 2, 4, 6, 8 – is considered good for any building as per Vaastu. If the entrance is on the weaker side (South East) of the building, the parliament’s functioning becomes slow and non-cooperative.

Ideally, Westminster Palace should have entrances on the North and the East too. Their absence proves negative for the building. However, the River Thames flowing towards the north on the eastern side of the building is a huge advantage for the British Parliament, both financially as well as its Royal culture.

The Palace of Westminster commands respect and financial supremacy in the world with an increase in strength of the pound sterling. Out of the 6 entrances, 1 and 6 being negative, there is a possible threat to the building.The House of Lords, House of Commons, and the Royal Court of Justice are perfectly located per Vaastu. That is why the building has a long standing history of more than 300 years.

The Houses & Westminster Hall

House of Lords

This is the upper house of the United Kingdom’ Parliament and all the members of the house are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister, excluding 92 hereditary peers who are elected among themselves. Their role is to work with the House of Commons to improve the content of the bills that is, the draft laws; to highlight potential problems and ensure that they become workable laws.

House of Commons

This is the lower house and is a publicly elected chamber of Parliament. Members of the Commons debate the big political issues of the day and proposals for new laws.
The visible difference between the two houses is their carpet colours. If you don’t know which house you are standing in, the House of Commons is carpeted in green while the House of Lords has a red carpet. This is true for the benches and seating for the speaker/deputy speaker too.

Westminster Hall

This is the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster and was built in 1097 under William II (Rufus) and is the only part of the ancient Palace of Westminster which survives almost in its original form.

The Westminster Hall has served numerous functions. It was primarily used for judicial purposes, housing three of the most important courts in the land: the Court of King’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Chancery. In 1875, these courts were amalgamated into the High Court of Justice, which continued to meet in the Westminster Hall until it moved to the Royal Courts of Justice in 1882.

From the twelfth century until the nineteenth century, the Westminster Hall has also served ceremonial functions like coronation banquets honouring new monarchs, ceremonial funerals and ceremonial addresses to the Crown. The last coronation banquet was held in 1821 of King George IV; while his successor abandoned the idea due the expense involved.

There have been ceremonial addresses in this hall and it is considered a rare privilege for a foreign leader to be allowed to address both houses in the Westminster Hall. Since the second world war, the only leaders who had the privilege were French President Charles de Gaulle in 1960, South African President Nelson Mandela in 1996, Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012. President Obama was the first ever US President to be allowed to use the hall to address the Parliament.

Exterior

After the fire incident in the year 1834, Sir Charles Barry redesigned and built the Palace of Westminster using the Perpendicular Gothic Style architecture which was popular during the 15th century and gained popularity again during the Gothic revival of the 19th century. Barry was a classical architect, but he received help from the Gothic architect Augustus Pugin in designing the final architecture. Augustus Pugin also designed the most iconic landmark, the Clock Tower (316 ft) located on the north-eastern end of the Palace, commonly known as Big Ben after its main bell. It is a tower with four-faced clock and was originally meant to serve as a ventilating chimney for stale air and smoke from fireplaces.

Sir Charles Barry and a committee of two leading geologists and a stone carver toured the entire Britain in 1839 looking at the quarries and buildings. Anston, a sand coloured Magnesian limestone from the Anston Quarry in Yorkshire was then used to build the Palace of Westminster in 1839.

cs3
Elizabeth Tower

Towers

The Palace of Westminster has three main towers – Victoria Tower being the largest and the tallest of them all standing high at 323 ft. occupying the south-western corner of the palace. Originally known as “The King’s Tower”, it was affected greatly by the fire of 1834 during the reign of King William IV.

The second highest of the three, Elizabeth Tower, is 316 ft. high and is located on the north-eastern end of the Palace. It also known as the Big Ben after its bell.

The Central Tower standing 300 ft. tall, was designed by the architect Charles Barry to revolutionize the ventilation system of the British Parliament and hence, its central position on the building and the name. The system didn’t really work at all, but it has been retained as an important part of Barry’s work. Unlike other towers, the Central Tower has a spire, and contains the largest known octagonal Gothic vault without a central pillar.

In 1885, at the request of Queen Victoria, a lantern with Ayrton Light was installed atop the Elizabeth Tower. If either House of Parliament were sitting after dark, this was lit up so the Queen could see from Buckingham Palace that the members were ‘at work’. It was named after Acton Smee Ayrton, who was the First Commissioner of Works in the 1870s.

central-toweri
Central Tower
elizabeth-toweri
Victoria Tower

The Story of the Great Fire of 1834

On October 16 1834, a long overdue catastrophe seemed like it was waiting to happen. Throughout the day, a chimney fire had smouldered under the floor of the House of Lords chamber, caused by the unsupervised and ill-advised burning of two large cartloads of wooden tally sticks (a form of medieval tax receipt) in the heating furnaces below. Warning signs were persistently ignored by the Housekeeper and the Clerk of Works, and the Prime Minister would later declare the disaster, ‘one of the greatest instances of stupidity upon record’.

cs7
Old Palace before the Great fire of 1834

A few minutes after six in the evening, a doorkeeper’s wife finally spotted the flames in the Lords chamber where they were emerging through the floor. There was panic within the Palace for the next 25 minutes but no one seemed to have raised the alarm outside, perhaps imagining that the fire – which had now taken hold and was visible on the roof – could be brought under control quickly.

cs6
Old Palace before the Great fire of 1834

They were mistaken. A huge fireball exploded out of the building at around 6.30 pm, lighting up the evening sky over London, and immediately attracting hundreds of thousands of people. It burned fiercely for the rest of the night. The fire could be seen from across the Home Counties and at least 44 artists are known to have painted the catastrophe itself or the ruins of the ancient building it left behind.

“Damn the House of Commons, let it blaze away!” cried the Chancellor of the Exchequer, “But save, O save the Hall!”

StorySource: History of Parliament Online

PALACE RULES AND TRADITIONS

Eating, drinking and smoking

Since the 17th century, smoking has been banned in the chamber of House of Commons; however, Members are allowed to take snuff instead and the doorkeepers still keep a snuff-box for this purpose. Members are not allowed to eat or drink either; exception being the Chancellor of the Exchequer who may have an alcoholic beverage before delivering the budget statement.

Dress Code

Men are expected to wear a shirt and a tie, while women are expected to dress in business attire. T-shirts with slogans are not allowed. Wearing hats and military decorations is also not allowed. Interestingly, members are not allowed to keep their hands in their pockets.

Tourism

UK residents may obtain tickets from an MP if they want to visit the gallery of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. UK and overseas residents – both can queue in at any time of the day or night for admission to the Palace when either House is in session, but there is no guarantee of admission as the seats are very limited.
For UK residents, free 75-minute guided tours of the Palace take place throughout the Parliamentary session and they can apply through their MP or a member of the House of Lords. The free tour includes the state rooms, the chambers of the two Houses and Westminster Hall. Paid tours are conducted as well for UK and overseas residents during the summer recess.