The Houses of Parliament comprise the House of Commons, where MPs sit, and the House of Lords, otherwise known as the upper chamber, where hereditary and nominated life peers sit.
Grown up over many centuries, British democracy is a complex system of checks and balances. Legislation introduced by government or by private members is voted on in the Commons and then passed to an upper chamber, the Lords, where parliamentary bills are debated and possibly rejected.
The symbol of Parliament is St Stephen’s Tower, the clock tower fronting the Thames by Westminster Bridge. Big Ben is the name of the tower’s famous bell, which chimes the hours and the quarters. Weighing 13 tonnes, Big Ben was cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1858 and transported to Westminster by a wagon drawn by a team of horses.
The huge, square central tower — Victoria Tower — is positioned midway between the Lords and the Commons. Standing at 323ft (98m), it is slightly taller than St Stephen’s Tower. Its huge arched gateway, the Sovereign’s Entrance, is opened to admit the Queen’s carriage at the annual state opening of Parliament.
Within Victoria Tower are a set of lofty state rooms — Royal Apartments — where the Queen and members of the royal family are received by the prime minister, leader of the house of Lords and leaders of opposition parties. The more magnificent of the two chambers, the House of Lords, has a dais at one end on which sits a gilt throne for the Queen flanked by two smaller gilt thrones for the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales. Standing beside the Queen is Black Rod, a ceremonial figure whose role is to lead the Queen into the Palace of Westminster to meet the Lords in their ceremonial ermine robes.
No monarch has ever been allowed to set foot in the Commons chamber since Charles l entered the House of Commons with an armed guard on January 4 1642 in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest five members and muzzle Parliament for defying a royal command to raise taxes. When asked where the members could be found, the Speaker, William Lenthall, fell to his knees before the King and said:
“May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”
The king’s action in defying the will of Parliament led to the English Civil War, the accession of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector and ultimately to Charles’ dramatic trial and beheading from a scaffold erected outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall.
To this day, the king or queen must recognise the primacy of Parliament by standing aside as Black Rod knocks on the closed door of Parliament and requests formal permission to enter. And even then the monarch is only permitted to enter the House of Lords!
There are many traditions associated with this historic building but one of the oddest is the habit of MPs filing into the Commons to rub the foot of one of the bronze statues of former prime ministers flanking the lobby. The foot of Winston Churchill is brightly polished, especially by Conservative MPs.
You might remark that the stone arch leading to the Commons looks battered. It is meant to be. Its stonework and carving shows the scars of the German bombing raid of 10 May 1941 when the chamber was completely destroyed. The architect who oversaw the restoration, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, incorporated the damaged stonework into the building as a reminder to future generations how near Britain came to defeat. The restored Commons chamber opened in October 1950.
Inside the Commons chamber the despatch boxes, which sit on either side of the table that separates the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, were a gift from the people of New Zealand. They are made of native woods and carved to replace the originals that were destroyed when the Commons was bombed. The boxes do not contain despatches but Bibles on which oaths may be sworn.
The Palace of Westminster contains nearly 1,200 rooms, 100 staircases and well over three miles (5km) of corridors. In addition to the two debating chambers there are committee rooms, offices, state apartments for the Speaker and the Lord Chancellor and also the famous terrace bar frequented after late-night sittings. Although the building mainly dates from the 19th century, parts of the complex are much earlier and were part of a pre-existing royal palace. These include Westminster Hall built in 1097 and still used for ceremonial events such as lying in state of a king or queen, the Jewel Tower and St Stephen’s Chapel.
The very first building to occupy the site of the present day Houses of Parliament was a royal palace built by Edward the Confessor in 1065. The location was a low-lying sand bank almost cut off by the Thames in full flood called Thorny Island. Nearby was a church, later to become Westminster Abbey, dedicated to St Peter and located where the Tyburn tributary flows into the Thames. It was probably built by the East Saxon King Offa and was called Westminster to differentiate it from the city minster of St Paul, to the east.
Little is known of the Confessor’s palace but the Bayeaux Tapestry, which shows the Confessor seated in a stylised palace, almost certainly represents Westminster. William Duke of Normandy chose Westminster Abbey for his coronation on Christmas Day 1066 after the successful Norman Conquest.
Westminster Hall, the oldest building within the Palace of Westminster, can be visited by the public on guided tours. When first built, the Great Hall was one of Europe’s biggest medieval buildings and boasted the largest clear roof span, a magnificent oak hammer-beam structure built by carpenters from Farnham in Surrey and brought to the site by river in huge sections. The Great Hall was extensively rebuilt during the 14th century but the lofty carved roof remains one of the wonders of Britain’s architectural heritage.
Visitors can walk from the Medieval Great Hall up a set of stone steps and through St Stephens Chapel. There is little that is religious about the chapel as, from the 16th century, this building housed the Commons. The stone benches that line the opposite walls of the chapel are where MPs sat.
Built during the reign of Edward III between 1351 and 1360 in the English Gothic perpendicular style, the chapel you see today has been much altered. Its interior was remodelled by Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th century to provide oak panelling and seating for MPs. Badly damaged in the great fire that destroyed much of Parliament in 1834, the chapel was restored by Sir Charles Barry and the interior was decorated in a polychrome painting, stencilling, gilding and marble emulating the earlier medieval scheme. Barry and his fellow architect, A W N Pugin, restored the rows of benches either side of the Speaker's Chair as in the old Chamber.
Meanwhile, the lower chapel, which had served as a wine cellar, a dining room and — as legend has it — a stable for Cromwell’s horses, was now restored to a functioning chapel. The interior, although charred by the fire, still contained such details as the carved medieval ceiling bosses representing martyrdoms — that of St Stephen was located above the altar.
The Jewel Tower, or the King’s Privy Wardrobe as it was called, was built in 1365 and was part of the original royal palace. Standing apart from and opposite the Houses of Parliament, the Jewel Tower contained the records of the House of Lords, which survived the fire of 1834. The building is run by English Heritage and can be seen by members of the public.
A Royal palace
Westminster Palace was used as a royal residence until the time of Henry VIII and Parliament was located here from the 14th century onwards. The basis of Britain’s present day democratic structure evolved during that time from noblemen who advised the king to two chambers of Commons and Lords. The Lords assembled in the Painted Chamber whilst the Commons gathered in the Great Hall. The Commons were led to the bar of the House of Lords — within the Painted Chamber — where the Lords were seated and where, at the centre, the king was enthroned.
Parliament survived the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt by Guy Fawkes and his Catholic co-conspirators to blow up King James I when he opened Parliament in 1605. Fawkes was later tried in the Great Hall of Westminster and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. But the defining event in the history of the Palace came on the evening of 16 October 1834, when fire broke out under the Lords chamber and quickly spread to engulf much of the site. It was said that a spark ignited wooden tallies, an old-fashioned system used by the Exchequer to count taxes and stored in vaults under the chamber.
Certainly, the fire took hold very quickly. Within hours, the whole site was engulfed in flames, the fire burning throughout the night, watched by thousands of people on Westminster Bridge and in the streets. Some commentators viewed the fire as divine retribution, with one spectator describing it as ‘certainly the grandest thing we have ever witnessed’. The artist JMW Turner produced a spectacular painting of the conflagration.
The present-day building
Parliamentarians saw the fire not as a disaster but as an opportunity to sweep away the past and create a modern, purpose-built Houses of Parliament. A Royal Commission was set up and an open architectural competition was decided upon. It was also decided that the style of the new palace should be Gothic (or Elizabethan), and that it should be rebuilt upon the original Westminster site.
It was the Gothic grand design of architect Charles Barry that won over the judges with a building that was to take Medievalism to new and fashionable heights. The interest in medieval culture, now loosely described as the Gothic Revival, had been gathering pace since the mid-18th century and by the early 19th century it was the height of fashion.
During the almost continuous wars with France from 1792 to 1815, Gothic came to be seen as Britain's national style as opposed to the classical style (derived from ancient Greece and Rome) associated with France during the French Revolution and under Napoleon Bonaparte.
On 27 April 1840, the foundation stone was laid and the work of construction begun. It was a monumental undertaking and as building work was progressing slowly Barry enlisted the help of fellow architect and designer Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin in 1844.
Famous for his interpretation of Victorian high Gothic, A W N Pugin designed many of the details, including fittings and furniture. The two men worked closely together on the Prince’s Chamber, the Lords Chamber and the Commons Chamber. Every last detail, from the architectural decoration and furniture to the light fittings, the carpets and the floor tiles, were specially designed and manufactured. It was at this time that the portcullis became the symbol of Parliament and Barry used it as decoration throughout the new building.
The partnership of Barry and Pugin began in the Lords Chamber, which was also used for the annual State Opening of Parliament. The chamber is about 27m (90ft) long and 14m (45ft) high, with a gallery down one end for the public and members of the press.
The seating arrangement is based on past chambers, with benches facing each other across a central space in the manner of choir stalls. The Woolsack, the seat of the Lord Chancellor, who is the Speaker of the House of Lords, was positioned in the centre before the Royal Throne, which was placed at one end. The overwhelming impression of the chamber is one of richness, colour and vivid medieval ornament.
Next came the Commons Chamber, which was always intended to be smaller and less impressive. As with previous chambers, the seating arrangement was based on two opposing rows of bench seating with the Speaker’s Chair at one end. Galleries were added for the public and the press.
The Lords Chamber was opened by Queen Victoria in 1847 to widespread acclaim. The Illustrated London News described it as: “without doubt the finest specimen of Gothic civil architecture in Europe . . . worthy of the great nation at whose cost it has been erected.”