The first residence to have been built on the site of today’s Parliament dates back from circa 1016, when King Canute set up his royal residence here.
The Palace of Westminster, or Houses of Parliament, as we know it today, is the “New Palace”, built between 1840 and 1870, and only the Great Hall (or Westminster Hall) is all that remains from the medieval Old Palace.
The Old Palace was built by William II between 1097 and 1099 and was the largest hall in England at the time. The palace was extended and changed by a number of royal residents until 1512, when a fire gutted the privy chambers and Henry VIII moved to a nearby building in Whitehall and never moved back, which meant that Parliament could move in. Parliament had convened regularly at Westminster since the reign of Henry III, but it was only in 1512 when a permanent house was needed, as Henry VIII kept law makers busy with his divorces and changes to the line of succession.
Westminster has played host to many high-profile treason trials. Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot were tried and executed in 1606. Charles I, while still king, was tried and condemned as a “tyrant, traitor and murderer” in 1649 – even though no court had any legal authority over him. The courts of law finally moved out of Westminster in the 1800s.
In 1834 the old structure was destroyed by a fire, giving the opportunity to build something fit for purpose. As ever in these situations, a competition was put out by the authorities and the winner was Sir Charles Barry, who worked alongside Augustus Pugin, creating the Perpendicular Gothic building we see today. It contains 1,100 rooms around two courtyards, covers eight acres with a 266 meter river frontage. Sadly, neither Barry nor Pugin lived to see the New Palace finished.
Aside from fires and Gunpowder Plots, Westminster Palace has been the target of many other acts of violence. Prime Minister Spencer Percival was assassinated here on 11th May 1812, the only British Prime Minister to have ever been assassinated. A bomb severely damaged the Common Chamber in 1885 and seriously injured three. During the Blitz in WWII, the Palace was hit 14 times. In 1974 a 9kg bomb, planted by the IRA, exploded and in 1979 a car bomb exploded killing Conservative politician Airey Neave.
Some interesting facts:
- The only members of parliament allowed to eat or drink in the Chamber is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who can have an alcoholic drink while delivering the budget.
- The building contains over 100 staircases, 3 miles of corridors, has its own gymnasium, shooting range and hair salon.
- The lifts have hooks designed to hang your sword and some floor markings are designed to be 2 sword lengths apart.
- The Lord’s Chamber is the most lavishly decorated room, however, the Lord Speaker sits on a large sack of wool, representing Britain’s wool trade.
- No King or Queen has entered the House of Commons since 1642, when Charles I stormed in with his soldiers and tried to arrest five members of Parliament who were there.
- In 1987 the Houses of Parliament were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- The 1313 Statute forbids the wearing of armour by members of Parliament when attending the House.
- It is still against the law to die in the Houses of Parliament, as the law has not been repealed. Anybody dying in Parliament is technically entitled to a state funeral, and therefore this law was created to prevent this from happening.
The Houses of Parliament are open to the public whenever Parliament is in session (generally October to June, Monday to Thursday) and are free to enter. If you see a light above the clock of Big Ben and a flag atop the Victoria Tower, which is the tower at the south end of the building, Parliament is in session; alternatively feel free to ask one the nice police men and women around the building. Both Houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, are usually in session until 1800hrs most days, sometimes later, depending on how the debates go. Be prepared for long line ups as everyone has to go through security and then you might have to wait outside the respective House to be let in. Line ups are longest at the start of the sessions, which is when the most hottest debates take place and Wednesdays are also very busy, as this is the day the Prime Minister usually attends Parliament. We took a chance and arrived around 1700hrs and were very lucky not to have encountered any lines at all. Once you enter you will be asked which House you wish to attend and then be given a coloured card (Green for the Commons and Red for the Lords – in line with the colours of their respective benches in the Chambers), depending on how much time you have, the length of the lines and the time of day, make your pick. If you arrive early in the day and want to witness some loud and interesting debates, pick the House of Commons. If you don’t want to wait that long and you are under time pressure, the line ups for the House of Lords are usually shorter and the House of Lords Chamber is the nicer one of the two. You can also opt for both Houses or none and admire the public areas. We opted for both Houses and started with the House of Lords.
Photography is only allowed in Westminster Hall, everywhere else it is forbidden. Once you are through security you will be pointed into the right direction and everywhere you go there will be somebody telling you which way you need to go. In both Houses you are required to hand your coats and bags to security guards who will take your items and give you a ticket for retrieval. You will be guided up some stairs and then called in and enter the House of Lords in a gallery above the Lords. There are 750 Peers (as the members of the House of Lords are called), which are not elected by popular vote. Some Peers have inherited their title whilst others have been appointed by the Queen. The House of Lords has no real power to pass a law on their own, their role is advisory only. The chamber itself is church like, with stained glass and carved walls. At the far end of the room, opposite of where you are sitting in the gallery, you will see the Queen’s gilded throne; she is the only one who may sit there, which she is only allowed to do once a year, when she gives a speech to formally open Parliament.
Once you are ready to leave don’t forget to pick up your belongings before making your way down the stairs again. If, like us, you are going to visit the House of Commons as well, just ask one of the many very helpful attendants and they will guide you to the right corridor. The House of Commons is a lot smaller and of the 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) only 450 can be seated, with the rest of them having to stand at the ends. This is where the power of the land resides; the House of Commons is as powerful as the House of Lords, Prime Minister and the Queen combined. This is where the fiery debates take place and you can watch these from the visitors gallery, which these days is seated behind security glass. Keep an eye out for two red lines on the floor, this is the line that cannot be crossed when debating the other side. It is two sword-lengths apart, to prevent literal clashing of the swords. The Queen is not allowed to enter the Commons Chamber; the last monarch to do so was Charles I, and we know how that turned out.
Once you have finished visiting the Houses make sure you take a look around all the other areas that are open to the public.
This was our first visit to the Houses of Parliament and I just found it so interesting. You can feel the history all around you, you get a real sense that this is a building that would have lots to tell if it could talk. I wish I could have taken photos inside, so instead I tried to take photos of lesser known parts of this famous building.
There is lots more information on the official Houses of Parliament website, specifically it will also let you know what debates are upcoming and when Parliament is in Session. During the summer months the only way to see the Chambers is through a guided tour, so if you are planning to do that, visit the website, which will tell you how to make a booking for these tours.