Palace of Westminster
The Palace of Westminster lies on the bank of the River Thames in the heart of London
The Houses of Parliament, seen over Westminster Bridge
The Palace of Westminster, known also as the Houses of Parliament, is where the two Houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (the House of Lords and the House of Commons) conduct their sittings. The Palace lies on the north bank of the River Thames in the London borough of the City of Westminster.
The oldest part of the Palace still in existence, Westminster Hall, dates from 1097. The Palace originally served as a royal residence, but no monarch has lived in it since the 16th century. Most of the present structure dates from the 19th century, when the Palace was rebuilt after it was almost entirely destroyed by a fire in 1834. The architect responsible for rebuilding the Palace was Sir Charles Barry, and the building is an example of Gothic revival. One of the Palace's most famous features is the clock tower, a notable London tourist attraction that houses Big Ben and is often but erroneously referred to by that name. The Palace contains over 1,000 rooms, the most important of which are the Chambers of the House of Lords and of the House of Commons. The Palace also includes committee rooms, libraries, lobbies, dining-rooms, bars and gymnasiums. It is the site of important state ceremonies, most notably the State Opening of Parliament. The Palace is very closely associated with the two Houses, as shown by the use of "Westminster" as a metonym for "Parliament."
The Palace of Westminster was strategically important during the Middle Ages, as it was located on the banks of the River Thames. Buildings have occupied the site since at least Saxon times. Known in mediæval times as Thorney Island, the site may have been first used for a royal residence by Canute the Great (reigned 1016 to 1035). The penultimate Saxon monarch of England, St Edward the Confessor, built a royal palace in Thorney Island just west of the City of London at about the same time as he built Westminster Abbey (1045 to 1050). Thorney Island and the surrounding area soon became known as Westminster (a contraction of the words "West Monastery"). After the Norman Conquest (1066) King William I established himself at the Tower of London, but later moved to Westminster. Neither the buildings used by the Saxons nor those used by William I, however, survive. The oldest existing parts of the Palace (Westminster Hall and the Great Hall) date from the reign of William I's successor, King William II.
The Palace of Westminster was the monarch's principal residence in the late Mediaeval period. As the government of England evolved, many public institutions arose in Westminster. For example, the predecessor of Parliament, the Curia Regis (Royal Council), met in Westminster Hall (though it followed the King when he moved to other palaces). The Model Parliament, the first official Parliament of England, met in the Palace in 1295. Since then, almost all Parliaments have met in the Palace. However, some Parliaments have (for a variety of reasons) met in other locations. A detail from John Rocque's 1746 map of London.
J. M. W. Turner watched the fire of 1834 and painted several canvases depicting it, including The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835). Westminster remained the monarch's chief London residence until a fire destroyed part of the structure in 1529. In 1530, King Henry VIII acquired York Palace from Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, a powerful minister who had lost the King's favour. Renaming it the Palace of Whitehall, Henry VIII used it as his principal residence. Although Westminster officially remained a royal palace, it was used by the two Houses of Parliament, and as a law court.
As it was originally a royal residence, the Palace did not include any purpose-built chambers for the two Houses. Important state ceremonies, including the State Opening of Parliament, were held in the Painted Chamber. The House of Lords usually met in the White Chamber. The House of Commons, however, did not have a chamber of its own; it sometimes held its debates in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey. The Commons acquired a permanent home in the Palace—St Stephen's Chapel, a former royal chapel, but only during the reign of Henry VIII's successor, King Edward VI. The Chantries Act 1547 (passed as a part of the Protestant Reformation) dissolved the religious order of the Canons of St Stephen's (among other institutions); thus, the Chapel was left for the Commons' use. Alterations were made to St Stephen's Chapel for the convenience of the lower House.
On 16 October 1834, most of the Palace was destroyed by fire. Only Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, the crypt of St Stephen's Chapel and the cloisters survived the conflagration. A Royal Commission was appointed to study the rebuilding of the Palace. The Commission decided that the Palace should be rebuilt on the same site, and that its style should be either Gothic or classical. A heated public debate over the proposed styles ensued. Those who preferred the classical style argued that Gothic architecture was too "crude", and therefore inappropriate for Parliament. However, many (including Augustus Pugin) held that Gothic architecture was the true Christian architecture; in contrast, they connected classicism with the pagan Ancient Greeks and Romans. Furthermore, many held that Gothic architecture was Britain's "national" style, whereas they associated classicism with France.
In 1836, after studying 97 rival proposals, the Royal Commission chose Charles Barry's plan for a Gothic style palace. The foundation stone was laid in 1840; the Lords' Chamber was completed in 1847, and the Commons' Chamber in 1852 (at which point Barry received a knighthood). Although most of the work had been carried out by 1860, construction was not finished until a decade afterwards.
The Palace of Westminster continued to function normally until 1941, when the Commons' Chamber was destroyed by German bombs in the course of the Second World War. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was commissioned as architect; he chose to preserve the essential features of Sir Charles Barry's design. Work on the Commons' Chamber was completed by 1950.
Sir Charles Barry's design for the Palace of Westminster uses the Perpendicular Gothic style, which was originally popular during the 15th century and returned during the Gothic revival of the 19th century. Barry was himself a classical architect, but he was aided by the Gothic architect Augustus Pugin. Westminster Hall, which was built in the 11th century and survived the fire of 1834, was incorporated in Barry's design. Pugin was displeased with the result of the work, especially with the symmetrical layout designed by Barry; he famously remarked, "All Grecian, sir; Tudor details on a classic body."
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Palace of Westminster