The Palace of Westminster, also known as Houses of Parliament or Westminster Palace, is the meeting place of the two houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom—the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It lies on the northern bank of the River Thames in the heart of the London borough of the City of Westminster.
It’s located close to the historic Westminster Abbey and the government buildings of Whitehall and Downing Street. The name may refer to either of two structures: the Old Palace, a medieval building complex, most of which burned in 1834, and its replacement, New Palace, that stands today. For ceremonial purposes, the Palace retains its original style and status as a royal residence.
The Palace is one of the centres of political life in the United Kingdom; ‘Westminster’ has become a metonym for the UK Parliament, and the Westminster system of government has taken its name after it. The Clock Tower, in particular, which is often referred to by the name of its main bell, ‘Big Ben’, is an iconic landmark of London and the United Kingdom in general, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city and an emblem of parliamentary democracy. The Palace of Westminster has been a Grade I listed building since 1970 and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.
The site was strategically important during the Middle Ages, as it was located on the banks of the River Thames. Known in medieval times as Thorney Island, the site may have been used for a royal residence for the first time by Cnut the Great during his reign from 1016 to 1035.
St Edward the Confessor, the penultimate Saxon monarch of England, built a royal palace on Thorney Island just west of the City of London at about the same time as he built the Westminster Abbey. Thorney Island and the surrounding area soon became known as Westminster. Neither the buildings used by the Saxons nor those used by William I survive. The oldest existing part of the Palace (Westminster Hall) dates from the reign of William I’s successor, King William II. The Palace of Westminster was the monarch’s principal residence in the late medieval period.
In 1530, King Henry VIII acquired York Place from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a powerful minister who had lost the King’s favour. Renaming it the Palace of Whitehall, Henry used it as his principal residence. Although Westminster officially remained a royal palace, it was used by the two Houses of Parliament and by the various royal law courts.
On 16 October 1834, a fire broke out in the Palace after an overheated stove used to destroy the Exchequer’s stockpile of tally sticks set fire to the House of Lords Chamber. In the resulting conflagration both Houses of Parliament were destroyed, along with most of the other buildings in the palace complex.
Westminster was the primary London royal residence until a fire destroyed much of the complex in 1512. After that, it served as the home of Parliament, which had been meeting there since the 13th century, and the seat of the Royal Courts of Justice, based in and around Westminster Hall. In 1834, an even greater fire ravaged the heavily rebuilt Houses of Parliament.
Westminster Hall was saved thanks to heroic fire-fighting efforts and a change in the direction of the wind. The Jewel Tower, the Undercroft Chapel and the Cloisters and Chapter House of St Stephen’s were the only other parts of the Palace to survive.
In his speech opening Parliament in 1835, the King assured the members that the fire was accidental, and left it to Parliament itself to make ‘plans for its permanent accommodation.’ Each house created a committee and a public debate over the proposed styles ensued.
The committee in the House of Lords announced in June 1835 that ‘the style of the buildings should be either Gothic or Elizabethan’. On the 14th of July 1835 a Royal Commission was appointed. The chairman was Charles Hanbury-Tracy and the other members were Edward Cust, Thomas Liddell, the poet Samuel Rogers and the artist George Vivian. The Commission accepted the recommendation of a competition, and architects began submitting proposals following some basic criteria.
In February of 1836, after studying 97 proposals, the Commission chose Charles Barry’s plan for a Gothic-style palace, awarding him a prize of £1500. The Architectural Magazine summarised Barry’s winning plan as ‘a quadrangular pile, with the principal front facing the Thames, and a tower in the centre, 170ft. high’. The remains of the Old Palace, without the detached Jewel Tower, were incorporated in its much larger replacement, which contains over 1,100 rooms organised symmetrically around two series of courtyards.
Part of the New Palace’s area of 3.24 hectares was reclaimed from the Thames, which is the setting of its principal façade, the 266-metre river front. Barry was assisted by Augustus W. N. Pugin, a leading authority on Gothic architecture and style, who provided designs for the decoration and furnishings of the Palace.
Construction started in 1840 and lasted for 30 years, suffering great delays and cost overruns, as well as the death of both leading architects; works for the interior decoration continued intermittently well into the 20th century. Major conservation work has been carried out since, due to the effects of London’s air pollution, and extensive repairs took place after World War II, including the reconstruction of the Commons Chamber following its bombing in 1941.
Sir Charles Barry’s collaborative design for the Palace of Westminster uses the Perpendicular Gothic style, which was popular during the 15th century and returned during the Gothic Revival of the 19th century. Barry was a classical architect, but he was aided by the Gothic architect Augustus Pugin.
The stonework of the building was originally Anston, a sand-coloured magnesian limestone quarried in the villages of Anston, South Yorkshire and Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire. The material, however, soon began to decay due to pollution and the poor quality of some of the stone used. Although such defects were clear as early as 1849, nothing was done for the remainder of the 19th century. During the 1910s it became clear that some of the stonework had to be replaced. In 1928 it was deemed necessary to use Clipsham Stone, a honey-coloured limestone from Rutland, to replace the decayed Anston. The project began in the 1930s but was halted due to World War II, and completed only during the 1950s. By the 1960s pollution had once again begun to take its toll. A stone conservation and restoration programme to the external elevations and towers began in 1981, and ended in 1994.
The Palace of Westminster features three main towers. Of these, the largest and tallest is the 98.5-metre Victoria Tower, which occupies the south-western corner of the Palace. Called ‘King’s Tower’ at the time, in honour of the then-reigning monarch, William IV, the tower was an integral part of Barry’s original design, of which he intended it to be the most memorable element. The architect conceived the great square tower as the keep of a legislative ‘castle’, and used it as the royal entrance to the Palace and as a fireproof repository for the archives of Parliament. The Victoria Tower was re-designed several times, and its height increased progressively; upon its completion in 1858, it was the tallest secular building in the world.
At the base of the tower is the Sovereign’s Entrance, used by the monarch whenever entering the Palace to open Parliament or for other state occasions. The 15-metre-high archway is richly decorated with sculptures, including statues of Saints George, Andrew and Patrick, as well as of Queen Victoria herself. At the top of the cast-iron pyramidal roof is a 22-metre flagstaff, from which flies the Royal Standard (the monarch’s personal flag) when the Sovereign is present in the Palace. On the days when either House of Parliament is sitting and on designated flag days, the Union Flag flies from the mast.
At the north end of the Palace rises the most famous of the towers, the Clock Tower, commonly known as Big Ben. At 96 metres, it is only slightly shorter than the Victoria Tower but much slimmer. It houses the Great Clock of Westminster, built by Edward John Dent on designs by amateur horologist Edmund Beckett Denison. Striking the hour to within a second of the time, the Great Clock achieved standards of accuracy considered impossible by 19th-century clockmakers, and it has remained consistently reliable since it entered service in 1859. The Clock Tower was design by Augustus Pugin and built after his death. Charles Barry asked Pugin to design it because Pugin had previously helped Barry design the Palace.
The shortest of the Palace’s three principal towers, the octagonal, 91-metre Central Tower stands over the middle of the building, immediately above the Central Lobby. To accommodate the tower, Barry was forced to lower the lofty ceiling he had planned for the Central Lobby and reduce the height of its windows. However, the tower itself proved to be an opportunity to improve the Palace’s exterior design, and Barry chose for it the form of a spire in order to balance the effect of the more massive lateral towers.
Apart from the pinnacles which rise from between the window bays along the fronts of the Palace, numerous turrets enliven the building’s skyline. Like the Central Tower, these have been added for practical reasons, and mask ventilation shafts.
There are some other features of the Palace of Westminster which are also known as towers. St Stephen’s Tower is positioned in the middle of the west front of the Palace, between Westminster Hall and Old Palace Yard, and houses the public entrance to Houses of Parliament, known as St Stephen’s Entrance. The pavilions at the northern and southern ends of the river front are called Speaker’s Tower and Chancellor’s Tower respectively, after the presiding officers of the two Houses at the time of the Palace’s reconstruction—the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Chancellor. The Speaker’s Tower contains the Speaker’s House, the official residence of the Speaker of the Commons.
The Palace contains over 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases and 4.8 km of passageways, which are spread over 4 floors. The ground floor is occupied by offices, dining rooms and bars. The 1st floor houses the main rooms of the Palace, including the debating chambers, the lobbies and the libraries. The top-two floors are used as committee rooms and offices.
Instead of one main entrance, the Palace features separate entrances for the different user groups of the building. The Sovereign’s Entrance, at the base of the Victoria Tower, is located in the south-west corner of the Palace and is the starting point of the royal procession route, the suite of ceremonial rooms used by the monarch at State Openings of Parliament. This consists of the Royal Staircase, the Norman Porch, the Robing Room, the Royal Gallery and the Prince’s Chamber, and culminates in the Lords Chamber, where the ceremony takes place. Members of the House of Lords use the Peers’ Entrance in the middle of the Old Palace Yard front, which is covered by a stone carriage porch and opens to an entrance hall. A staircase from there leads, through a corridor, to the Prince’s Chamber.
The main body of the Victoria Tower houses the three million documents of the Parliamentary Archives in 8.8 kilometres of steel shelves spread over 12 floors; these include the master copies of all Acts of Parliament since 1497, and important manuscripts such as the original Bill of Rights and the death warrant of King Charles I.
St Stephen’s Entrance, roughly in the middle of the building’s western front, is the entrance for members of the public. From there, visitors walk through a series of hallways and flights of stairs which bring them to the level of the principal floor and to the octagonal Central Lobby, the hub of the Palace. This hall is flanked by symmetrical corridors decorated with fresco paintings, which lead to the ante-rooms and debating chambers of the two Houses: the Members’ Lobby and Commons Chamber to the north, and the Peers’ Lobby and Lords Chamber to the south. Another mural-lined corridor leads east to the Lower Waiting Hall and the staircase to the first floor, where the river front is occupied by a row of 16 committee rooms. Directly below them, the libraries of the two Houses overlook the Thames from the principal floor.
The grandest entrance to the Palace of Westminster is the Sovereign’s Entrance beneath the Victoria Tower. It was designed for the use of the monarch, who travels from Buckingham Palace by carriage every year for the State Opening of Parliament. The Imperial State Crown, which is worn by the sovereign for the ceremony, as well as the Cap of Maintenance and the Sword of State, which are symbols of royal authority and are borne before the monarch during the procession, also travel to the Palace by coach, accompanied by members of the Royal Household. The regalia, as they are collectively known, arrive some time before the monarch and are exhibited in the Royal Gallery until they are needed. The Sovereign’s Entrance is also the formal entrance used by visiting dignitaries, as well as the starting point of public tours of the Palace.
The Queen’s Robing Room lies at the southern end of the ceremonial axis of the Palace and occupies the centre of the building’s south front, overlooking the Victoria Tower Gardens. As its name indicates, it is where the Sovereign prepares for the State Opening of Parliament by donning official robes and wearing the Imperial State Crown.
Being one of the largest rooms in the Palace, it serves as the stage of the royal procession at State Openings of Parliament. It has also been used on occasion by visiting foreign statesmen when addressing both Houses of Parliament, as well as for receptions in honour of foreign dignitaries, and more regularly for the Lord Chancellor’s Breakfast.
The Prince’s Chamber is a small anteroom between the Royal Gallery and the Lords Chamber. Due to its location, it is a place where members of the Lords meet to discuss business of the House. The room also contains a statue of Queen Victoria, seated on a throne and holding a sceptre and a laurel crown, which show that she both governs and rules.
Located in the southern part of the Palace, the Lords Chamber is the site of nationally televised ceremonies, the most important of which is the State Opening of Parliament. Its furnishings are coloured red. The upper part of the Chamber is decorated by stained glass windows and by six allegorical frescoes representing religion, chivalry and law.
One of the Lobby’s main features is the floor centrepiece, a radiant Tudor rose made of Derbyshire marbles and set within an octagon of engraved brass plates. The rest of the floor is paved with encaustic tiles featuring heraldic designs and Latin mottoes. The walls are faced with white stone and each is pierced by a doorway.
Originally named ‘Octagon Hall’ because of its shape, the Lobby is the heart of the Palace. It lies directly below the Central Tower and forms a busy crossroads between the House of Lords to the south, the House of Commons to the north, St Stephen’s Hall and the public entrance to the west, and the Lower Waiting Hall and the libraries to the east.
In this room, parliamentarians hold discussions or negotiations, and are often interviewed by journalists. After the 1941 bombing, it was rebuilt in a simplified style, with almost unadorned floor. The archway of the door leading into the Commons Chamber has been left unrepaired as a reminder of the evils of war.
By tradition, the British Sovereign does not enter the Chamber of the House of Commons. The last monarch to do so was King Charles I, in 1642. When repairs after the World War II bombing were completed in 1950, the rebuilt chamber was opened by King George VI, who was invited to an ‘unofficial’ tour of the new structure by Commons leaders.
Erected in 1097, it’s the oldest existing part of the Palace. The Hall has the largest clearspan medieval roof in England. Westminster Hall has served numerous functions. It was primarily used for judicial purposes, including impeachment trials and state trials. Until the 19th century, coronation banquets honouring new monarchs were held here.
Although there is no casual access to the interior of the Palace, there are several ways to get inside. UK residents may obtain tickets from their local MP for a place in the viewing gallery of the House of Commons, or from a Lord for a seat in the gallery of the House of Lords.
It is also possible for both UK residents and overseas visitors to queue for admission on the day, but capacity is limited and there is no guarantee of succeeding. Either House may exclude ‘strangers’ if it desires to sit in private. Members of the public can also queue for a seat in a committee session, where admission is free and places cannot be booked, or they may visit the Parliamentary Archives for research purposes. Proof of identity is necessary in the latter case, but there is no requirement to contact a Parliamentarian in advance.
Free guided tours of the Palace are held throughout the parliamentary session for UK residents, who can apply through their MP or a member of the House of Lords. The tours last about 75 minutes and include the state rooms, the chambers of the two Houses and Westminster Hall. Paid-for tours are available to both UK and overseas visitors during the summer recess. UK residents may also tour the Clock Tower, by applying through their local Member of Parliament; overseas visitors and small children are not allowed.
Visiting the Houses of Parliament represents an opportunity to view a session taking place, from a safe distance, as well as the chance to explore the ancient halls and different parts of the Government buildings.