Houses of Parliament, Westminster


The ancient cities of Westminster and London were, at one time separated by fields, but over the centuries, building took place and filled in the gap, as well as causing an ever-expanding ring of urban ‘sprawl’, which evolved into Greater London. However, to this day, the City of London and the City of Westminster retain their boundaries and their identity within London as a whole.

Welcome to one of the most significant World Heritage Sites on the planet (UNESCO, #426, 1987). The piece of real estate inside the City of Westminster which comprises the Palace of Westminster (a.k.a. The Houses of Parliament), along with the associated St Margaret’s Church and Westminster Abbey is so weighed down with history, that it is wonder it doesn’t collapse!

The building which is colloquially known as the Houses of Parliament, a lovely Gothic Revival pile, is merely the latest in a long line of structures to occupy this site. There was an Anglo-Danish Royal Palace close by, constructed by the Danish King Cnut (reigned 1016 – 1035AD), in the early part of the 11th century, and the Anglo-Saxon King and Saint Edward the Confessor was so anxious about the progress of his new Abbey at West Minster, that he built a palace next door, to supervise the work. The Abbey was completed in 1065, just in time for Edward’s burial in 1066!

William the Conqueror swept to power after the Battle of Hastings, but preferred to build a fortified palace (the Tower of London) on the eastern edge of the City of London, close by the old Roman fortress. The Royal Seat of the English Crown lay at the ancient city of Winchester to the south and west of London, and over the next two centuries, power and the organs of governance were slowly transferred to the new capital. Westminster Hall, the building with the steeply sloping roof (very like some wooden buildings I have seen in Norway; hardly surprising, really, as the Normans were ‘Northmen’ who had settled in and around the Bay of the Seine) was started by William Rufus, son of the Conqueror, in 1097AD. This building has seen famous trials through the ages, and it is, traditionally, the place where foreign Heads of State and senior politicians address all the members of the British Parliament during a State Visit. Westminster Hall has been the scene of famous speeches by such men and women as Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Barack Obama.

A rush of building in the Middle Ages, and the decision to house the King’s ‘parliaments’ in this area, permanently, meant that Westminster became the seat of temporal as well as spiritual power. There was a ‘split’ in 1341, when the Lords and the Commons met as two separate bodies for the first time, and Parliament convened as a bicameral body.

The Palace of Westminster was always threatened by fire, it seemed. A discontented mob broke in in 1267, and destroyed what they could reach. During King Henry VIII’s reign, the Royal Family finally abandoned the place as a Royal residence for the nearby Palace of Whitehall, after a particularly serious fire. Perhaps the most notorious attempt to destroy the Houses of Parliament came on 5th November 1605 when a group of English Catholics were just thwarted before they could detonate 36 barrels of gunpowder, stored in an undercroft, beneath the House of Lords, which was shortly to be attended by King James 1st of England (James VI of Scotland) to perform the State Opening of Parliament.

Sadly, this Mediaeval gem WAS destroyed on the night of the 16th October, 1834, when a huge number of wooden ‘tallies’ (slips that recorded the votes) caught fire. The task of rebuilding fell on the shoulders of Classical architect Charles Barry, who, aided by a mercurial 23 year old architect named Augustus Pugin (who preferred the Gothic style) produced the masterpiece you see here. It broke the health of both men, with Pugin dying insane in 1852, and Barry in 1860. The building opened in 1870, and it was a triumph, as care had been taken to weave the surviving Mediaeval portions of the estate into the new scheme of things.

Pugin’s Clock Tower contained a massive peel of bells, the largest of which was called ‘Big Ben’, after Sir Benjamin Hall. It cracked, and was recast at a lighter weight of 13 1/2 tons, and is used to strike the hours to this day. In 2012, Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee Year, the tower was renamed Elizabeth Tower, in her honour. The four-sided clock is the largest of its type in the world, and its 13 foot long pendulum makes it extremely accurate. On top of the pendulum is a small stack of old English pennies – add ONE, and the clock will gain 0.4 second, over the period of one day!

You can see Westminster Bridge (carrying some of London’s famous red ‘buses) spanning the Thames, and the rather strange looking building on the right-hand edge of the photograph is Portcullis House, which houses many offices of Members of Parliament – since there is not enough room in the old building to accommodate them all. MPs in Victorian times did not NEED offices!

Beyond the Houses of Parliament you can make out the tower of a small 16th century church, St Margaret’s, which is often referred to as the ‘Parish Church of the British Parliament’. Here, Sir Walter Raleigh was buried following his execution, and both Samuel Pepys and Sir Winston Churchill were married here. The massive bulk of the ‘mother church’, Westminster Abbey, looms behind St Margaret’s. It is said that there was a Roman temple to the God Apollo here, as Sulcardus, the church’s first historian said, in 1080AD,

‘The church of Westminster was anciently the temple of Apollo as sayeth
Sulcardus, which by an earthquake in the reign of Antoninus Pius* was
overthrown.’ * (138-161AD)

The very first church on this spot was founded in 960AD, but the bulk of the edifice now before you was begun under Henry II’s patronage in 1245. Coronations have been held here since 1066 and no less than 17 monarchs lie buried here. The fabulous architecture is complimented by carvings and other artworks almost without number. Allow yourself the better part of a whole day to see this treasure.

Now back to the river, where if you hurry past the statue of Queen Boudica of the Iceni in her war chariot, and down the steps to the Thames, you might just be able to catch a ferry down to Greenwich, to marvel at the National Maritime Museum, and stand with a foot in each Hemisphere at the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

Oh, and the photograph was taken on a hazy day, and since you all know that the Elizabeth Tower is 315 feet high, you will have worked out that I took this from a capsule on the London Eye!

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