Westminster Palace

houses of parliament

House of Parliament

The Parliament of the United Kingdom is one of the oldest representative assemblies in the world. Parliament consists of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The site of the Houses of Parliament is the Palace of Westminster, a royal palace and former residence of kings on the River Thames. Edward the Confessor had the original palace built in the 11th century. The layout of the palace is intricate, with its existing buildings containing nearly 1,200 rooms, 100 staircases, and well more than two miles of hallways. Among the original historic buildings is Westminster Hall, now used for major public ceremonial events. The iconic Big Ben, symbol of London, rises above the Parliament buildings. 

 

Where's House of Parliament located?

The Houses of Parliament are located in Westminster in the centre of London and are well served by all forms of public transport, most of which is wheelchair accessible.

How to Get

Addres: Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London SW1A 0AA. 

Tube: Westminster, lines Circle, District and Jubilee

Best Time to Visit

Westminster Palace is open to visitors only a few weeks a year. Guests can enjoy an informative 70-minute tour throughout August and September. 

Monday: 1:15 pm to 5:30 pm
From Tuesday to Friday: 9:15 am to 4:30 pm
Watch debates and committee hearings (from October to July)
Monday and Tuesday: 2:30 pm to 10:30 pm
Wednesday: 11:30 am to 7:30 pm
Thursday: 10:30 am to 6:30 pm

History

It was Edward the Confessor (1042-66) who founded the first Royal residence on the site and who also rebuilt the Abbey. The latter occupied the central ground on the island and accordingly the Royal complex – which presumably included a Hall, Royal apartments and ancillary buildings – was built close to the waterfront. The Royal interest continued following the Norman invasion as William I was keen to prove his legitimacy by demonstrating continuity with Edward’s regime. By the late eleventh century AD, Westminster was unique in England for being known as a Palace (derived from palatium in reference to the imperial residences that occupied the Palatine hill in Rome) and a clear indication of its special status. Its importance can also be derived from the construction of the Great Hall, today known as Westminster Hall, by William II (1087-1100). At the time of its completion, around 1099, it was Europe’s largest building.

Medieval Period

Throughout the early Norman period, the nominal capital of England was Winchester although in reality the Royal court was a mobile entity that moved around the country from site to site. However, during the reigns of Henry II (1154-80) and King John (1199-1216), some Governmental institutions, such as the Royal Exchequer, became entrenched in Westminster. This trend continued during the reign of Henry III (1216-72) who rebuilt Westminster Abbey and permanently based more administrative functions at the Palace including the Court of Common Pleas (which was one of the demands of Magna Carta). In addition the Court of the King’s Bench and the Chancery Court were established at Westminster whilst the first known Parliament sat there in 1259 within the Painted Chamber. This trend continued during the reign of Edward I (1372-1307) although the venue altered between the Painted Chamber, White Chamber (later the permanent venue for the House of Lords) or Westminster Abbey. However, by the 1350s, the extent of these administrative roles was increasingly encroaching upon the Palace’s Royal residential function. Accordingly the palatial site was divided in two. The northern part, including Westminster Hall, became used exclusively for administration and Parliamentary purposes. The southern portion, which became known as the Privy Palace, was solely for the monarch. An additional Great Hall was added at this time and later Edward I rebuilt St Stephen’s Chapel into a substantial two storey structure.

Further modifications were made to the Palace by Edward III in 1342 and again in the 1360s when Henry Yevele, Master Mason, was commissioned to oversee the work. He built the Clock Tower, which contained a bell named ‘Edward of Westminster’ for regulating the timings of the adjacent law courts, and also constructed the Jewel Tower. The latter was designed as a secure stowage for Royal treasure which had been removed from the Tower of London. Yevele also remodelled Westminster Hall heightening the walls and adding the Gothic windows. Hugh Herland, carpenter, was commissioned to create the vastly impressive hammer-beam timber roof that is still in place today.

Permanent Home of Parliament

Westminster Palace was devastated by fire in 1512 but this disaster ultimately led to the site becoming the permanent home of Parliament. The extent of the damage is unknown but it prompted Henry VIII to abandoned the site as a Royal residence in favour of the newly built Palace of Whitehall. Part of the Privy Palace at Westminster was demolished to provide building materials for this new structure but clearly significant parts were left standing as the Queen’s Chamber was used as the permanent venue for the House of Lords. The Commons used the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey until 1547 when they were given the abandoned St Stephen’s Chapel that had been closed following the English Reformation. The Jewel Tower became the storage site for Records of Parliament around the late sixteenth century and this evolved into it becoming the formal repository for Acts and Ordinances from the House of Lords. The decaying structure of the Jewel Tower was repaired and upgraded in 1717 with purpose built storages for the records. A brick built parapet, capped in Portland Stone, was added as part of these upgrades. In 1801 the House of Lords was relocated to the Lesser Hall, once occupied by the Court of Requests.

On Thursday 16 October 1834, the Palace of Westminster was gutted by fire. In the early evening, two under floor stoves situated beneath the House of Lords had been inappropriately used for burning obsolete accounting equipment. A fire ensued that engulfed the House of Lords and quickly spread through the rest of the Palace although the prevailing winds meant the Jewel Tower, complete with its precious records, and Westminster Hall were saved. Parts of St Stephen’s Chapel were also salvageable including the Undercroft Chapel.

New Westminster Palace

A Royal Commission was appointed to select a design for a new Parliament building and in 1836 held a public competition. A gothic style structure, proposed by Charles Barry, was chosen and work started in 1840. The plan included reclaiming eight acres of land from the River Thames and incorporated the surviving fragments of the Palace (excluding the Jewel Tower) into the design. The facility was purpose-built for Parliamentary business with all key elements of the Governmental machine – the Sovereign’s throne, the House of Lords and the House of Commons – positioned in a straight line through the centre of the structure. Construction took significantly longer than expected but the building was sufficiently complete for the House of Lords to start using their chamber in 1847 followed by the Commons in 1852. The new facility included a purpose-built, fire-proof document storage – the Victoria Tower – and accordingly the Jewel Tower became superfluous.

With the outbreak of World War II and the risk of aerial bombardment of London, Parliament relocated to Church House in Westminster which proved to be a prudent move as the Palace was damaged by German bombers on fourteen occasions. The most notable attack occurred on 10 May 1941 when both the House of Commons and Westminster Hall were hit by incendiary bombs; whilst the fire brigade saved the latter, the Commons was completely gutted. The Jewel Tower also suffered significant devastation when it too was hit by an incendiary. Nevertheless in June 1941, the Commons moved back into the Palace and sat in the House of Lords. The Lords themselves remained in Church House but returned to the Palace in 1950.

The Palace of Westminster was finally transferred from Royal control to the Houses of Parliament themselves in 1965 although the Crown maintained joint control of Westminster Hall and the historic Chapel of St Mary Undercroft.

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Facts & Figuries

The building is colour coded – gold in the parts used by the Monarch, red for the Lords and green for the Commons. Originally this hierarchy of colour – with green being the lowest grade – pretty much reflected the relative importance of each element of Parliament. Over the years the power of the Monarch and the Lords declined. Since 1689 the Commons has been the more powerful of the two chambers.

Since 2006 the presiding figure in the House of Lords has been the ‘Lord Speaker’. Members of the House of Lords must avoid ‘asperity of speech’ and decide amongst themselves who speaks and in which order – so the Lord Speaker’s role is much more limited than that of the Speaker in the Commons. The first two ‘Lord Speakers’ were women.

Big Ben in focus

Although the name ‘Big Ben’ is often used to describe Westminster’s clock tower, it is actually called the Elizabeth Tower.

Surviving the Blitz

During the course of World War II, the Palace of Westminster was hit by German bombs on 14 separate occasions.

Westminster Hall

Since the initial construction, the only part of the palace that still stands today is the Westminster Hall.

The monarch opens Parliament each year

The State Opening of Parliament usually takes place each November.

Virtual tour

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