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Fr. Kurt Messick

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The Palace of Westminster
by Fr. Kurt Messick   
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Last edited: Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2005

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Some notes on the building that houses Parliament.


Sir Winston Churchill once said, ‘We shape our buildings, and our buildings shape us.’[1]  The context in which he said this dealt with the rebuilding of the chamber of the House of Commons, which had been destroyed during a bombing raid in World War II.  On 10 May, 1941,


Westminster Hall was set on fire and the House of Commons gutted – ‘though I don’t care about that, I wish it had got most of the members,’ commented Sir Alexander Cadogan in atrabilious mood.  Big Ben had its face pocked and scarred, a bomb had passed right through its tower.  For the policeman on duty the only good moment of the night had come when Big Ben struck two o’clock correctly only a few minutes after the bomb had fallen.[2] 


This was not the first conflagration to strike the Palace of Westminster, or London in general.[3]  At each point in the history of the building of the Palace, the shape of the building and the general appointment of the architectural design have caused a shaping of the Government of the day.  Churchill was adamant that the House of Commons be rebuilt essentially as it had been in Barry’s design, a design reminiscent of the choir section of the old St. Stephen’s chapel, in which the House of Commons met in the previous Palace of Westminster. 


The Old Palace


There has been a royal residence of some sort on the banks of the Thames in Westminster since the 900s at least.  In this time, the Government moved as the King moved; such as were any archives, they were housed as Winchester rather than Westminster in pre-Norman Conquest times.    The first Palace of Westminster was built by Edward the Confessor between 1050 and 1065, at the same time as the major construction for the present Westminster Abbey was done. [4]  The development of Westminster as a more permanent seat of governmental prominence owed to several factors: the growing prominence of London (of which Westminster was not a part), the more frequent use of Westminster Abbey as a site for royal functions, and finally during the time of William Rufus, the construction of a new Palace on the site, including Westminster Hall in 1097.[5] 


The progressive expansion in both size and political and administrative importance of Westminster Palace was the major driving force behind the growth of the town.  William I’s coronation in 1066, and the building of Westminster Hall, perhaps the biggest hall in Europe at the time, by William II in 1097-99, confirmed the palace as one of the centres of Norman kingship.[6]


Westminster Hall as it is current seen was rebuilt during the time of Richard II, between 1394 and 1399.  The walls are essentially the same, but the Norman windows were traded for Gothic, and the magnificent roof rebuilt.[7]  There is conflicting documentation as to whether or not the unsupported roof in Rufus’ Hall had pillars for support, perhaps in two rows like a basilica design.  The roof is a hammer-beam roof, designed by Hugh Herland.[8]  It was also at this time that the porch was added at the south end, and room for niches with saints were added.  The Hall has been used for coronation feasts, as law courts, and for major governmental gatherings.  The most recent use was a joint session of both Houses of Parliament to honour Queen Elizabeth II on her Golden Jubilee. 


There are other remnants of the Old Palace that survived the major fire in 1834.  The Jewel Tower is now across the street, backing onto Westminster Abbey.  Most recently, it has been used for records storage, until being reconverted as a tourist destination.  This is done in old Norman stone, and even includes a bit of the moat that once surrounded most of the Old Palace.  St. Stephen’s Cloisters is another portion that remains; the upper storey was almost completely destroyed, but was carefully restored according to its original Gothic lines, including high vaulted, ornate ceiling, intricately carved columns, leaded glass windows and designs that include royal and ecclesial crests, in addition to gargoyles.


The House of Commons and House of Lords met in various rooms of the Old Palace of Westminster, which still had (and indeed, still has) the official ‘dignity’ as a royal residence, but had ceased to be used by monarchs with the Tudor constructions and acquisitions of Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court, both of which have been superseded by Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle as primary royal residences.  During the religious reforms of the Tudors, St. Stephen’s Chapel as forbidden use as a chapel, and the House of Commons moved in permanently. 


St. Stephen’s Chapel was used for worship by the monarch during the Middle Ages.  Courtiers worshipped in the adjacent crypt which is still frequently used by MPs for services and christenings.  Use of the chapel was forbidden by a statute of Edward VI in 1547 and it is claimed that the young King, under the influence of the Protector, Somerset, ensured that by 1550 it had become the permanent home of the House of Commons.[9] 


The seating for the House of Commons remains to this day in the design of choir stalls in a chapel.  The rituals also remind one of the days when the chamber was a chapel (even though the new House of Commons is no longer on the site of the old chapel).  Members of Parliament, upon entering the chamber, are expected to bow and acknowledge the Speaker’s Chair; however, it is not the Speaker’s Chair or office they are acknowledging, but rather continuing the tradition of acknowledging the altar, which occupied the space the Speaker’s Chair now inhabits.


The Fire of 1834


There were no cameras from a BBC or CNN news service to cover the burning of the Palace of Westminster.  Fortunately, the master painter J.M.W. Turner was on hand, and recorded in an oil painting the scene from down the river.[10]  The fire started from routine operations gone awry.


On 16 October 1834, men burning cartloads of redundant Exchequer tally-sticks in the House of Lords stoves caused a fire which spread rapidly through both Houses of Parliament.  The fire brigade, helped by soldiers and the police, saved Westminster Hall but not the main buildings of the Palace.[11]


Westminster Hall was saved, along with a very few other portions, but essentially the Palace was gutted, and most of what remained had to be demolished.  However, this provided an opportunity in the early Victorian reign to rebuild the Houses of Parliament to more adequately match the increasing power of Parliament.  In June 1835 a competition, open to all, was announced, with the proviso that all designs had to be either in the Gothic or the Elizabethan style.  Ninety-one Gothic designs were submitted, against six in the Elizabethean.[12]


The winner was Charles Barry (eventually Sir Charles Barry).  Barry had become known for his designs of the Travellers’ Club and the Reform Club; given the club-like nature of the Parliament, it makes sense that this would be so.[13]


The Palace of Westminster ‘represented both what the Victorians wanted to do and were able to do.’[14]  Like Barry’s social clubs, the Palace of Westminster ‘is the very looking-glass of the time, of the gay, glittering, polished, improved utilitarian, material age.’[15]  That Gothic design should become so popular in this mid-1800s generation is something of a surprise.  During the Georgian period, Gothic was so despised as to encourage conversation about tearing down old Gothic structures, including Westminster Abbey.  One property guide of the time made the observation:


All attempt at Gothic then was voted barbarity, and laughed to scorn.  Now it is just the reverse: we have Gothic Houses of Parliament, libraries, halls, churches, aye, even the very Methodist body have been vaccinated into a furor for Gothic.[16]


However, Gothic was not the only style of building during the Victorian age, which tended toward a wide range of acceptable styles.  There is no one, definitive aspect of Victorian architecture in the same sense as there might be for Gothic. 


We are justified in applying the label ‘Victorian’ to a porticoed town house in the Cromwell Road, a red-brick villa in Fitzjohn’s Avenue, a Gothic office block in Queen Victoria Street, a French Renaissance terrace in Grosvenor Place, and a terracotta hotel in Knightsbridge because they all share certain characteristics which they do not share with representative buildings of either eighteenth of twentieth-century  origin.[17] 


Barry’s neo-Gothic design, despised by some (Disraeli considered introducing an Act of Parliament banning Barry from designing any further public buildings), became iconographic for London, and in some regards for the United Kingdom.


The chambers for each House, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, are of roughly equal size, but very different in aspect.  The Commons retains the choir-stall feel, heavy with wood construction; the House of Lords, on the other hand, is gilt and glitter, stained glass and glorious fresco paintings.  Barry employed both symmetry and asymmetry in the design of the overall Palace – the Central Lobby occupies the centre point of the building, and is the primary meeting place for the public.  The Commons is to the north, and the Lords to the south.  The further south one goes in the building (which is a quarter of a mile long), the more ‘royal’ it becomes; proceeding south from the House of Lords itself, one encounters the Prince’s Chamber, the Royal Gallery, and the Royal Robing Room, the ‘residential’ portion of the Palace that confers the dignity still as a royal residence.  The further north one goes from the Central Lobby, the more ‘common’ one gets, including the House of Commons library, ministerial and civil service offices, and general amenities (such as the Stranger’s Bar and the Stranger’s Cafeteria, soon to be renamed to rid the general public of the ‘stigma’ of being strangers in a private club). 


These layouts are roughly symmetrical inside, but elements of asymmetry are apparent from the outside.  The Victoria Tower, on the ‘royal’ end, and the Clock Tower on the ‘common’ side, are neither the same height nor the same location in relation to the building. 


Such…was Barry’s mastery of exterior silhouette that he took the disadvantages of the given site and made them work for him.  In the 336-foot-high Victoria Tower and Clock Tower that houses Big Ben, he introduced at either end of the Palace an element of high drama.  Nobody could have foreseen them.  Asymmetry for once was Barry’s henchman.[18]


Olsen likewise comments that the Palace of Westminster, ‘have done more to improve the architectural ensemble of London, when viewed from a distance, than it was possible to anticipate.’[19]


The Palace of Westminster bridges two worlds in several ways.  Politically, it bridges the old royal and aristocratic governmental structure with modern democratic ideas.  The ornamentation of the House of Lords and royal rooms gives a sense of power and glory, but the real power resides in the understated House of Commons.  The Queen in all her finery, with courtiers in attendance, enters the House of Lords to open Parliament, processing through the Royal Gallery and Prince’s Chamber from the Royal Robing Room.  The House of Commons is then summoned to attend the opening in the House of Lords; the noble peers and royals sit, while the commoners remain standing, squeezed in at the back, behind the bar of the House of Lords.  Yet the Queen then proceeds to read a speech written by the Prime Minister, a person standing behind the bar.[20] 


The House of Lords is perhaps the pinnacle of the design achievement in the Palace of Westminster. Upon winning the contract, Charles Barry enlisted the aid of Augustus Welby Pugin, ‘a rapid and immaculate draftsman and a one-man encyclopedia of historical Gothic.’  Pugin devoted his short life to the Palace of Westminster, designing everything from windows and stone work to door handles and umbrella stands.  ‘Barry and Pugin, between them, set fancy free.  Nowhere in London has a busy and productive life between four walls been more vividly imagined.’[21]


In the House of Lords, Pugin incorporated Perpendicular Gothic overlaid with royal and historical themes in the statuary, the stained glass windows, the frescos, and the throne itself.  In marked contrast to the ancient Coronation Chair, dating back to the time of Edward the Confessor, the throne in the House of Lords is one meant to embody the majesty of the ruler of an Empire upon which the sun never sets; Queen Victoria was, after all, also Queen of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, a third or more of Africa, and soon Empress of India.  The present Queen is still head of state for sixteen different nations around the world. 


The Royal Gallery similar embodies much of the grandeur of Pugin.  Two major frescos adorn the 110-foot long walls, both by David Maclise.  One depicts the battle of Trafalgar, and the other the battle of Waterloo, both historic victories of the British over the French, assuring British domination thereafter.  After many years of being blocked for admission to the Common Market, the French finally dropped their objection and Britain was admitted.  The Foreign Office opted to use the Royal Gallery for the official treaty signing, with representative of the French flanked on either side by reminders of past defeats by the British.[22]   We shape our rooms…


World War II to the Present


The House of Commons chamber was destroyed in May, 1941.  Westminster Hall was set on fire, but fire brigades were able to save the roof and building.[23]  After the war, proposals were made for a ‘modern’ chamber, in a semi-circular design, with room for each Member of Parliament to have a desk.  Churchill led the charge against the idea.  Worried that a semi-circle would break the two-party system, he insisted that the chamber be rebuilt in the same design as before, with a Government and Opposition clearly set out in the very design of the building.  ‘We shape our buildings, and our buildings shape us.’  The chamber was once again done in the choir-stall design; the various elements such as the Speaker’s Chair, Table, etc. were gifts from Commonwealth countries, so that their presence would be noticed in form if not in legal representation.  Also, at the entrance of the House of Commons, the bomb-damaged lower portion of the arched entry way was preserved as a testimony to the past. 


However, even the forward-looking design of Barry could not foresee the great growth of government.  The Parliamentary out-buildings now extend down the river to have swallowed up Old Scotland Yard, and across the road to have absorbed the garden buildings of Westminster Abbey.[24]


Work of the site of the new parliamentary building at No. 1 Parliament Street begins in 1997.  Barry built a fine Gothic palace, but he could not have foreseen the time when upwards of 20,000 items of mail are despatched daily from Parliament, when MPs need a growing support staff to handle the paper, and a gymnasium to add to their exertions.[25] 


Despite the 5 kilometers of corridors and over 100 staircases in the Palace, life in Government can still be rather sedentary; hence the gymnasium.  As new buildings are added, and old portions refurbished, the committees debate the designs, pulled in the opposite directions of remaining faithful to Barry and Pugin, or bowing to the utilitarian aspects of modern life and convenience.  Every once in a while, a creative solution incorporating both is found; the hanging microphones that disrupt the lines of sight in the House of Commons and House of Lords, for example, may soon be replaced by more powerful directional microphones, or by portable wireless microphones. 


Still, the Palace of Westminster will remain for ages as one of the glories of Victorian England.  In a city famous for tearing down and rebuilding, it has become a fixture.


You can see for miles, out of this window.  You can see right across the river.  There’s Westminster Abbey, see?  Flying the St. George’s cross, today.  St. Paul’s, the single breast.  Big Ben, winking its golden eye.  Not much else familiar these days.  This is about the time that comes in every century when they reach out for all that they can grab of dear old London, and pull it down.  Then they build it up again, like London Bridge in the nursery rhyme, goodbye, hello, but it’s never the same.[26] 


In a country where the church and state are not separate, there is some symmetry to the idea of the Commons meeting in choir-stalls of a chapel.  Yet there is the glorious asymmetry of the royal and aristocratic trappings overlaying the democratic zeal so strong it doesn’t need a written constitution to preserve it.  From the Venetian Mosaics in the Central Lobby high above the arched walkways depicting the four patron saints of the British Isles (St. George, David, Andrew and Patrick) to the statues in St. Stephen’s Hall depicting Prime Ministers of the past, this is a building intended to be both a living embodiment of the spirit of the land as well as an historical record of the glories of the nation, politically and spiritually.  Barry’s building and Pugin’s designs capture this sense with success. 

Bailey, Paul, ed.  The Oxford Book of London.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.  1995.
Biffen, John.  Inside Westminster: Behind the Scenes at the House of Commons.  London: Andre Deutsch. 1996.
Blake, Robert.  Disraeli.  London: Eyre & Spottiswood, Ltd.  1966.
Hudson, Roger.  London: Portrait of a City.  London: The Folio Society.  1998.
Inwood, Stephen.  A History of London.  New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc.  1998.
Mackenzie, Kenneth.  The Palace of Westminster.  Norwich:  Jarrold.  1985.
Muirhead, Findlay, ed.  The Blues Guide: A Short Guide to London.  London: MacMillan & Co., Ltd.  1928.
Olsen, Donald J.  The Growth of Victorian London.  London: Penguin Books Ltd.  1976.  
Russell, John.  London.  New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.  1994.
Wilson, A. N., ed.  The Norton Book of London.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Co.  1995.
Ziegler, Philip.  London at War: 1939-1945.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  1995.

[1] A quick internet search reveals dozens of architectural and civil engineering sites who have used this quotation to support their design ideas. 

[2] Ziegler, p. 160.

[3] In earlier historical periods, this was not true , but from Tudor times forward the terms ‘Palace of Westminster’ and ‘Houses of Parliament’ became essentially synonymous.

[4] William the Conqueror held his first Great Council in England in Edward the Confessor’s Palace of Westminster in 1076, helping to further legitimise his claim to the throne, by using the authority granted from occupying Edward’s buildings to mitigate his murder of Harold at Hastings, who for generations was considered the rightful heir. 

[5] Mackenzie, p. 3.  Note: Mackenzie’s book of about 100 pages does not have page numbers.

[6] Inwood, p. 89.  See also Inwood pp. 93, 490, and 647,

[7] In the photograph, the major window at the end of the Hall is a later addition, built to complete Barry’s design for the land-front side of the Palace, and serve as a part of the major public entrance to the Palace.  The six statues in niches flanking the windows are original to the Hall.

[8] Mackenzie, p. 5.  The Herland family served the Royal families for generations; Hugh Herland’s father designed the roof of the Great Hall in Windsor.

[9] Biffen, pp. 6-7.

[10] The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, J.M.W. Turner, 1834, currently housed in the Cleveland Museum of Art (part of the Severance Collection). 

[11] Inwood, p. 490.

[12] Russell, p. 54.

[13] See Inwood, p. 647; also Russell,  pp. 47-55.  Like many exclusive social clubs, and unlike many legislature buildings in the world, the House of Commons has many doors and rooms  marked ‘Members Only’.

[14] Olsen, p. 32.

[15] Hudson, p. 210, quoting George Augustus Sala, Twice Around the Clock, 1859.

[16] Olsen, p. 49; quoting a property guide circa 1851. 

[17] Olsen, p. 33.

[18] Russell, p. 55.

[19] Olsen, p. 64.

[20] The last monarch who tried to defy the Prime Minister and House of Commons by assenting to their legislation was Queen Anne.  She was informed, in no uncertain terms by the Prime Minister, ‘Her Majesty will sign her own death warrant if Parliament presents it.’

[21] Russell, p. 55.

[22] Anti-French sentiments remain in Britain; as one senior civil servant once told me, ‘Let us not forget that, though they have been our allies for the past century, they have been our enemies for the past millennium.’

[23] Because the building had been damaged, the War Office made the remarkable decision to install a munitions factory under the chamber, thinking it would not be affected, and Parliamentary staff could double as munitions workers in their down-time.  The Lord Great Chamberlain at first resisted the idea, perhaps remembering the Guy Fawkes plot.  However, Parliamentary staff and Members, eager to be of use for the war effort, overcame his objections.  See Ziegler, pp. 261ff.

[24] My first office in Parliament was at No. 2, Abbey Gardens, before I moved into the Star Chamber, near the House of Commons, and then later moved again to the top floor above the New Palace Yard.

[25] Biffen, p. 13.  Work continues on the new Parliamentary office buildings.

[26] Bailey, p. 366; quoting Angela Carter, Wise Children, 1991.

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Reviewed by Elizabeth Taylor (Reader)
There was a PBS program here in the States about Britain and the war, and the very serious threat they were under from Hitler. It is amazing how industrious the people were to fight off invasion. It was really sad to see the art and buildings destroyed. Good article, Padre. Enjoyed it very much.

Reviewed by Zenith Elliott
Very interesting and educational article.
Reviewed by Tinka Boukes
Thanks for sharing this most interesting piece!!

Take care and be well!!

Love Tinka
Reviewed by m j hollingshead
most interesting write! enjoyed the read
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