When visiting the Palace of Westminster, you will see the works of many famous sculptors, architects and painters set amidst countless frescoes, murals, tiled floors, vaulted ceilings, heraldic badges, coats of arms and State Regalia.
You will walk along the corridors of power, view the Chamber of the House of Lords and the Chamber of the House of Commons where history was made over many centuries.
The Palace of Westminster is the seat of Parliament, where momentous decisions were and are being made and Acts have been enshrined in Law. As this country is a Democracy the public votes for the MPs they wish to represent them in the House of Commons.
This historic Palace has an ecclesiastical, academic and judicious atmosphere and it resonates with the great oratory of famous statesmen of the past.
The Palace is owned by the Queen and retains its original status as a royal palace for ceremonial occasions, the State Opening of Parliament being the most significant.
The first royal palace on this site dates to the 11th century and the Monarchs lived there until a fire in 1512. It was rebuilt, became home for Parliament and was also used by the Royal Courts of Justice. There were major renovations and complete interior refurbishment in the late 17th century. In the 18th century there were several alterations and new buildings were added. Remodelling was carried out by Sir John Soane. He added the neo classical features which clashed with the Gothic. Neo classicists and Gothic Revivalists do not get on well together!
In 1834 a second fire destroyed all the Palace with the exception of the Great Hall (Westminster ), the medieval cloisters of St Stephen’s and the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, also the Jewel Tower.
Nobody wanted to move out and the decision was taken to rebuild. The attraction to history and tradition of the Palace was strong. Decimus saw the opportunity to design a new neo- classical Palace, adorned with the Elgin Marbles. He did not think the vaulting, tracery and flying buttresses suited a Parliament Seat.
The Prime Minister, Robert Peel, did not favour his views. His committee wanted Gothic or Elizabethan. Augustus Pugin, a Catholic Gothic expert submitted a design in the name of Charles Barry, who, being Catholic, was not allowed to submit and his design won.
So, Charles Barry was the architect and Pugin the designer. The first stone was laid in 1840, The Lord’s Chamber completed in 1840 and Commons’ Chamber in 1852.
Frescoes were suggested for the interior, but they did not weather well. Oil paintings, however, on canvas proved more satisfactory. Visitors will see work by John Robert Herbert, Charles West Cope, Frederic Watts and John Callcott Horsley.
The Palace was severely damaged in World War 11. The House of Commons had to be rebuilt under supervision of Giles Gilbert Scott.
Big Ben never stopped chiming.
Barry chose Clipsham stone, a honey coloured stone from Rutland, but it needs constant renovation. The Palace became quite a hybrid with so many alterations and additions over a long period together with a mixture of styles.
There are three main towers; Victoria Tower is the tallest and is on the South West corner. The Sovereign’s Entrance is at its base. The archway is decorated with statues of the Patron Saints; St George, St Andrew and St Patrick. This tower flies the Royal Standard when the Monarch is present and the Union Jack on other days.
The second Tower is the Elizabeth Tower, the whole of which is loosely known as Big Ben. It houses the Great Clock of Westminster which was built by Edward John Dent from the design of an amateur horologist. Its accuracy was not thought to be possible at that time. Five bells strike the chimes, the largest, the Great Bell of Westminster, correctly known as Big Ben strikes the hour and the other four strike the quarter hour.
The third Tower is octagonal, designed for ventilation and it has a spire to balance it against the other two larger towers. The public entrance, St Stephen’s bears its name.
St Stephen’s Hall houses marble statues of Prime Ministers, Walpole, Pitt and Fox. It leads into an octagonal Central Lobby. This is a very busy hub of moving people. Look at the vaulted ceiling and notice the panels between the vaults are covered with Venetian glass mosaic showing floral emblems and heraldic badges. See the statues of Monarchs of England and Scotland in arched niches in the walls. You will not be able to miss the dominant statue of Gladstone. Frescoed corridors lead away and you come to the anteroom of the House of Lords.
This Chamber has red leather benches and all surrounding areas are red. There is a stained-glass window and six allegorical frescoes representing Religion, Chivalry and Law. At the end is the Throne with its canopy. The Monarch, having processed into the Chamber, sits on the Throne. Before the Throne is the Woolsack, it is a red cushion stuffed with wool to represent the importance of that trade. It is used by the presiding Officer of the House, historically, the Lord Chancellor and now the Lord Speaker since 2006. Behind the Woolsack lies the Mace when the House is sitting..
The Peer’s Lobby is an ante chamber where Peers have informal discussions and collect messages from door keepers. Look down this time and notice the floor centre piece, a radiant Tudor Rose made of Derbyshire marble within an octagon of engraved brass plates. The remaining floor is tiled with heraldic designs and Latin mottoes.
The Peer’s Corridor has eight murals by Charles West Cope from the English Civil War period.
The House of Commons Chamber was opened in 1950, having been bombed during the War. It is the work of Giles Gilbert Scott. The benches are green. The Speaker’s Chair is at the North end with the table in front. The ceremonial Mace is laid on the table. Members of the Government sit on the Speaker’s right and the opposition is on his left. The Monarch does not attend the Commons. When Black Rod calls to summon the Commons to the State Opening, the doors are closed against him (now her).. The Black Rod must knock three times before being admitted.
Westminster Hall or the Great Hall is the oldest part of the Palace, built in 1096. Look up again! The hammerbeam ceiling built by Hugh Herland is impressive. It eliminated the need for supporting pillars and aisles making the Hall very open. Notice the statues of the Kings and heraldic badges of Richard II. The Hall served as a court and was the scene of the State Trial of Charles I, Thomas More and Guy Fawkes. Coronation Banquets were held there in the 12th to 19th centuries. The Hall has been used for Lying in State Ceremonies over the years. The Queen Mother had this ceremony in 2002. Winston Churchill was so honoured too.
During the State Opening, the Royal stairs are lined with sword bearing troopers from the Household Cavalry Life Guards and the Blues and Royals. They are the only troops allowed to bear arms in the Palace as it is a royal palace.
The Queen has a Robing room, within it is the Chair of State. The decorative theme is the Legends of King Arthur by William Dyce. There is a series of 18 bas reliefs by Henry Hugh Armstead.
In the royal Corridor through which she processes are two large paintings by Daniel Maclise showing The Death of Nelson and The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher after the Battle of Waterloo. The visitor can also see the 8 gilded statues of Caen stone by John Birnie Philip. Each depicts a Monarch in whose reign a key battle or war took place.
This intriguing Palace with its tradition and quirks glories in its Gothic Revivalist and Neo Classic style.
It will be closed in 2025 for extensive and necessary repairs. Do visit before that date.
You can book audio tours, or fully guided tours and have tea overlooking the Thames. Overseas visitors and UK residents are welcome.
Resident UK visitors can obtain tickets from an MP for entry to the Stranger’s Gallery in the House of Commons. Or they can obtain seats from a Peer in the Lord’s Gallery
Free Tours are available for UK Residents. Application via a Lord or an MP.
For more information on tours please go to: parliament.uk/visit