The Houses of Parliament / The Palace of Westminster
London’s Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, together with its nearby clock tower, form one of the quintessential images of London. Whether beheld by day or viewed at night when Parliament and Big Ben are illuminated, the Houses of Parliament look majestic.
Democracies all over the world (perhaps especially those where the Union Jack once flew during colonial times) found their inspiration and claim their antecedent in the British Parliament. The Parliament building, on the River Thames at Westminster Bridge, contains more than 1000 rooms. One has to wonder how many of these rooms might hold the echoes of conversation and speeches made by Benjamin Disraeli or Winston Churchill if one could listen closely enough. If any room does, surely it must be the chamber of the House of Commons. The House is made up of 646 Members of Parliament (MPs), each of whom represents a particular area within the UK known as a seat or constituency.
The political party that elects the most MPs is the governing party in the House and its leader becomes the Prime Minister. The governing party and the opposition (made up of MPs from the non-majority political parties) are tasked with making the laws of the realm.
Parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, (richly appointed in red as opposed to the green used in the House of Common) has approximately 700 members who received their place either by birth, in the case of hereditary peers, or by nomination. The House of Lords Act, which was passed in 1999, limited the number of hereditary peers. The Lords consider and revise legislation passed by the House of Commons. The House of Lords is also the home of the highest court of appeal for civil cases in the UK and for criminal cases in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
The building as seen today is relatively young by London standards. A fire in 1834 destroyed much of the old palace. The actions of the then-Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, who ordered that fire engines be brought into the Palace, saved Westminster Hall, the grand medieval hall within the Parliament building that dates back to the 11th Century. The Jewel Tower, the crypt of St Stephen’s Chapel, and the adjacent cloisters also survived the fire.
The huge Gothic Revival building was built between 1840 and 1888. Sir Charles Barry‘s design (his plan was selected over those of more than 90 other architects during a public competition) integrated the surviving parts of the medieval Palace. Barry worked closely with AW (Augustus Welby) Pugin, the architect who designed the interior of the building. Like much of London, Westminster did not escape the Blitz unscathed. In 1941 the House of Commons was destroyed during a German bombing raid. It was rebuilt by 1950.
Visits and tours of Westminster depend upon the legislative calendar. Restrictions vary for UK residents and overseas visitors. The Jewel Tower, which is under the supervision and protection of English Heritage, is open to visitors.
by Katie Calvert