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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A History of the Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster)

What are the Houses of Parliament?

The Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, is a gothic Revival palace that serves as the meeting place for the two houses of the United Kingdom’s parliament (House of Commons and House of Lords).

Houses of Parliament

Houses of Parliament History

London appears as one immense metropolis today. In fact, it is a tale of two cities. The City of London was established by the Romans in the 1st century AD and prospered as England’s mercantile and financial centre. An abbey was built to its west in the 7th century – ‘the west minster’ – and the marshy environment previously known as Thorney Island soon became the heart of England’s body politic: the City of Westminster. From the mid-11th century to the early 16th century, the Palace of Westminster was the principal royal residence. Following a fire in 1512, King Henry VIII decided to take up residence at Whitehall Palace, after which the complex was used solely by the House of Commons and House of Lords, the two houses of the United Kingdom’s parliament.

From then until 1834, Britain’s democracy operated in this old royal palace, with repairs and renovations over the centuries creating a strange hodgepodge of historical periods: from England’s (and, at the time of construction, Europe’s) largest clear span medieval roof in Westminster Hall to the House of Commons meeting in St Stephen’s Chapel for most of its existence, and a variety of classical changes by Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th century and competing neo-Gothic and Neoclassical alterations in the 18th and early 19th centuries. If you gazed at the Palace of Westminster before 1834, you’d be confronted from outside with a mishmash of architectural styles, and inside by a warren of wooden corridors and staircases, and a network of oddly sized buildings and chimneys struggling to contain the array of people who worked there. The Palace of Westminster was a sprawling muddle of royalty, religion and parliament: the embodiment of British politics.

Palace of Westminster at night

The Houses of Parliament we recognise today represent the Victorian response to the devastating fire that broke out here on 16th October 1834. They are the first purpose-built parliament in Britain. The UNESCO World Heritage site is large: 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, 11 courtyards, and 5 kilometres of passageways. It remains a labyrinth. Plans for the reconstruction began in 1835 and the new palace took 30 years to complete.

Instead of narrow wooden pathways, it was rendered in spacious stone and iron. Instead of a hodgepodge, it was designed as one majestic building. It took the meeting of a committed Neoclassicist, Sir Charles Barry, and an obsessive Gothic Revivalist, Sir Augustus Pugin, to create this fusion of order and splendour, of repeated straight lines and richly decorated pinnacles, of symmetry and asymmetry. Barry and Pugin brought the perpendicular Gothic, most often seen in cathedrals, to the architecture of democracy. When Victoria Tower, designed as the keep to the legislative castle, was completed, it was the tallest secular building in the world. The Gothic style was chosen above all, because it was seen to represent a style truthful to England’s past. In doing so, it transformed a potently religious idiom into a beacon of the stable, orderly, organically evolving democratic state.

They call it the ‘Mother of Parliaments’. This isn’t because Britain was the birthplace of democracy: the ancient Athenians can claim that title. Neither is the Palace of Westminster the longest continually operating deliberative institution: the parliament of the Isle of Man has been debating since 979. Britain’s Houses of Parliament gained this epithet for two reasons: its perceived success as a system of governance and the system’s export around the world in the 19th century, mainly but not exclusively to the dominions of the British Empire. The ‘Westminster System’ can still be seen globally, from Canada and Australia to India, Israel and Japan.

The praised model of government, the ‘Westminster System’, came about bit by bit, but ultimately meant a constitutional head of state (the Sovereign), a head of government (the Prime Minister) and a parliamentary system which is bicameral, consisting of an upper house (the House of Lords), whose members (Lords Temporal and Lords Spiritual) are part appointed and part hereditary, and a lower house (the House of Commons), whose members (MPs) are chosen in a national election. Perhaps the Palace of Westminster is the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ not for its history or system of government, but because, in its neo-Gothic grandeur, it is the most profound symbol of British democracy there is.

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