Cracroft's Peerage
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The Palace of Westminster

 

 

The River Thames frontage of the Palace of Westminster - at either end are residences for the Speaker

and the Lord Chancellor and the two great towers: the Clock Tower ("Big Ben") and the Victoria Tower

 

The first Palace of Westminster was built for Edward the Confessor on land between the Thames and Westminster, the comparatively modest monastery which he had renovated and enlarged. After he died in 1066 the palace became the home of William the Conqueror and his court. William's son, William Rufus, built Westminster Hall but his plans for enlarging the Palace were not realised after his violent death in 1100. Nevertheless the Palace remained the main residence of the kings of England, and the home of the Court, until Henry VIII abandoned it for Whitehall Palace in 1512. Even after that it remained the administrative centre of the kingdom. In early times the King's Council had met in Westminster Hall, and there the 'Model' Parliament was summoned by Edward I; but soon after his death the Lords and Commons held their deliberations separately. After meeting in the presence of the King, usually in the Painted Chamber, where the Lord Chamberlain announced the reason for the summoning of Parliament, the Lords withdrew to the White Chamber. The Commons, however, had to meet wherever was convenient, sometimes in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey, or in the Refectory which the Abbot allowed them to use.

 

 

Westminster Hall, the oldest remaining part of the Palace of Westminster

 

At the Reformation, under the Chantries Act of 1547, the Royal Chapel of St Stephen, like all other private chapels, was secularised ,and by 1550 had become the meeting place of the Commons. This chapel, traditionally founded by St Stephen, had been burned down in 1298, rebuilt by Edward I, and finished in the reign of Edward III, in 1347. The king had worshipped in St Stephen's, the courtiers in the crypt which had been built by Edward I in 1292. St Stephen's Chapel was a tall, two-storeyed building with high turrets at the four corners, and long stained-glass windows . As it had no aisle it was perfectly suitable for use as a debating chamber. The Members sat in the choir stalls on the north and south walls; the Speaker's chair was placed where the altar had been. (The tradition of Members bowing to the Speaker's chair probably derives from genuflexion to the altar.). The Mace, the Speaker's staff of office, was placed on a table where the lectern had been. The ante-chapel, separated from the main chapel by the choir-screen, served as a lobby in which Members registered their votes as Ayes, the Noes remaining in the Chapel. From the mid-16th century until its destruction by fire in 1834 St Stephen's was, in fact, the House of Commons.

 

After 1547 St Mary Undercroft, the crypt of St Stephen's, was used as a parliamentary store-house, as were the Cloisters. It survived the 1834 fire after which it was carefully restored by Barry for use as a chapel by Members of both Houses. It is 90ft long by 26ft wide, and comprises five vaulted bays with a fine groined roof and four carved bosses. There is an unusual circular mural representing Judas Iscariot with silver coins above his head. In this chapel Members can be married and their children baptised, whatever their denomination, in the adjoining octagonal Baptistry, the work of Barry who also designed the font of alabaster and marble with its highly ornamented brass cover.

 

The only other parts of the Palace to survive the fire of 1834 are Westminster Hall; the Cloisters, with their fine fan vaulting and carved bosses, built early in the reign of Henry VIII by Dr John Chamber, Dean of St Stephen's College; and the Jewel Tower, built in 1365-6 as a royal treasure house and used from 1621 as the Parliament Office and as a storage place for the House of Lords records.

 

After 1547 the canons of St Stephen's were dismissed and as the Palace was no longer a royal residence, Members and officials of both Houses started to occupy the many vacant chambers. The Lords settled permanently in the White Chamber. In the cellars below, Guy Fawkes, a Roman Catholic convert, and his fellow conspirators were caught in their plot to blow up King James I and his ministers, and Members of both Houses on 5 November 1605. The cellars are searched to this day by the Yeomen of the Guard before each State Opening of Parliament, as if in confirmation of the nursery rhyme:

 

I see no good reason / Why Gunpowder Treason / Should ever be forgot.

 

Sixteen years later the King angered the Commons by tearing out the pages of their Journal in which they had asserted their right to deal "with all matters of grievance and policy". Relations between the Crown and the Commons deteriorated over the years until the day in January 1642 when Charles I burst into St Stephen's demanding the arrest of five Members. Replying to the King who asked where the missing Members were, the Speaker, William Lenthall, said: "I have neither eyes to see, not tongue to speak in this place, but as this House is pleased to direct me." The King had no alternative but to withdraw. Since then no monarch can set foot in the Commons Chamber. The throne, which is occupied during the ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament, in in the Lords' Chamber, to which the Commons are summoned to hear the Monarch's Speech from the Throne.

 

In the reign of Queen Anne, Sir Christopher Wren, the Surveyor General, was commissioned to build galleries in the former St Stephen's Chapel to accommodate the new Scottish Members, and in 1800, because of the admission of Irish Members, the new Surveyor General, James Wyatt, was required to enlarge it further by reducing the thickness of the walls. At the same time the Lords moved from the White Chamber, which they were overcrowding, to the Hall, formerly used by the Court of Requests, next to the House of Commons kitchen.

 

The fire of 1834 ended the makeshift accommodation in which Lords and Commons had worked for nearly 300 years. Until the Court of Exchequer was abolished in 1826 it had continuously kept records of accounts by a system of tallies and foils, notched elmwood sticks split in half, one half being retained by the Exchequer, the other half constituting a receipt to those who were required to pay money into the Court. "The sticks were housed in Westminster", Charles Dickens told an audience at Drury Lane, "and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for firewood by the miserable people who live in that neighbourhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they never should be, and so the order went forth that they should be privately and confidentially burned." It was decided to burn them in the big furnace beneath the Lords' Chamber. By early next morning not only the House of Lords but also the House of Commons and nearly all the conglomeration of buildings known as the Palace of Westminster lay in smoking ruins.

 

Thus the opportunity arose for buildings to be designed specifically to house Parliament. Architects were invited to submit plans "in the Gothic or Elizabethan style"; 97 designs were submitted and of these Barry's was selected.

 

Charles Barry, knighted in 1852, son of a prosperous stationer, was born in Westminster and had been articles to a firm of surveyors in Lambeth. With a modest inheritance from his father he travelled to Italy and became deeply influenced by Renaissance architecture. Conscious of his limitations as an architect in the Gothic style, he enlisted the help of Augustus Pugin who had trained in the office of his father, the French architect, Auguste Pugin. He had spent much of his apprenticeship in making drawings for his father's books on Gothic architecture. Barry and Pugin made a perfect partnership, Barry providing the practical and commanding plans, Pugin the picturesque ornamentation. Construction began in 1837, Mrs Barry having the honour of laying the foundation stone. Ten years later the House of Commons was completed. The Clock Tower was not finished until 1858; it had presented even more problems than the extremely expensive heating and ventilation system which proved so inefficient that Lord Randolph Churchill once had no difficulty in persuading the House to adjourn in mid-debate in protest against the foulness of the atmosphere.

 

 

The Clock Tower, which contains the bell Big Ben

 

When the Clock Tower reached a height of 150 ft, work on it had to be suspended as it was discovered that the mechanism of the clock could not be raised inside it. The clockmaker, not Barry's choice, was E J Dent, whose clock for the Royal Exchange was classed as 'the best public clock in the world'. In spite of his distinction and experience everything went wrong with the Westminster clock. When the Victoria Tower was roofed in 1860, however, and the Palace of Westminster was complete it was generally acclaimed as a building worthy to be the Houses of Parliament, and a splendid example of Perpendicular Gothic.

 

Prince Albert was greatly interested in art and ensured that the new buildings were richly furnished with painting and sculpture. In 1841, under his influence, a Select Committee was appointed 'to take into consideration the promotion of Fine Arts .... in connection with the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament'. William Dyce was one of the winning artists of the resultant competitions, and his five huge frescoes of Arthurian legend can be seen in the Robing Room in which the Monarch assumes the Imperial Crown and Parliamentary Robes for the State Opening of Parliament.

 

The walls of the Royal Gallery, which leads from the Robing Room to the Prince's Chamber, are painted with two 45 ft long frescoes by Daniel Maclise, The Death of Nelson and The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher; the floor is patterned in buff, red and blue Minton tiles. In the Prince's Chamber is John Gibson's monument to Queen Victoria. The two fireplaces, with bronze bas relief panels by William Theed above them, are, like the one in the Robing room, intricately patterned and ornamented.

 

 

The House of Lords, showing the Throne and the Woolsack faced by red benches on three sides

 

There are more frescoes in the House of Lords by Dyce, Maclise, Charles Cope and John Calcott Horsley. Above the four doorways in the Central Lobby are mosaics of the patron saints of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Sir Edward Poynter and Anning Bell, and there stand the life-size statues of four 19th-century statesmen, Earl Granville, William Ewart Gladstone, Earl Russell and the Earl of Iddesleigh by Sir Joseph Boehm, Sir William Hamo Thorneycroft and Pomeroy. Barry's own statue in white marble by John Henry Foley is in the Lower Waiting Hall beneath a trefoiled window.

 

The whole interior of the Palace, except the part rebuilt after the bombing in 1941, is gorgeously and intricately ornamented to designs by Pugin, including panelled ceilings, tiled floors (the encaustic tiles by Henry Minton), stained glass, wallpapers, clocks, fireplaces, door furniture and even umbrella stands and inkwells.

 

Barry's structure, described by James Pope-Hennessy as 'this great and beautiful monument to Victorian artifice', stood intact for nearly a century until 1940 . Between September 1940 and May 1941 the Houses of Parliament were damaged 11 times during the air raids. Bombs had fallen on Old Palace Yard, wrecking part of St Stephen's Porch, and in Cloister Court, demolishing part of the Cloisters. But on 10 May 1941 numerous incendiary bombs were dropped by a fleet of 500 German aircraft, and a high-explosive bomb fell near Victoria Tower, bringing tons of masonry crashing down into Royal Court. Such was the blaze that the Chief Superintendent of the London Fire Brigade said it was an 'impenetrable inferno of flames'. By the next morning the House of Commons and the adjoining Lobby were a heap of smouldering rubble.

 

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was commissioned to rebuild the House of Commons in the tradition of the old Chamber. This he did between 1945 and 1950, retaining Barry's general plan by simplifying Pugin's extreme Gothic decoration.

 

 

The Victoria Tower - it houses the records of Parliament and the Sovereign's entrance to the Palace of Westminster through the Norman Porch

 

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