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  • Writer's pictureJamie Tibke

The Houses of Parliament - Palace of Westminster

What is the Houses of Parliament?


With two instantly recognisable towers, one famous clock and a hall dating back to the 11th

century, the Palace of Westminster (AKA the Houses of Parliament) is one of the most iconic

buildings in the world. It has served as the seat of the British government for centuries and holds immense historical and cultural importance, making it one of the most iconic landmarks in the United Kingdom.


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When was the Palace of Westminster built?


Although King Edward the Confessor (r.1042-1066) had the original palace built, the oldest section of the building dates from slightly later. Westminster Hall was built in 1097 for King William II (r.1087-1100) and nearly 1000 years later the hall still stands as a fantastic example of medieval architecture. You can see its long section of roof facing Parliament Square. From the trials of William Wallace and King Charles I, to speeches by state visitors and coronation banquets, Westminster Hall has played host to many moments of national significance. More recently, a rather somber affair took place here; the late Queen Elizabeth II’s ‘lying in state,’ September 2022. Just like both her parents before her, the Queen's coffin was put on display as members of the public filed past to reflect on her death and pay their respects.


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Did the Royal Family live in the Palace of Westminster?


The Palace of Westminster was home to the Royal Family until 1547 when it was partially damaged by fire. The Royals decided to move into newer digs and politicians decided the Palace would be a perfect meeting place. 


Another fire in the 1800s destroyed much of the original building, bar Westminster Hall (the largest medieval hall in Europe), and the Jewel Tower. But this gave an opportunity for a re-design. We have architect Sir Charles Barry to thank for the beautiful neo-gothic architecture and the quarries of South Yorkshire to thank for the sandy-coloured limestone. His design incorporated the surviving parts and added a vast array of towers, arches, and spires.  At the southwest of the building you can see the 98.5m Victoria Tower. At the foot of the tower is the Sovereign’s Entrance, the sole and traditional entrance used by the monarch. Look towards the other side of the building, the northeast, and you will see Big Ben (or the Elizabeth Tower, to be precise...).


walking tour westminster

What happens at the Houses of Parliament?


In-between the two famous towers are two famous chambers (well, technically three if you include the central lobby, see the tall spire in the middle) the House of Lords and the House of Commons. By the Victoria Tower is the Lords, completed in 1848. Inside nearly 800 members meet in a lavishly decorated chamber to discuss, debate and ultimately scrutinise new bills before they pass into law. The Lords is also were the Sovereign’s throne is, on which the monarch sits to deliver their speech at the State Opening of Parliament, a grand and regal ceremony with its roots in the 1660s. And finally, at the other side of the site is perhaps the most important room in the country, the House of Commons. Although this room itself is not exactly ancient (rebuilt in 1950 after suffering a direct hit during the Blitz, which forced the Commons to meet in the Lords Chamber until the repair work was finished in 1950) a gathering of representatives from around the country have been meeting here in some form or other since the 13th century.


Nowadays green benches are tiered in rows along the sides of the chamber, with the party

in government on one side and the opposition party on the other. 650 elected members of

parliament (MPs) from all four nations of the UK take their seats to debate the most important issues, while the Speaker of the House chairs. The biggest names in UK political history have given speeches and listened to rebuffs in this very room, including 19th century rivals Disraeli and Gladstone and WWII prime ministers Chamberlain and Churchill, not to mention Thatcher, Blair and Boris. 


inside the houses of parliament

Can I visit the Houses of Parliament?


Today, the Palace of Westminster continues to captivate visitors from all corners of the globe, and you can find more information about visiting here or book a tour here. Its stunning architecture, adorned with intricate details, draws millions of tourists each year. Tourists may struggle to gain entrance, but all UK residents can visit for free. UK residents can also contact their local Member of Parliament and ask them to invite you for a tour. It can take a while to get a reply, so plan ahead and check out the official website for more information. Alternatively, you can join our Royal Westminster tour to visit the outside and learn the history that took place within the walls.

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