Located on the north bank of the River Thames, the Palace of Westminster with its tall towers forming the backdrop of several important images of the City of London, is one of the most recognisable and iconic buildings in the world and the symbolic centre of political power in the United Kingdom. Informally known as the Houses of Parliament, it serves as the seat of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
While the palace is owned by the monarch in right of the Crown and retains its original status as a royal residence, several committees appointed by both houses manage the building and report to the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Speaker.
In medieval times, the site of the Palace of Westminster was known as the Thorney Island, which could have housed a royal residence for Canute the Great, the Danish King, who ruled England from 1016 to 1035. Subsequently, a royal palace was built on the Thorney Island, along with the Westminster Abbey, by St Edward the Confessor, the penultimate Anglo-Saxon monarch of England, who ruled the country from 1042 to 1066.
Consequently, the Thorney Island and the surrounding area soon came to be known as Westminster, after the name of the newly built Abbey. The oldest existing part of the Palace, the Westminster Hall, was probably added during the reign of King William II, the successor of King William I, famously known as William the Conqueror or William the Bastard.
The palace served as the primary residence of the Kings of England till 1512, when during the early years of the reign of King Henry VIII, a devastating fire destroyed the royal apartments, forcing the King to leave the palace. Later, he acquired the York Place in 1534 from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, one of his powerful ministers who lost the favour of the king, renamed it the Palace of Whitehall and used it as his principal residence. Although officially remained a royal palace, the remainder of the Westminster continued to serve as the home of the two Houses of Parliament of England and was also used by the various royal law courts. However, as Parliament struggled to carry out its business in the limited available space of ageing buildings, it underwent significant renovations from the 18th century onwards. During that long period of alteration and extension, the Stone Building was built between 1755 and 1770 and a new official residence of the Speaker of the House of Commons was built adjoining St Stephen's Chapel in 1795. Apart from that, extensive works of renovation of both the House of Commons and House of Lords were carried out between 1799 and 1801, including alterations to the exterior of St Stephen's Chapel.
Unfortunately, an even greater fire ravaged the heavily rebuilt Houses of Parliament on 16 October 1834, when an overheated stove used to destroy the dispensable papers of the Exchequer set fire to the House of Lords Chamber.
Although Westminster Hall was saved due to the untiring efforts of the fire-fighters and a change in the direction of the wind, both Houses of Parliament were destroyed, along with most of the other buildings in the palace complex, except the Jewel Tower, the chapel of St Mary Undercroft Chapel and the Cloisters of St Stephen Chapel.
Construction of the new palace complex began, when the cornerstone was laid in 1840, after Charles Barry won the subsequent competition for its reconstruction with a design for new buildings in the Gothic Revival style. The remains of the Old Palace, except the detached Jewel Tower, were incorporated into its much larger replacement, containing more than 1,100 rooms, organised symmetrically around two series of courtyards. A Partial area of the new palace, measuring around 8 acres (3.24 hectares), was reclaimed from the River Thames and was used for the setting of its nearly 984 feet (300 m) long façade, named the River Front. Christian themes were integrated into the interior design of the Palace, created by Augustus Pugin, a leading authority on Gothic architecture and style. Although the cornerstone of the palace was laid in 1840, the project took a long 30 years to complete, suffering great delays and cost overruns, as well as the death of both the leading architects.
The Palace of Westminster has three main towers. The largest and tallest among them is the Victoria Tower, standing at the southwest corner of the palace with a height of 323 feet (98.5 m), which was completed in 1860 and was originally named The King’s Tower. While the 299 feet (91 m) tall octagonal Central Tower that stands over the middle of the building, immediately above the Central Lobby, is the shortest of the three main towers of the palace, the Elizabeth Tower, originally known as the Clock Tower, at the north end of the palace is the most famous. The slim Clock Tower with a height of 315 feet (95 m) houses the Great Clock of Westminster, popularly known as Big Ben and the tower was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012, in celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II.
The Royal Staircase of the palace leads up to the principal floor with a broad, unbroken flight of 26 steps made of grey granite. The richly decorated Queen's Robing Room, usually referred to as the Robing Room, occupying the centre of the building's south front, lies at the southern end of the ceremonial axis of the Palace. While the decorative theme of the room is the legend of King Arthur, its ceiling is decorated with heraldic badges, as is the border of the wooden floor. The Royal Gallery, located immediately north of the Robing Room, is one of the largest rooms in the Palace, meant to decorate the important moments in British military history and is used for important ceremonies and state occasions. Its panelled ceiling features Tudor roses and lions and the stained-glass windows show the coats of arms of the Kings of England and Scotland. Sandwiched between the Royal Gallery and the Lords Chamber, the Prince’s Chamber is a small anteroom, named after the room adjoining the Parliament Chamber in the Old Palace of Westminster and decorated with 28 oil paintings depicting the Tudor dynasty. The room also contains an eight feet tall white marble statue of Queen Victoria, seated on a throne and holding a sceptre and a laurel crown, flanked by allegorical statues of Justice and Clemency. Located directly below the Central Tower, the Central Lobby, originally named Octagon Hall due to its shape, is the heart of the Palace of Westminster and is described as the political centre of the British Empire.
The lavishly decorated Chamber of the House of Lords, measuring 45 by 80 feet (13.7 by 24.4 m), is located in the southern part of the Palace of Westminster. While the benches in the Chamber, along with other furnishings are coloured red, .the upper part of the Chamber is decorated with stained glass windows and by six allegorical frescoes representing religion, chivalry and law. The royal throne with its decorated golden canopy stands on a dais at the south-end of the Chamber. In front of the Throne is the Woolsack, on which the Lord Speaker sits and the mace of the House, representing royal authority, is placed on the back of the Woolsack. The Peers' Lobby, measuring 39 feet (12 m) on each side and located directly north of the Lords Chamber, is an antechamber where Lords can informally discuss or negotiate matters during sittings of the House.
The Commons Chamber was burned out following the Blitz during World War II, but was restored and reopened in 1950. Measuring 46 by 68 feet (14 by 20.7 m), the Chamber of the House of Commons is at the northern end of the Palace and is simpler in style and grandeur than the Lords Chamber. The antechamber, known as the Member’s Lobby or simply the Lobby, is the room where the Members of Parliament hold discussions and are often interviewed by journalists. Although it was rebuilt after the heavy damage it sustained in the 1941 bombing, the archway of the door leading into the Commons Chamber has been left unrepaired as a harsh reminder of the Great War and is now known as the Rubble Arch or Churchill Arch. It may seem strange, but by tradition, the British Sovereign does not enter the Chamber of the House of Commons.
Apart from being one of the most popular tourist attractions in the City of London and an emblem of parliamentary democracy, described by Tsar Nicholas of Russia as a dream in stone, the Palace of Westminster has been enlisted as a Grade I building since 1970 and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.