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The Houses of Parliament – or Palace of Westminster, as it is also known – has occupied the same spot since 1016, when King Canute built a royal palace.
The palace remained the king’s residence until 1529 when a fire gutted the building, and Henry VII moved to St. James’s Palace down the modern-day Mall.
The oldest surviving part of the original building is Westminster Hall , which was built by William the Conqueror’s son in 1097. It served as the country’s highest court until the mid 19th-century, and witnessed the trials of William Wallace, Anne Boleyn and Charles I. It also witnessed the famous treason trial of Guy Fawkes after the Gunpowder Plot.
Westminster Hall was also used for State ceremonies and coronation banquets, but these days it is chiefly used for speeches and funerals. You may have seen the footage of Winston Churchill’s coffin lying here in the 1960s, and the Queen Mother’s in 2002.
The first official meeting that claimed the name ‘Parliament’ was the Model Parliament of 1295. Its powers were strictly limited, though, because the country was still ruled by the King.
As the centuries passed the power of the people over the king gradually evolved, shifting from the crown to the aristocrats and the landed gentry. But the structure of Parliament has remained remarkably consistent over the years.
The British Houses of Parliament is now split into two halves: the House of Lords originally consisted of the aristocratic nobles and wealthy landowners, whilst the House of Commons was for the commoners. Because the House of Lords was closely linked with the Royal Family, it was the only house to have a permanent chamber.
The Queen is theoretically allowed to attend every debate that goes on inside the House of Lords – which is why the throne remains empty – but in reality she only attends the State Opening of Parliament. At all other times her presence is represented by a golden mace sitting on the woolsack.
The House of Commons usually met in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey. Their fortunes changed in 1547 when Edward VI passed the Protestant Reformation Act, dissolving the religious order of St. Stephens. This freed up St. Stephen’s Chapel so the Commons could have a home of its own.
The House of Commons was originally subservient to both the British crown and the House of Lords. Political gains were made both before and during the English Civil War, when Oliver Cromwell helped to dethrone the King in the name of the people. For a while the Commons reigned supreme, but in reality Cromwell acted as a military dictator. The monarchy was restored after Cromwell’s death, but further gains were made after the Glorious Revolution in 1688.
Nowadays the House of Commons is where the Prime Minister debates with the opposition. The Commons is much plainer the Lords, partly because it got bombed during the Blitz, and partly because the House of Lords is considered a royal room.
A disastrous fire in October 1834 burnt most of the Palace of the Westminster to the ground, leaving only the Jewel Tower, Westminster Hall, some cloisters, and the undercroft of St. Stephen’s Chapel still standing.
The new Houses of Parliament architect was Charles Barry, who was entrusted with the gothic-style rebuild. Augustus Pugin took charge of the interiors. Work continued over the next thirty years – so most of what you see today is just 150-170 years old.
The most obvious features of the modern-day Houses of Parliament are the two tall towers at either end: the Victoria Tower (335 feet) , and the world famous Big Ben clock tower (322 feet) . This has now been renamed as the Elizabeth Tower in honour of Queen Elizabeth II, whilst Big Ben itself is actually the name of the bell inside the clock tower.
Every year the Queen attends the State Opening of Parliament in her gold State Coach (which you can see at the Royal Mews). She wears her full regalia and marches through the Norman Porch with members of the Household Cavalry.
Several traditions must take place before she actually sits and reads the Government’s speech. First of all, a customary tour of the cellars is conducted by security to prevent another Gunpowder Plot. Then she must summon the Commoners from their chamber. As ‘Black Rod’ approaches the door of the Commons it is symbolically slammed in his face, to assert the chamber’s independence from the sovereign. He then knocks three times with his big black staff to summon them out. It is customary for a couple of members of the House to heckle him at this point – as a further indication of their independence.
The final tradition involves their seating positions. Just as the Queen is not allowed to enter the House of Commons, the MPs are not allowed to enter the House of Lords, so they all have to stand behind the Bar and watch from the back.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
Another cold, grey and rainy day in London. I got absolutely soaked on the way to Parliament today and when I turned up at the gun cop gate I felt like a right idiot. I was the first one there as well – right on the dot of 9 o’clock. The first tour of Parliament doesn’t start until 9.15, but after last year I wanted to get there nice and early so I didn’t have to wait around all day. And that’s what you should do if you decide to go. You need to be at the ticket office nice and early, grab yourself a ticket, and hot-foot it over the road so you can speed through security at 9 AM. There are big advantages at being on the first tour of the day, as I will explain.
This Houses of Parliament tour was basically the same as last year, except this time we had a nice old lady guiding us around instead of Colin, and because we were the first tour of the day we didn’t have a load of other groups crowding round her and drowning her out. There were only ten of us in the group, and apart from a few civil servants and policeman walking around they were the only people I saw. Last year I didn’t arrive until the afternoon and Colin had to shout above the other groups to make himself heard. So it’d definitely a good idea to get there early.
After assembling in Westminster Hall she takes you on a five-minute trek through the heart of the Palace, past all the good rooms and lobbies without saying a word. You literally pass the whole lot without her saying anything. This can be a little disconcerting if it’s your first time, because it’s not entirely clear whether this is the actual tour – it isn’t. She’s just taking you to the start at the far end of the Palace.
If you ever watch the State Opening of Parliament on the telly then you’ll see the Norman Porch on that – it’s where the Queen enters after stepping off her carriage. She then walks up some steps lined with soldiers. This is where the tour starts, at those steps. After that you go into the Queen’s Robing Room, which is decked out in reds and golds and has some very strange King Arthur motifs all around the walls (which I always feel sits uncomfortably amongst all the real British kings and queens).
After that you head into the Royal Gallery, which has two huge paintings of Nelson’s death onboard HMS Victory, and the other depicting the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo.
Then you head into the Prince’s Chamber, decorated with pictures of the Tudors all around the walls. They’ve also got six pictures of the Spanish Armada high up by the ceiling. Then you’re stroll into the best room of the lot: the House of Lords chamber. TV doesn’t do this room justice. The golden throne is huge, and the deep leather reds and browns, stained glass windows and intricate wooden ceiling make the whole place look amazing. Just remember not to sit down, though, because one lady in our group made that mistake and got a grilling by a gun cop. Apparently she hadn’t “earned the right” to sit there, and her cheeks went the shame shade of red as the leather chairs.
After the Lords you head into the Peers Lobby and Peers Corridor, and this is where the decor starts to get a bit drab. Whereas the Royal rooms leading up to the Lords are all red, gold and browns, the part of the Palace devoted to the Commoners is all light brown and green. I’m not saying that it looks cheap, because it still looks amazing, but it definitely suffers in comparison with the Lords. It was also the half that got bombed by the Nazis, which didn’t help, and you can see some of the wrecked stonework left in place as a reminder.
Central Lobby comes next. This is where they always do their interviews on the 10 o’clock news. Apparently it’s a public place and UK citizens can turn up whenever you want and demand to speak to their MP. If your MP is in the building and hasn’t got a decent excuse, then he’s supposed to be duty bound to come and speak to you. I wonder if that actually works in practice?
After that you head through the Commons Corridor and into the Members Lobby, where our greatest-ever PMs look down upon us in stone. It has everyone from Lloyd George and Churchill, to Thatcher and Atlee. I noticed that the less famous (or less well remembered) PMs only get a little bust in the Commons Corridor.
If you thought the House of Lords was small, then wait till you see the House of Commons – it is tiny! You will not believe how small this room is. The tour enters it from the back, from behind the Speaker’s Chair, and then proceeds down one of the sides. Once again, you are not allowed to sit down because you “haven’t earned the right” (although I’m not sure most of the MPs deserve to sit down either!). We were standing just two rows back from where the Prime Minister usually sits, so you get a really good view of the room. You can imagine how intimidating it must be when all the opposition benches are shouting back at you trying to drown you out. It must be truly terrifying.
The last room on the tour is St. Stephen’s Hall, which occupys the same space as the original House of Commons before it burnt down in the 1830s. After that you can visit the parliamentary gift shop selling chocolates and trinkets, and then it’s back out to Westminster Hall.
> Read Craig’s latest review of the Parliament tour “I love this place. I even love the politicians inside it (well, most of them). If you come to London and don’t go to the Summer Opening at the Houses of Parliament then you’re basically nuts. It will have been a wasted trip. It’s like going to Rome and not seeing the Vatican. A tour of this place will make your holiday. This is the one you’ll be talking about for months afterwards. They open it up to the public every summer when the MPs have their holidays… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of a Saturday tour of Parliament “I’m back at the Houses of Parliament today. I haven’t been here for a while so I thought I’d better just check the politicians are behaving themselves. You know what they are like… if we don’t keep our beady eyes on them they start getting drunk and having fist fights. You might be under the impression that you can only have a tour of parliament during the Summer Opening, but that’s not true. There are actually three more ways to sneak a peek inside. The first way is to stand as an MP and get 50,000 people to vote for you at the next general election. But granted, that is probably too much hassle if you’re only here on holiday… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of a Saturday self-guided tour “This is the only event that I haven’t yet done at the Houses of Parliament – an audio tour. I’ve done everything else that a tourist can do – I’ve climbed up Big Ben, been to see the PM in Downing Street, fell asleep in the House of Lords, seen the protesters banging pots about in Parliament Square – this is the last one. So after this they should put a statue of me up in Parliament Square… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of the House of Commons “Apparently the best things in life are free. That’s what they say, anyway (the people with money). But in this case it happens to be true: because you can come to the Houses of Parliament and sit in the House of Commons for nothing. You don’t even need a ticket or any ID. You might have to wait an hour to get inside, but once you’ve bagged yourself a seat you can basically stay for as long as you like… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of the House of Lords “It’s 10 to eleven… come on Big Ben, speed up son! I’ve been sitting in Parliament Square for the last half-hour waiting for 11 o’clock to come. I’ve already been to see the MPs debating in the House of Commons so I thought I’d give the House of Lords a try today. The Commons starts up at ten, so silly old me thought that the House of Lords would open at the same time. But I forgot: they are all 80-year-old peers and need two hours to get out of bed. So here I am sitting in Parliament Square trying to wile away a bit of time… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of Prime Minister’s Questions “It’s a big day for the Prime Minister today, because he’s going to meet me for the first time. He’s probably been informed that I’m coming, and will put on an extra special show. It’s a bit of a rigmarole getting into Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). It’s only on once a week, for half-hour on Wednesday, and you can’t just turn up and queue like on any other day. What you have to do is write a begging letter to your local MP asking for a ticket (there’s no form, you just have to put together a letter). I told mine that if he came up trumps then he’d have won a voter for life. Obviously I lied. The chances of me voting for my bloke are close to zero – he’s useless… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of the Big Ben tour “I climbed up Big Ben today to see the bell. It’s not as easy to get into Big Ben as it is to get into Parliament. You can’t just turn up and ask for a tour. What you have to do is write a letter to your local MP and ask for a ticket. They make you fill out a little spreadsheet with all your personal details as well, so they can perform a security check. And that’s before you even step through the door and have your photo taken… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of the State Opening of Parliament “I went to the State Opening of Parliament today. I had to get up well early (6:45 AM!) and I should have got a medal but it was worth it. The parade was due to go past at 11 AM so I thought I’d better be there by nine at least, but I ended up in McDonalds by half-8, just to pass the time. It was drizzling with rain all day and maybe that’s what kept the crowds away, but the streets were still empty at 10. You could have arrived an hour before and still got yourself a good spot. I had plenty of time, so I walked the whole thing from Buckingham Palace down The Mall… continued.”
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If you want to visit the Houses of Parliament in London then there are Saturday tours and guided tours of Big Ben. You can also visit the Houses of Commons and House of Lords. Or how about getting tickets for Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs)? And don’t forget to visit No.10 Downing Street. Check out our guide to political events in London for a complete list of London’s political attractions.