Visit Houses of Parliament

Facts and information

The Big Ben clock tower
Houses of Parliament, Parliament Square, Westminster,
London SW1A 0AA
Opening times:
Closed to the public, except during the Summer Opening in Aug/Sep, and selected Saturdays
Note: Opening times are subject to change, and may not apply on public holidays. Always reconfirm with the venue before making plans
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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 Canute the Great built a royal palace on the site.

Westminster Hall

The oldest surviving part of the building is Westminster Hall, which was built by William the Conqueror’s son in 1097 after moving his royal residence from the Tower of London. Most kings followed suit for 450 years, until Henry VII built St. James’s Palace in 1530.

The Hall is marked by the imposing statue of Oliver Cromwell on the green – it was here that he was sworn in as Lord Protector in 1653. It also served as the country’s highest court until the mid 19th-century, setting the scene for the trials of Charles I, Anne Boleyn and William Wallace. But the most famous case involved Guy Fawkes, who was tried for treason in the Gunpowder Plot.

The building is also used for ceremonies and coronation banquets – the last was in 1821 when George IV took the throne. These days it is used mainly for funerals, when England’s leading lights are laid in State. You may remember news reels of Winston Churchill in the sixties, and the beloved Queen Mother in 2002.

History of the Houses of Parliament

The very first meeting to claim the name ‘parliament’ was the Model Parliament of 1295. Its powers were strictly limited though – as the country was ruled by the King. When a fire gutted the building in 1529, Henry VII moved to St. James’s Palace and turned the building over to the politicians.

The House was split into two sections: the House of Lords [5] – which until recent times housed the non-elected nobles and wealthy land-owners – and the House of Commons [7], which had the commoners. But because the House of Lords was closely linked with royalty, it was the only group to have a chamber. The House of Commons usually met in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey.

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, and gave the Commons a home of its own.

Ground plan of Parliament

Architect Charles Barry

A disastrous fire in October 1834 burnt most of the Palace to the ground, and the only surviving parts were the Jewel Tower, the undercroft of St. Stephen’s Chapel, and Westminster Hall [1]. Most of what you see today, therefore, is just 170 years old.

Charles Barry was entrusted with the rebuild, and came up with his gothic-style replacement. Work was spread over thirty years, and further work was carried out in the 1940s when a German bomb landed in the Commons.

The newest parts of the building are distinguished by two tall towers – the Victoria Tower [2] at one end (335 feet), and the world famous Big Ben clock tower [8] at the other (322 feet). The smaller tower in the centre sits directly above the various lobbies and debating chambers.

The House of Commons, and House of Lords

The Commons is where the Prime Minister comes face to face with members of the opposition. It is far more austere than its brother, the Lords – partly because of the rebuild during the war, and partly because the Lords is considered a royal room. It is also very small – it can only seat 437 of the 659 MPs.

The House has had a long and lonely struggle against the power of the King – it was subservient to both the throne and Lords for hundreds of years. Things only began to change in the late 14th-century when an MP complained about his taxes, and even impeached a couple of the King’s ministers. He was soon thrown in prison, but released on the death of Edward III.

Further gains were made in the civil war, when Cromwell dethroned the King in the name of the people. He ousted Charles I and abolished the Lords. The Commons was therefore supreme – but in reality Cromwell acted as a military dictator.

Interestingly, the Queen is still forbidden to enter the House of Commons to this very day. The last monarch to affect an entry was Charles Ihimself, in 1642. He sought to arrest five of its members, but when he asked the Speaker where they were he received the terse reply: May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.

Until very recent times the House of Lords housed the non-elected nobles and wealthy land-owners. The Queen is theoretically allowed to attend every debate that goes on here – which is why the throne remains empty – but in reality she only attends the State Opening of Parliament.

When the Queen is otherwise engaged her presence is represented by a Royal Mace sitting on the Woolsack, just in front of the throne.

State Opening of Parliament

The Houses of Parliament are high in pomp and pageantry, and every year the Queen attends the State Opening of Parliament in her gold State Coach. She dons her full regalia and marches through the Norman Porch with members of the Household Cavalry. A short stroll through the Royal Gallery [4] follows, leading into the Lord’s Chamber – where she sits and reads the speech.

Several traditions must take place before she actually sits and reads the 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 their door it is symbolically slammed in his face – to assert their 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 sop to independence.

The final tradition involves their seating positions… just as the Queen is not allowed to enter the Commons, the MPs are not allowed to enter the Lords. They all have to stand outside the Bar and watch at the back.

The Queen’s Speech is always written by the Government of the day, and outlines their policy for the coming year.


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