Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Houses of Parliament from Philip's Encyclopedia

(Palace of Westminster) First large-scale public building of the Gothic revival in Britain. After a fire destroyed the old Palace of Westminster, Charles Barry won a competition for its replacement. Together with Augustus Pugin, a passionate Gothic specialist, he created a building that combined a functional plan and modern technology with Gothic detail. The Palace was finished in 1868.

Summary Article: Parliament, Houses of
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Building where the UK legislative assembly meets. The present Houses of Parliament in London, designed in Gothic Revival style by the architects Charles Barry and A W N Pugin, were built 1840–70, the previous building having burned down in 1834. It incorporates portions of the medieval Palace of Westminster.

The House of Commons debating chamber was destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1941: the rebuilt chamber (opened in 1950) is the work of architect Giles Gilbert Scott and preserves its former character.

History Officially known as the Palace of Westminster, the building was originally a royal residence from the time of Edward the Confessor (who built the original palace) until Henry VIII. Additions and alterations were made at various times. In 1512 the palace was damaged by fire; Henry VIII later took York Place (renaming it Whitehall) from Wolsey, built St James's Palace, and abandoned the Westminster residence. In 1547 Edward VI granted the use of its chapel of St Stephen to the Commons, who had hitherto met in the chapter-house or refectory of Westminster Abbey, and there they remained until a fire in 1834 destroyed all the palace except Westminster Hall, the crypt of St Stephen's Chapel, the Jewel Tower, and the cloisters.

A new Palace of Westminster was begun in 1840 in a rich adaptation of Gothic designed by Sir Charles Barry, assisted by A W N Pugin; the Lords occupied their chamber in 1847, and the formal opening by Queen Victoria followed in 1852. After Barry's death in 1860 the completion was carried out by his son, E M Barry. The House of Commons was destroyed by bombs in 1941. A new chamber designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, substantially on the lines of the former building, was begun in 1948 and formally opened on 26 October 1950. Every part of the Commonwealth contributed some kind of furnishing for the new chamber.

Features The exterior features of the Houses of Parliament include the clock tower (96 m/345 ft high) containing the hour-bell known as Big Ben after Sir Benjamin Hall, who was the first commissioner of works when it was installed, and the Victoria Tower (98 m/351 ft high) at the southern end. The public entrance is by a door in Old Palace Yard. The royal entrance is through the Victoria Tower, which, via the Royal Staircase, the Norman Porch, and the Queen's Robing Room, leads to the Royal Gallery, which is crossed by the sovereign when opening Parliament. The Princes' Chamber beyond leads to the House of Lords, a brilliantly decorated chamber.

House of Lords The thrones for the sovereign and consort, designed by Pugin, stand at its southern end, and in front of them is the Lord Chancellor's woolsack. In front of the chancellor's woolsack are two other woolsacks on which the judges sit at the opening of Parliament. At the other end of the chamber is the bar, at which the members of the Commons attend to hear the speech from the throne at the opening of Parliament and to hear the royal assent to acts of Parliament. The judicial business of the House of Lords when it is acting as the final court of appeal is done in the morning by the lords of appeal sitting in a committee room upstairs. The results of appeals are announced in the House; the opinions (or reasons) have not been delivered orally since 1963, but are available in writing.

When the Lords are sitting for legislative business, the Lord Chancellor sits on the woolsack as Speaker with the bishops and government peers on his or her right and the Opposition peers on the left. Above are the Strangers' and Press Galleries. The chamber was used by the Commons, after a brief tenure of Church House, Westminster, when their own was bombed during World War II, and the Lords used the Queen's Robing Room.

The northern end of the chamber leads to the Peers' Lobby and the Peers' Corridor, then into the Central Lobby, used with the adjoining Waiting Hall by visitors and constituents calling to see MPs. West of this lobby is St Stephen's Hall, standing on the site of St Stephen's Chapel, founded originally by King Stephen in 1141 and rebuilt under Edward III as a collegiate chapel. Below is the crypt dating from 1292–1327, and to the north are St Stephen's Cloisters, a late Gothic structure, dating from around 1526–29. To the north of the Central Lobby is the Commons Corridor leading to the Commons Lobby, and the Churchill Arch at the north end, which has been retained in its war-scarred state, leads into the House of Commons, which, with its green leather benches, is in sombre contrast to the red and gold of the Lords.

House of Commons The Speaker's chair is at the northern end. The benches on his or her right are occupied by the members of the party in power, those on the left by the party in opposition, the front benches being occupied by cabinet ministers and Opposition leaders respectively. In front of the Speaker's chair is the clerk's table, upon which the Mace (symbol of the Speaker's authority from the sovereign) is placed when the House sits as a house, but below which the Mace is put when the House goes into committee. Above are the galleries for distinguished strangers, other strangers, and the press. The division lobbies are on the western and eastern sides of the chamber. When the House is sitting, a light shows at night from the clock tower, and by day the Union Flag flies from the Victoria Tower.

The Houses of Parliament are full of statues, paintings, and other representations of incidents and personalities in British history, more especially those connected with Parliament. There are more than 200 other rooms including the libraries of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, dining- and smoking-rooms, and the Speaker's residence at the northeastern corner. Old Palace Yard, lying between the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, is the site of the inner court of the palace built by Edward the Confessor. New Palace Yard, at the northwestern corner, was the courtyard of the new palace projected by William II, of which only the banqueting hall was built.

See also Commons, House of, Lords, House of , and Parliament.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles

Full text Article Houses of Parliament
Dictionary of Politics and Government

/hazız əv pləmənt/ 1. the building where the British Parliament meets, containing the chambers of the House of Commons and the House of...

Full text Article Big Ben
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

The 14-ton 9ft-diameter bell in the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster (London), named after Sir Benjamin Hall (1802-67), commissioner...

Full text Article Journals of the Houses of Parliament
The Companion to British History, Routledge

The Commons Journal was begun in 1547, treated as authoritative from 1580, interrupted from 1584 to 1601 and was printed from 1742. Portions...

See more from Credo