Houses of Parliament - a Brief History

The Palace of Westminster was the principal residence of the kings of England from the middle of the 11th century until 1512. In medieval times kings summoned their courts wherever they happened to be. But by the end of the 14th century the court in all its aspects - administrative, judicial and parliamentary - had its headquarters at Westminster.

Although the Lords were accommodated in the Palace, the Commons originally had no permanent meeting place of their own, meeting either in the chapter house or the refectory of Westminster Abbey. After the Chantries Act 1547 abolished all private chapels, the Royal Chapel of St Stephen within the Palace of Westminster was handed over to the Commons.

The Commons assembled in St Stephen's until 1834 when the Palace was burned down. This fire destroyed almost all of the Palace except Westminster Hall, the crypt of St Stephen's Chapel, the adjacent cloisters and the Jewel Tower.

The present Houses of Parliament were built over the next 30 years. They were the work of the architect Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) and his assistant Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-52). The design incorporated Westminster Hall and the remains of St Stephen's Chapel.

The House of Commons Chamber was destroyed in a German air attack in 1941. It was rebuilt after the Second World War, taking care to preserve the essential features of Barry's building - the architect was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The new Chamber was completed in 1950.

The Mediaeval Hall. William I, having established his first stronghold at the Tower, later moved to Westminster; and it is from the reign of his son, William Rufus, that the first extant buildings on the site date, including Westminster Hall, the Great Hall, which was built at the northern end of the Palace and still stands today after celebrating nine hundred years of continuous use in 1999.

The hall was designed originally as a place for feasting and entertaining, but its very size made it more than that. Among other uses, the Royal Council of bishops, nobles and ministers assembled there. The special later form of this Council, which came to be known as Parliament, was the forerunner of the present House of Lords. It was also the site of the first true English parliament to include elected representatives, summoned by Simon de Montfort in 1265. While Parliament has never met in the Hall on a regular basis, it was the existence of the Hall, which at that time was the largest in Europe, that helped to make Westminster the judicial and administrative centre of the kingdom.

The Palace was one of the monarch's principal homes throughout the later Middle Ages, and for this reason the institutions of Government came to be clustered in the Westminster area. To the east and south of the Hall lay the domestic apartments of the mediaeval Palace, and later, the royal chapel of St Stephen. Kings worshipped in the upper Chapel and their courtiers in the lower level or "crypt" chapel below.

The Hall, of which the walls were built in 1097-99, as part of an intended reconstruction of the whole palace, is the oldest extant building on the Palace of Westminster site. Its floor area is about 1850 sq yds, and it is one of the largest mediaeval halls in Europe with an unsupported roof. The roof was originally supported by two rows of pillars, but the present magnificent hammerbeam roof was designed in the reign of Richard II. The mason/architect of the 14th century rebuilding was Henry Yevele, and the carpenter/designer of the roof, Hugh Herland. Westminster Hall was the traditional venue for Coronation banquets.

The Victoria Tower was purpose-built for keeping records after the great fire of 1834 destroyed the Palace of Westminster and almost all the House of Commons records. The House of Lords records survived because they were then held in the Jewel Tower, which was remote from the main building, and can still be seen across the road from the Victoria Tower. Charles Barry's winning design for the new Palace featured a tower over the Royal entrance every storey of which included record rooms. When the wrought iron flagstaff was put into position in 1855 the Tower was proudly claimed to be the largest and highest square tower in the world, 323 feet high to the base of the flagstaff and a further 72 feet to the top of the Crown at its summit.

The Clock Tower is the famous tower of the Houses of Parliament and contains the bell Big Ben. The minute hands of the great clock are made of copper and the hour hands are made of gunmetal. The numerals are about half a metre high and there are 312 panes of glass in each of the four faces. The bell was cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1858, and is said to be named after Benjamin Hall, who was the Commissioner of Works at the time. The bell strikes the note E. The chimes of the bell are famous around the world, and it is the bell of Big Ben that is broadcast on New Year's Eve.