Pondering Power at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, A UNESCO World Heritage Site in London, England

Long brown building with many pointed spires and a giant clock tower at the right hand end, on the far side of a broad river

Houses of Parliament from across the Thames
(Photo credit and copyright Jill Browne)

When in London, listen to the stones. The Tower of London says, “Power comes from the King and his army.” Westminster Abbey says, “Power comes from God.” You would expect the Houses of Parliament to say, “Power comes from the people”, but that’s not what I discovered when I went on a tour recently.

In Your Bucket Because …

  • It’s part of the Westminster UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • It’s the epicentre of the British Parliamentary tradition.
  • Good for people who are interested in history, in government, and in Gothic architecture and decoration.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for this place includes Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret’s Church in addition to the Palace of Westminster (that’s the building usually called the Houses of Parliament after its tenants). Thanks to modern traffic patterns and a general breakdown of civilization, there is a busy street slicing through what was once a unified site.

English Heritage has put up a helpful sign with a picture of the old Palace of Westminster, showing how things used to be. The sign is near the Jewel Tower, one of the last bits of the old Palace. A short stop there got me thinking about the days when wealth was measured by how much gold a king could hold onto, and what kind of force it took to stay in power.

Walking in the Steps of Kings

Before there was Parliament, there was a king, and a king will have a palace. The English Heritage sign says that by 1042, the Palace of Westminster was the home of King Edward the Confessor and remained a principal royal residence until about 1512. Since then, it’s changed a lot, from a stronghold by the river to a neo-Gothic masterpiece. Layer on 21st-century security systems, and from the outside, you see a church-like fort, not a populist building.

The same is true inside. The House of Commons aspires to be like the House of Lords, and the House of Lords aspires to be royal.

Golden throne at the front of a formal hall with paintings in arches above. The red leather benches are full but we only see the tops of the people's heads.

House of Lords
(Photo subject to Parliamentary Copyright,
Photographer Roger Harris, Copyright House of Lords 2012, CC License)

“Follow me. Sit only where I tell you to. Do not sit in the House of Lords or we shall all be executed,” is how our guide Muriana (actually, it was either Muriel or Diana) kicked off the tour. We obeyed. The place kind of makes you do that.

So, what do you see on a Houses of Parliament tour? Lots. Muriana was an excellent and efficient guide.

Westminster Hall and a Magnificent Hammerbeam Roof

We started and finished in Westminster Hall, the intact remainder of the original Norman palace, originally built in 1097 to 1099. Put a sheet of ice on the floor, and this could be a community arena in any Canadian town. It’s dark, a little cold, and the sound bounces off the stone walls and floor, all the way up to the open rafters. Those rafters show just how far from an arena this room actually is. The self-supporting hammerbeam roof is a famous example of carpenters’ ingenuity. It was built in the 1390s for King Richard II, who added the statues of kings in the wall niches.

Westminster Hall was always meant as a place for assemblies and great celebrations as well as more mundane things. It could stage spectacles to reinforce the image of the King as an absolute, all-powerful ruler. It’s been an all-purpose space for centuries: courtroom, banqueting hall, funeral parlour, parliamentary meeting place. Among the plaques on the floor is one marking where Nelson Mandela stood to address the combined House of Lords and House of Commons in the 1990s.

Between Westminster Hall’s early days and now, almost everything has changed. Following a destructive fire in 1834, the present Parliament building was commissioned. The rebuilding, in the neo-Gothic style, began under architects Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. It was such a long and stressful project that neither lived to see it completed.

Aerial view of the clock tower and two faces of Big Ben

Big Ben seen from the London Eye
(Photo credit and copyright Jill Browne)

Without rushing, Muriana took us through Barry and Pugin’s masterpiece, on the route Queen Elizabeth uses for the official State Opening of Parliament. The Queen arrives wearing a white dress. She puts on her regal robes and crown in the Robing Room, a richly coloured space decorated with murals of King Arthur. You don’t see many pictures of King Arthur in daily life, not the way Saint George turns up everywhere. Why is this room given over to the Once and Future King? The answer is Prince Albert, President of the Select Committee responsible for the art in the new Palace.

Thanks to the Committee, we have King Arthur here, the Tudors in the Prince’s Chamber, and numerous golden statues of past kings and queens in the Royal Gallery. Two British heroes, Nelson and Wellington, are glorified in massive murals, also in the Royal Gallery, and that’s just a sample of the art.

Green grass. To the left, brown Gothic Houses of Parliament. To the right, white church with square tower.

Palace of Westminster and St. Margaret’s Church
(Photo credit and copyright Jill Browne)

Beyond the Royal Gallery is the House of Lords Chamber. The layout here is repeated in the House of Commons Chamber: Government and Opposition face each other from long, tiered benches. In the Commons, there’s a red line in front of each side. The red line on the left is two and a half sword-lengths from the red line on the right, to prevent unsightly bloodstains on the carpets. “Toe the line” means something specific here: Stay on your own side.

Detail of a roofline showing numerous Gothic points on a brown building, and their shadow on the the roof.

Gothic spires of the Palace of Westminster
(Photo credit and copyright Jill Browne)

The actual chambers are smaller than I expected. The Commons benches are upholstered in green leather. The Speaker has a prominent chair made of Australian wood, also with green leather.

The House of Lords chamber is upholstered in red. The Speaker in the Lords has to sit on the Woolsack, which is as uncomfortable-looking as it sounds: a red hassock. The sumptuous golden throne in there is only for the Queen. The throne looks much more comfortable than the Woolsack, but one cannot change tradition merely to get better lumbar support.

Nothing tops that throne for grandeur, but the Palace is also well supplied with statues and busts of non-regal past Prime Ministers. Mrs.Thatcher’s statue is even holding a handbag. No, wait, it’s not a handbag. It’s some official-looking papers.

I finished my tour around 2:30 on a rather dismal February Saturday afternoon. A lot of ideas about power, monarchy and democracy were crowding into my brain. This is a place where kings have gone from being absolute monarchs like Henry VIII, believing in their own divine right to rule, to the situation we have today, where the Queen doesn’t interfere in the running of the country. It is a fascinating journey, and I hope to continue learning about it for years to come.

Suitably fortified by a cup of tea, I left the Houses of Parliament. There was time for a short trip to the National Portrait Gallery, where I stared at the painting of the passage of the Great Reform Act, one of the milestones of Britain’s progress toward democracy, and thought of what it took to get there.

Practicalities

  • You may be able to see part of the Houses of Parliament without taking the tour, but if you have limited time or want to get a look at more, the tour may be your only practical choice. Check the Houses of Parliament website for options. In winter, tours are only offered on Saturdays.
  • No photography, other than in Westminster Hall.
  • The tour is a little over an hour, and although there are one or two chances to sit down, these are brief. People with disabilities should review the “Disabled Access” section of the website.
  • To fully appreciate the UNESCO World Heritage Site, it helps to walk around the area and in particular to see the Jewel House, which is on the far side of St. Margaret’s Church as you move away from Big Ben.
  • The tour of the Houses of Parliament is not likely to be interesting for most children. If their Mum or Dad is an MP, maybe, but otherwise, wait until they are old enough to be interested in politics and history.

Comments

Leave a Comment