The Palace of Westminster is perhaps one of London’s most iconic buildings. It’s where all the UK’s politicians meet and it’s where all laws are made, but do you know how it came to be? In today’s blog post, we’ll be taking an informative look at the seat of our government and its storied history. From its beginnings over a millennium ago to surviving the Blitz, this is the history of the Palace of Westminster.
The original site of the Palace of Westminster was built on an eyot in the River Thames known as Thorney Island, which no longer exists. This site was of strategic importance to King Canute from as early as 1016, when he used the island as his royal residence. It was Edward the Confessor who first built a royal palace at the location — around the same time he built Westminster Abbey — in the middle of the 11th century.
The oldest part of the palace that still exists today is known as Westminster Hall, which was built by King William II in the late 1090s. For much of the medieval period, it became tradition that the ruling monarch would take up their principal residence at the Palace.
The rise of parliament
The King’s council, which was a precursor to parliament, would meet in Westminster Hall to discuss their plans for the country and laying the foundations of what was to come. The first official parliament met in the Hall in 1295, and almost every single following parliament for the next 400 years took place there. Because the building was constructed as a royal residence, there were no purpose-built chambers for parliament as there are today. State ceremonies were held in what had been King Henry III’s bedchamber, while the House of Lords would meet in the Queen’s chamber.
The burning of the commons
By the 18th century, parliamentarians had their own building, but the whole site was showing signs of ageing, and its limited space had become a problem for the growing size of parliamentary business. There were calls to build a new palace, but instead yet more buildings were constructed to improve the existing site. It wouldn’t last for long however, as a fire in 1834 burned down both houses and many of the other buildings at the palace. King William IV offered up the nearly finished Buckingham Palace to parliament, but it was considered unsuitable and was rejected.
A new home
Following the fire, some chambers were repaired for temporary use, and parliament set about building a new home. Designs were submitted by some of the foremost architects of the day, but the ultimate winner, Augustus W. N. Pugin, was forced to submit his Gothic design through another architect, Charles Barry. Due to his conversion to Roman Catholicism, it was likely that his ideas would have been rejected. The first brick was laid on 27 April 1840, with the Lords Chamber and Commons Chamber completed in 1847 and 1852 respectively, and the whole project was completed by 1870.
During the Blitz of WWII, the Palace was hit by bombs on fourteen different raids, destroying some parts of the building and killing several people. One bomb set the roof of the House of Commons on fire, while another did the same to Westminster Hall. Only one of them could be saved, and the Hall was chosen. The Commons Chamber was destroyed by the fire, but it was rebuilt in the years after the war. Today, the Palace is in urgent need of repairs costing upwards of £7 billion, which will begin in 2022 and last for six years.
As you can see, the seat of power in the United Kingdom has a long and storied history. If you want a chance to see this and many other fantastic London landmarks, then the Foxtrail scavenger hunt is the ideal activity for you. Whether with your family, friends, or work colleagues, you’ll have to work together to beat the cunning fox. Find out more about our exciting trails and book your trip today!