Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Houses of Parliament (London)

The Houses of Parliament consist of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It is an excellently composed complex architecturally, and is one of the most instantly recognised edifices, not only in London, but in the world.

The proper name for the Houses of Parliament is the Palace of Westminster, and it is known throughout the world as "the Mother of Parliaments". Technically, it is a Royal palace.

Westminster, actually a separate city in its own right but usually regarded as part of London, first started becoming important in about 1000, when a Royal palace was built here, and began to supersede the functions of the previous capital, Winchester. The palace was built on the marshy Thorney Island, beside an already existing monastery.

Edward the Confessor embarked on an impressive building programme in about 1050, culminating in Westminster Abbey, the earliest version of which was completed just before his death in 1066.

William II built Westminster Hall, at the time the largest hall in Europe, from 1095 to 1097. It was extensively remodelled by the great architect Henry Yevele in 1404. The mediaeval kings would summon their nobles here for meetings, and this evolved into the House of Lords.

After Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester, who was effectively King for a few months in 1265, started calling representatives of the boroughs and shires to Parliament, the practice continued and eventually evolved into the House of Commons.

Henry VIII moved his usual residence to the nearby Whitehall Palace in the 16th century, and at this point Parliament, hitherto held around the country, found a regular meeting place at Westminster, with the Commons meeting at the abandoned royal chapel of St. Stephen.

There was a disastrous fire in 1834, which destroyed most of the old Parliament buildings. Only Westminster Hall, the old cloister and St. Stephen's crypt survived.

Rebuilding began in 1840, under the control of Sir Charles Barry, but with enormous help from the brilliant young mediaevalist Augustus Pugin. Both architects died in 1852, and the monumental work was completed in 1860.

The great Victoria Tower dominates the Houses of Parliament visually, but far better known is the slimmer Clock Tower, usually known as Big Ben.

At midnight on 5th November 1605, Guy Fawkes of York was discovered in the crypt of the House of Lords, with twenty barrels of gunpowder which he was preparing to ignite. It was an anti-Catholic plot to blow up King and Parliament that thankfully was thwarted. Eight conspirators were caught and stood trial, but it is Fawkes who is remembered today with bonfires and fireworks.

The Houses of Parliament are sometimes open to the public, with guided tours.

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