Exploring the Top Attractions of London's Houses of Parliament
Britain's Houses of Parliament are officially known as the Palace of Westminster, recalling the fact they occupy the site of a former royal palace built by Edward the Confessor and enlarged by William the Conqueror. A catastrophic fire destroyed the palace in 1512, with the exception of Westminster Hall, the 14th century St Stephen's Chapel and the Crypt.
Until 1529, when Henry VIII acquired neighboring Whitehall Palace, the Palace of Westminster was a royal residence. In 1547 it became the seat of Parliament, the House of Commons meeting in St Stephen's Chapel and the House of Lords in a hall at the south end of Old Palace Yard. In 1605 a group of Roman Catholics led by Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament (to this day, before the state opening of Parliament, the vaults are searched by Yeomen of the Guard).
The present Houses of Parliament - in neo-Gothic style to harmonize with the nearby Westminster Abbey - were officially opened in 1852. After WWII, the House of Commons and other parts of the buildings were rebuilt in the original style.
The House of Commons
Partially destroyed during the last war, the House of Commons was rebuilt in its original form soon after the war ended. At the north end of the chamber is the Chair, made of black Australian wood and occupied by the Speaker who presides over the House of Commons, so called as it's their responsibility to speak to the Monarch representing the views of the House of Commons. A responsibility that could, at times, be hazardous. To this day, newly elected Speakers are expected to put on a show of reluctance when conducted to the chair for the first time.
The members of the government and opposition parties sit opposite one another on parallel rows of green benches, and between them is the table of the House on which the Mace is placed during sittings. On the carpet between the front benches are two red lines, exactly two sword-lengths apart in order to prevent members coming to blows. Nowadays, party members on the front benches may throw notes across the floor and shout in agreement with fellow members' speeches. At the opening of each day's sitting of the House of Commons the cry is heard: "Mr Speaker! Hats off - strangers!" This marks the passing of the Speaker's procession - the Speaker himself, wearing a wig and long black gown, preceded by a messenger and the Sergeant at Arms wearing knee breeches, carrying the Mace and followed by his Train-bearer, Chaplain and Secretary. The proceedings begin with a prayer read by the Chaplain, after which the public is admitted and visitors are shown to their places in the gallery by frock-coated attendants who give them a copy of the Order Paper listing the day's business. The anteroom to the House of Commons is the Commons' Lobby, a square chamber in Gothic style with statues of 20th century statesmen, including bronze figures of Winston Churchill and Lloyd George.
The House of Lords
The House of Lords is a sumptuously decorated chamber with red leather benches for the peers, the traditional "Woolsack" (recalling the importance of the English wool trade from the 14th century onwards) on which the Lord Chancellor sits, and the throne occupied by the Monarch when opening Parliament. Above the throne are galleries for distinguished visitors, and above the north entrance the galleries for the press and the public. In the recesses behind the galleries are frescoes depicting scenes from British history and symbolizing Justice, Religion and Chivalry.
In the window niches are statues of the barons who compelled King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. The Peers' Lobby, beyond the House of Lords, is a square chamber with a fine tiled pavement of tiles. The Peers' Corridor leads into the Central Lobby, an elaborately decorated vestibule with a 75ft vaulted ceiling.
The Jewel Tower
The Jewel Tower, now a museum run by English Heritage, is one of the few surviving remnants of the medieval Palace of Westminster. It was built by Henry Yevele in 1366 as a repository for the king's private wealth (as distinct from the Crown Jewels and the public treasury), and was used for that purpose until the death of Henry VIII. From the beginning of the 17th century it was used to store the records of the House of Lords, and from 1869 to 1938 was occupied by the Weights and Measures Department of the Board of Trade. Severely damaged during WWII, it was rebuilt in its original style between 1948 and 1956. The small vaulted rooms now house an exhibition of Parliament past and present.
Address: Abingdon St, Westminster, London SW1P 3JY
St Margaret's Church
St Margaret's, the parish church of the House of Commons and the scene of many fashionable weddings, was founded in the 11th century, rebuilt in 1523, refaced in 1735 and restored in 1878. The church is notable for the Flemish stained glass in the east window, presented by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain on the occasion of the marriage of Prince Arthur, Henry VIII's elder brother, to Catherine of Aragon. Before the glass arrived in London, Arthur had died and Henry had married his widow, whereupon the glass was sent to Waltham Abbey, coming to St Margaret's only in 1758. Other features of interest are the altarpiece, the center panel of which is a carving of the Supper at Emmaus, copied from Titian's picture; 16th and 17th century memorial brasses (including one to Sir Walter Raleigh); and Elizabethan and Jacobean monuments. Visitors are welcome to participate in the church's regular services.
Hours: Mon-Fri, 9:30am-3:30pm; Sat, 9:30am-1:30pm; Sun, 2-4:30pm
Address: St Margaret St, Westminster, London
The Royal Chambers and the Royal Gallery
The Royal Staircase leads to the Norman Porch, with statues and frescoes of the Norman period. Adjoining is the Robing Room used by the monarch, 54 ft long and decorated in the style of the early Victorian period. Notable features are the wall frescoes, the carved oak panels with the badges of successive sovereigns, the fireplace made of a variety of marbles, and a Victorian period chair. The 110 ft long Royal Gallery has an elaborate ceiling and a frieze with the arms of English and Scottish monarchs. On the walls are two monumental frescoes by Daniel Maclise, The Death of Nelson and The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher after Waterloo. The adjoining Prince's Chamber is the anteroom to the House of Lords. On its paneled walls are portraits of the Tudor monarchs and members of their families, and below these are bas-reliefs of scenes from their reigns. Opposite the entrance is a white marble statue of Queen Victoria, flanked by figures of Justice and Mercy.
The fire that destroyed the old Palace of Westminster spared Westminster Hall. The 250 ft long, 90 ft high hall was rebuilt by Henry Yvele during Richard II's reign. Its most impressive feature is its oak hammerbeam roof (late 14th century), restored after damage during the last war. Westminster Hall has been the scene of many great historical events, and from 1224 to 1882 was the meeting place of the highest courts in the land and witnessed many famous trials, including those of Richard II (1399), Sir Thomas More (1535) and Charles I (1649). Here, too, Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector in 1653. From Westminster Hall a staircase leads down to St Stephen's Crypt (officially the church of St Mary Undercroft), the crypt of the old St Stephen's Chapel (1327).
The Clock Tower and Big Ben
At the north end of the Houses of Parliament is the Clock Tower, ranking with Trafalgar Square and Tower Bridge as one of the most celebrated of London's landmarks. The tower is 320 ft high with a flight of 334 steps leading up to the clock, which has dials 23 ft in diameter and minute hand 14 ft long. The bell, aka Big Ben and is said to be named after Sir Benjamin Hall, weighs 13 tons. The sound of Big Ben has become known throughout the world as the time signal of BBC radio. (Unfortunately for overseas visitors, tours of the Clock Tower are available to UK residents only.) Also of note is the Victoria Tower, built in 1858 and the largest and tallest square tower in the world (75 ft square, 336 ft high) from which the Union Jack flies when Parliament is sitting.
St Stephen's Hall
The door on the west side of the Central Lobby leads into St Stephen's Hall on the site of the old St Stephen's Chapel, where the House of Commons met from 1547 to 1834. This is a vaulted hall, 95 ft long, with mosaics depicting the founding of the chapel by King Stephen and containing statues of Norman and Plantagenet kings and queens and British statesmen of the 17th-19th centuries. From St Stephen's Porch, adjoining on the west, there are excellent views of Westminster Hall.
Portcullis House, designed by Michael Hopkins and officially opened by the Queen in 2001, is notable as the only new building to be commissioned by Parliament since the 19th century. It's home to the House of Commons contemporary portrait collection, a record of leading Parliamentarians in paintings, in print and in photographs. Entrance is via a 75-minute tour that also includes a visit to the first floor Committee Corridor.
State Opening of Parliament
The State Opening of Parliament takes place annually in November and is a great opportunity to do a little royal watching as the Queen rides from Buckingham Palace to Parliament in the Irish State Coach. Once in the House of Lords, she declares the new session of Parliament open and a gun salute is fired in Hyde Park and at the Tower of London. The Royal Entrance, a 50 ft high doorway, is used by the Monarch to enter Parliament.
Touring the Houses of Parliament
All visitors are welcome to attend debates, watch committee hearings or take a tour inside the Houses of Parliament (except for Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower, which are only open to permanent UK residents). Excellent guided tours lasting nearly two hours include the following areas: Grand Committee Room, Queen's Robing Room, Royal Gallery, Prince's Chamber, Lords Chamber, Moses Room, Central Lobby, Members' Lobby, Aye Lobby, Commons Chamber, St Stephen's Hall and Westminster Hall. Tours typically run on Saturdays and fill up quickly, so be sure to book as far in advance as possible (click here for dates and details). For those wanting to tour alone, audio tours are also available. Although not all areas open to guided tours are included, you do get access to the Royal Gallery, Prince's Chamber, Lords Chamber, Central Lobby, Members' Lobby, No Lobby, Commons Chamber, St Stephen's Hall and Westminster Hall. Tours typically only run on Saturdays and should be booked in advance to avoid disappointment.
Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to the Houses of Parliament
The following Tips and Tactics will help ensure you get the most out of your visit to the Houses of Parliament:
- Security: Expect to be searched in a manner not unlike that performed in airports.
- Phones: Keep them turned off at all times.
- Cameras: Photos may only be taken in Westminster Hall.
- Debates: Visitors can view debates for free from the public galleries (Mon-Thurs) when Parliament is sitting. Be sure to check for dates ahead of time.
- Question Time: Priority is given to UK residents, with overseas visitors admitted only if room allows.
- Lords Public Gallery: Visitors are directed to a separate queue for admittance to Lords Public Gallery. Wait times vary, but expect a lengthy one during Question Time.
- Young Kids: Tours of the Houses of Parliament last nearly two hours and involve a lot of walking and so are not be suitable for very young children.
- Shopping: The Palace of Westminster Shop is accessible only for those participating in tours and stocks a range of related gifts and souvenirs. The shop at 12 Bridge St is accessible to all and stocks gifts and books.
- Walking: There's a lot of walking involved in a tour of the Houses of Parliament, so wear comfortable walking shoes.
- Food and Drink: When booking your tour, if time and budget allow, add on the excellent afternoon tea in the Pugin Room overlooking the River Thames.
Getting to Whitehall
- By Underground (Tube): The District, Circle and Jubilee lines service Westminster station.
- By Train: Victoria, Charing Cross and Waterloo stations are a 20-minute walk away and have connecting buses. For details of links to London from across the country, visit www.nationalrail.co.uk.
- By Bus: Buses stop regularly near Parliament Square opposite the Houses of Parliament, as well as at Trafalgar Square.
- By Bike: Bike racks are located at 7 Millbank (there are no racks onsite).
- By Road: Driving in the heart of London is difficult and is subject Congestion Charges. If you must drive, use Postcode SW1A 0AA for GPS coordinates. (Better still, park at an outlying train station and take the train or underground.)
- Parking: For security reasons, there's no on street parking in the area. An underground public parking facility is located nearby (but is often full).
- Tour tickets are issued on a timed basis between 9am and 4:15pm.
- Guided Tours - Adults, £25; Children (5-15), £10; Children (under 5), Free, ticket required for admission. (Admission includes a souvenir guidebook.)
- Audio Tours - Adults, £17.50; Children (5-15), Free with a paying adult (ticket required), £7 for each additional child; Children (under 5), Free, ticket required.
- Houses of Parliament, London SW1A 0AA
While you're in the mood for tourist attractions with a connection to Britain's seat of power, check out the many other fun things to do in and around Whitehall and Westminster. One landmark you'll want to visit is Horse Guards Parade with its many fine old buildings, including the Clock Tower belonging to the old Whitehall Palace and the Admiralty building - it's also home to the Household Cavalry. The Banqueting House was also once part of the old palace and was connected to many powerful historical figures, including Henry VIII who died here in 1547, as did Oliver Cromwell in 1658. You can also walk past Downing Street, official residence of the Prime Minister since 1732, on your way to visit Churchill's Cabinet War Rooms. That other famous seat of power, Buckingham Palace, is also not too far away, as is Westminster Abbey, perhaps most famous as the place where the Royal Family are married, and buried.