History of London

Houses of Parliament

Touch but a cobweb in Westminster Hall, and the old spider of the law is upon you with all his vermin at his heels.
Henry Fox, MP and statesman, 1705-1174

The Houses of Parliament, otherwise known as the Palace of Westminster, symbolises Great Britain. Its image adorns everything from souvenirs to sauce bottles. And the decisions made in its corridors of power have shaped Britain, past and present.

The building that sits proudly on the banks of the Thames is the New Palace, built between 1840 and 1870. But within its walls is the Great Hall (or Westminster Hall), all that remains of the medieval Old Palace.

Built by William II between 1097 and 1099, it was the largest hall in England at the time, its sheer scale designed to fill his subjects with awe.

The Palace was remodelled and extended by various royal residents until the 1500s, when its role as a royal residence abruptly ended. In 1512, fire gutted the ‘privy’ (or private) chambers and Henry VIII decided to move to a nearby building in Whitehall. When the royals moved out, the lawyers moved in. Parliament had convened regularly at Westminster since the reign of Henry III. But Henry’s break with the Holy Church in Rome, his various divorces and subsequent changes to the line of succession, gave the lawyers and politicians at Westminster plenty to do and its role as a centre for law and governance was cemented.

As home to the main Courts of Law since the late 15th century, Westminster hosted many high-profile treason trials. Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot were tried and executed in 1606. And Charles I, while still king, was tried and condemned as ‘a tyrant, traitor and murderer’ there in 1649 – even though no court had any legal authority over him. The Courts of Law only moved out in the 1800s.

Long unfit for purpose, the opportunity to create a new palace came in 1834, when a fire destroyed most of the old structure. The winner of the competition to rebuild was Sir Charles Barry who worked alongside Augustus Pugin to create today’s Perpendicular Gothic building, containing 1,100 rooms around two courtyards. It covers eight acres with an impressive 266m river frontage. Standing proud of the main building is the clock tower, home of the bell affectionately known as Big Ben. Sadly, neither Barry nor Pugin lived to see the New Palace finished.

In fact bombs and other acts of violence have played a prominent role in Westminster’s history. In 1812, Prime Minister Spencer Percival was assassinated there. A Fenian bomb in 1885 severely damaged the Common Chamber and seriously injured three. During the Blitz, the Palace was hit no less than 14 times. A 9kg bomb planted by the IRA exploded in Westminster Hall in 1974. And a car bomb exploded in the car park in 1979, killing Conservative politician Airey Neave.

Tighter security since then has prevented further tragedies. But people with axes to grind still see Westminster as the perfect backdrop to their protests: from flour-bombing Tony Blair to staging rooftop sit-ins dressed as super heroes. As the seat of governance and power, the Palace of Westminster has been making the news since the 11th century – and it doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

Did you Know

The only Members of Parliament allowed to eat or drink in the Chamber is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who can have an alcoholic drink while delivering the budget.