Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Houses of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster

Under sunny skies with a cold wind went to visit the Houses of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster. In ancient times around 1099 and up to 1547 this was a Royal Palace and Kings lived in a group of buildings. Only after the death of Henry VIII did his son Edward VI give the palace to Parliament and it met in Saint-Stephen's Chapel from 1547 to 1834. What the Parliamentarians inherited was in a ramshackle state, not what you see today.  So the buildings we see today were built between 1840 and 1870 by John Barry and Augustus Pugin. Inaugurated by Queen Victoria when she was still a young Queen. What is truly old of the entire complex is Westminster Hall built by Rufus the son of William II in 1099. This is where all visitors assemble before starting on the tour. This magnificent hall has seen a lot of history, more recently this is where Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother was lying in State prior to her funeral.
The great stain glass window in Westminster Hall.

The Westminster Hall was the seat of the Royal Law Courts until 1822. Many famous trials took place in this great hall, Thomas More, King Charles I, Robert Deveraux Count of Essex, Guy Fox, all condemned to death. Oliver Cromwell was proclaimed Lord Protector in 1653. Truly this great hall is the history of England.
Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector.

We then ascended the steps and turned left entering St-Stephen's Hall which use to be a Chapel until 1547, the Commons met in that room for many centuries until the great fire of October 1834.

The tour starts at the Sovereigns gate which is the entrance at Victoria Tower. The reason for this is to illustrate to the visitor that 3 elements form Parliament, 1. the Sovereign, 2. the People (Commons) 3. the Peers (Lords) all 3 elements only meet one day a year when the Sovereign Queen Elizabeth comes to Parliament to read the Speech from the Throne. For Canadians this is just like our own Parliament in Ottawa, the ceremonial and its significance is just the same, some years the Queen will read the Speech from the Throne other years it will be the Governor General.
The Royal Robing Room

The ceremonial is explained by the guides, we were shown the robing room were the Sovereign will put on the robes of State and the great train which requires 4 male pages to carry it otherwise she would never be able to walk forward it being so heavy. The Imperial State Crown weighs about 5 lbs meaning its like wearing a big bag of sugar on your head and she alone must  put it on and adjust it. Attendants are not permitted to help, the Crown is considered Sacred and a symbol of Authority, only the Sovereign can handle it.
The room where Queen Victoria had her question about that fresco.

The procession would go through an anti-chamber on its way to the House of Lords where the walls hang with frescoes, our guide pointed out one such fresco in which the Duke of Wellington on his horse at Waterloo is seen shaking hands with the Prussian General Blucher. Apparently Queen Victoria was puzzled by this scene and on her way to the House of Lords, stopped and asked if this handshake had ever really taken place, she could not remember anyone ever telling her this. The event depicted was well within living memory and Wellington was still alive. Panic ensued no one knew exactly what to answer. She was finally assured that yes they did shake hands on the battlefield and the procession continued. The House of Lords is very ornate with Royal Symbolism, the prominent colour is red.

The House of Lords or upper chamber of Parliament where the Queen reads the Speech from the Throne. The Speaker does not sit on the throne but on the big red cloth bag in front of it. The bag is filled with wool as a symbol of trade and wealth.

We then proceeded down the corridor to the other end of the building to the Commons, whose predominant colour is green. The room is laid out like the Commons in Parliament in Ottawa, though it is smaller despite the fact there are 50% more members of Parliament in London. The decor is sombre and plain a sharp contrast with the House of Lords. Our guide explained that the main power of the Commons rests in questions of finance and money bills. No taxes shall be imposed by the Sovereign without the assent of the Commons. Any government who looses a vote on a budget bill is automatically defeated and a general election is called. I was somewhat surprised by the small size of the room, I am more familiar with the House of Commons in Ottawa which is a far larger room and more airy, though the layout is similar.
The Commons, the Speaker sit on his chair at the front of the room, the Sovereign cannot enter this room ever. When Parliament meets the Sovereign in the House of Lords will send the Gentlemen of the Black Rod to fetch the Members of the Commons to come to the House of Lords to meet. The Sovereign will say with haste immediately and the Members will, by tradition, come slowly instead. 

During this tour, men must take their hats off, it is forbidden to wear a hat out of respect for the institution of Parliament. No chewing of gum and no food or drinks, no photos either. You cannot sit anywhere despite lots of comfy chairs. You should be quiet, no cel phones or other electronic devices. The guards keep a watchful eye and don't try it. The tour takes about 90 minutes, it is very interesting.

Came away from this visit with a renewed sense of how important Parliament is as an institution. The Ceremonial and symbolism is steeped in history and very important to our democracy.

The Victoria Tower at the foot is the Sovereign's entrance.



  1. wow! I learned so much about this - thank you !

  2. I want to see the beauty of the Houses of Parliament and have a photo as a souvenir.