Palace of Westminster: Seat of British Government since 1016

The Palace of Westminster in London as seen from the London Eye. (Photo by Marcus Michelson)
The Palace of Westminster in London as seen from the London Eye. (Photo by Marcus Michelson)

On this date in 1840, the foundation stone of the new Palace of Westminster was laid in London.

Here are some things you may not have known about the building that houses Parliament.

The oldest part of the building that is still in use is Westminster Hall, which was built in 1097. It was the site of the trials of King Charles I, William Wallace, Thomas More and Guy Fawkes. It is also where monarchs lie in state during ceremonial funerals.

The first palace was built on the site possibly as early as 1016. The first official parliament met at Westminster Hall in 1295. However, because the palace was built as a royal residence, it didn’t have facilities for the two houses of Parliament. The House of Lords met in the Queen’s Chamber and then the White Chamber. The House of Commons didn’t have a permanent home until 1547 when it took over St. Stephen’s Chapel. Updates to the palace were made on a piecemeal basis into the 19th century, despite the still limited space and age of the buildings.

On October 16, 1834, a fire broke out when a stove used to destroy wooden tax tally sticks overheated. The only parts of the palace to survive the fire were Westminster Hall, The Jewel Tower, the Cloisters of St. Stephen’s and the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft. In the aftermath, William IV offered Buckingham Palace as the new home for Parliament, as he didn’t like the almost-completed residence. The building was deemed unsuitable for legislative use and the offer was rejected. The houses moved back in to a quickly repaired Painted Chamber and White Chamber on a temporary basis.

Nearly a year and a half after the fire, Charles Barry’s Gothic-style design was chosen. He earned a 1,500-pound prize for being selected and was later made a knight. Construction on the new palace began in in 1840. The Lords Chamber was completed in seven years, and the Commons Chamber was finished five years after that in 1852. Construction continued until 1870.

The building, which is beside the River Thames, is probably most famous for its clock tower, which houses the bell known as Big Ben. The clock is remarkable for its accuracy, telling the time reliably since 1859. The clock face is 23 feet in diameter, with a 8-foot-10-inch hour hand and a 14-foot-long minute hand.

During World War II, the palace was hit by bombs 14 times. The worst night was May 10, 1941, when the palace was hit 12 times and three people were killed. The House of Commons and Westminster Hall suffered the worst damage, with the Commons Chamber being destroyed. The clock tower was also hit and damaged, however the clock continued to keep accurate time. The palace was rebuilt and renovated and back in normal use in 1951.

Our question, The Palace of Westminster has three main towers, a central tower, called, fittingly, Central Tower; and two larger towers on the north and south ends of the palace. Which monarchs are those towers named for?

Today is King’s Day in the Netherlands, Flag Day in Moldova, Independence Day in Sierra Leone and Togo, and Freedom Day in South Africa.

It’s Administrative Professionals Day, Denim Day, Morse Code Day and National Prime Rib Day.

It’s the birthday of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, who was born in 1822, civil rights activist Coretta Scott King, born in 1927 and musician Kate Pierson of the B-52s, who is 68 today.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1983, the top song in the U.S. was “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

The No. 1 movie was “Flashdance,” while the novel “The Little Drummer Girl” by John le Carre topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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