The Palace of Westminster is the heart of the UK’s democratic system, as it is where the nation’s major executive and legislative decisions are made.
Situated on the north bank of Thames in central London, the palace – otherwise known as the Houses of Parliament – is a major landmark and has become a famous symbol of Britain throughout the world.
The name ‘Palace of Westminster’ derives from the original royal palace that occupied the site, which was built by William II between 1097 and 1099.
However, the area’s history as a seat of power pre-dates the Norman conquest of England, and it is thought to have been used as a royal residence by the Danish king Canute the Great during his reign from 1016 to 1035.
The Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor built a royal palace on Thorney Island just west of the City of London at about the same time as Westminster Abbey was constructed (1045–50).
After the construction of the palace by William II, it served as the main residence of the English monarch until much of the complex was destroyed by fire in 1512.
Parliament had been meeting at the site since the thirteenth century, and following the fire it came to occupy the area permanently.
The current building – the New Palace – dates back to the nineteenth century and was built as a replacement for the old palace, which was destroyed by another fire in 1834.
Its design was inspired by the English Perpendicular Gothic style of the 14th-16th centuries and its construction was a laborious process, lasting for 30 years. Work on the interior of the building continued into the early 20th century.
The only surviving features of the old parliament building are the Cloisters of St Stephen’s, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, and the Jewel Tower.
Since then, the palace has undergone extensive renovations to reverse the damage sustained during the second world war and the effects of air pollution on the exterior of the building.
It has also experienced a number of acts of violence – the most famous of which was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when a group of English Catholics attempted to blow up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament, in an attempt to assassinate the Protestant King James I.
Although it has changed frequently throughout its fascinating history, the Palace of Westminster has endured as a symbol of the UK’s democratic system and remains a hugely popular destination for tourists from around the world, who consider it to be one of the capital’s ‘must-see’ attractions.
The House of Commons
Democratically elected Members of Parliament (MPs) from across the country gather in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom to consider and propose new laws, and scrutinise government policies.
The house had its origins in the 14th century, when a House of Commons of England came into existence. Following the act of union with Scotland in 1707, it became the House of Commons of Great Britain and finally adopted its current name after political union with Ireland in the 19th century.
Over time, the House of Commons gradually limited the power of the monarch – a process that contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil War and the trial and execution of Charles I in 1649.
It is now home to 650 MPs, who originate bills that affect the governance of the UK. The government is scrutinised during Question Time, when members have the opportunity to question the prime minister and members of the cabinet.
The House of Lords
The House of Commons is the lower chamber of the Houses of Parliament, and the House of Lords forms the upper chamber.
In contrast to the lower chamber, whose members are elected, the Lords who sit in the upper chamber are appointed.
The House of Lords was previously more powerful than the House of Commons due to the fact that its members were drawn from the nobility. However, its importance has waned over time and its main purpose is now to scrutinise legislation made in the lower chamber.
Hereditary peerages were once common, but the House of Lords are now appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister or the House of Lords Appointments Commission.
The clock at the north end of the Palace of Westminster is one of its most distinctive features. Although the term ‘Big Ben’ is the nickname given to the bell, it is often used to refer to the entire clock tower, which is officially called the Elizabeth Tower after Queen Elizabeth II.
Completed in 1858, the Elizabeth Tower is the second largest four-faced chiming clock in the world and is famed for its reliability.
Filmmakers frequently use the tower as a signal to viewers that action is taking place in the UK, and its cultural significance is such that it is the focus of New Year’s Eve celebrations throughout the land on December 31st.
Visiting the Palace of Westminster
Few visitors to London will want to miss the chance to see the Houses of Parliament, which are one of the capital’s defining landmarks.
The Palace of Westminster is open to people from the UK and overseas, who can attend debates, watch committee hearings or take a guided tour of the buildings.
Special guided tours are available on Saturdays throughout the year and on most weekdays during parliamentary recesses. Self-guided audio tours can also take place during these periods.
Visitors to the House of Lords from the UK and overseas are able to book tickets for fully guided tours focusing on the art and decorative arts of the building.
The 75-minute tours, which take place in the early evening, enable people to experience the fascinating frescoes, portraits, statues, thrones, fireplaces and furniture that were created by some of the finest British artists.
Tickets, which cost £35 for adults, are now available for the tours, which will take place from Wednesday to Friday between August 5th and August 28th 2015.
Tickets for these tours can be purchased from the Ticket Office, which is located at the front of Portcullis House.
Westminster Station, which is served by the District, Circle and Jubilee lines, is a stone’s throw from the Palace of Westminster. After exiting the station, the site can be reached simply by crossing the road.
A number of buses stop near Parliament Square in Victoria Street (opposite the Houses of Parliament) and further up towards Trafalgar Square, in Whitehall, putting the palace within easy reach of hotels in shaftesbury group London .
If you’re cycling, public bicycle racks are a short distance away outside 7 Millbank Road. From here, the Houses of Parliament are a short walk north along the road.