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18 September 2014
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Westminster: A New Palace for a New Age

By Christine Riding

Image of the Royal Robing Room in the House of Lords
Royal Robing Room, House of Lords ©
Charles Barry won the competition for the new Palace of Westminster because of his innovative plan for this complex building. This involved incorporating Westminster Hall and other surviving medieval structures.

His choice of Perpendicular Gothic, a style associated with Westminster - having been used for Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey - was also admired. Barry used the architectural elevations, decorative sculpture and motifs of the chapel for the exterior and some interior areas of the new building. The motifs included the portcullis, which was a symbol of the Beaufort family (Henry VII’s maternal ancestors).

'... the Palace of Westminster ... a symbol of political stability and social order.'

It was at this time that the portcullis became the accepted symbol of Parliament, and Barry used it as decoration throughout the new building. Barry also incorporated into the design two large towers - the Victoria Tower, which at the time it was completed in 1860 was the tallest secular building in the world, and the now world-famous tower that houses the bell nicknamed Big Ben.

As a whole the Palace of Westminster was intended to be a symbol of political stability and social order. For example, although constructed for the Houses of Parliament, the building continued to be described as a palace, and was meant to look like an ancient royal residence.

Hence 200 sculptures of monarchs, consorts and bishops (rather than politicians) were placed on the exterior facades. Instead of making a visual break, the building was designed to present continuity with Westminster’s ancient royal, Christian and political past.

This conservatism was a response to the rapid social changes and unrest resulting from the Industrial Revolution (the Liverpool and Manchester railway opened in 1830), and the continual demands for parliamentary reform and broadening of the franchise.

At the time of the new palace’s construction, from 1840 to 1870, the balance of political power between the three parts of the Constitution was broadly, from highest to lowest, the Monarch, the House of Lords and then the House of Commons. This hierarchy was represented in the decoration of the building - the royal apartments were the most ornate, the House of Lords less so and the House of Commons relatively plain.

The British people were represented primarily through the national symbols and mottoes of the kingdoms of Scotland, England, Ireland and the principality of Wales. As the 19th century progressed this balance of power began to move away from the Monarch and the House of Lords to the House of Commons.

Published: 2005-02-07

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