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

By Christine Riding
Debating chambers

Image of the House of Lords Chamber
House of Lords Chamber ©
Hierarchy was the key to the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster. After the royal apartments, the debating chambers of the two houses were designed and decorated to underline the then greater political importance of the House of Lords over the House of Commons.

In order to speed up the process of construction and decoration, Barry brought on board the architect and designer Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, in 1844. The two men worked closely together on the Prince’s Chamber, the Lords Chamber, the Commons Chamber, as well as other areas of the palace, including the Members, Peers, Central and Division lobbies. As with the rest of the building, every last detail, from the architectural decoration and furniture to the light fittings, the carpets and the floor tiles, were specifically designed and made.

'The overwhelming impression ... was one of richness and colour ... of vivid, medieval ornament.'

The partnership of Barry and Pugin began in the Lords Chamber, where the Law Lords, Lords Spiritual (Bishops) and Lords Temporal (hereditary and life peers) sat during debates. The chamber was also used for the annual State Opening of Parliament. The chamber is about 27m (90ft) long and 14m (45ft) high, with a gallery down one end for the public and members of the press.

The seating arrangement is based on past chambers, with benches facing each other across a central space in the manner of choir stalls. The Woolsack, the seat of the Lord Chancellor, who is the Speaker of the House of Lords, was positioned in the centre before the Royal Throne, which was placed at one end.

The overwhelming impression of the chamber was one of richness and colour, with a wealth of vivid, medieval ornament. The upper section of the chamber, including the ceiling, was gilded with brightly coloured stained-glass windows, and statues of the Magna Carta barons.

The lower section was made of intricately carved wood, much of which resembled carvings on church pews. The focus of the whole room was the Royal Throne and Canopy, used by the monarch for the State Opening of Parliament (in theory the monarch, at that time Queen Victoria, could sit in the chamber during the debates as well, but this happened less and less often).

'The Lords Chamber ... became an immediate source of national pride.'

The throne was based on the medieval Coronation Chair, commissioned by Edward I, at Westminster Abbey, and flanked by two chairs of state (less important than the throne) used by Prince Albert and the Prince of Wales. When the monarch was not present in the chamber, the throne symbolised royal authority - a symbolism it had maintained since the medieval period.

The Lords Chamber was opened by Queen Victoria in 1847. It received universal praise and became an immediate source of national pride. The Illustrated London News described it as:

‘... without doubt the finest specimen of Gothic civil architecture in Europe ... worthy of the great nation at whose cost it has been erected.’

Today it still looks very much the same as it did in the 19th century.

Next came the Commons Chamber, which was always intended to be smaller and less impressive. As with previous chambers, the seating arrangement was based on choir stalls facing each other, with the Speaker’s Chair at one end. Galleries were also installed for the public and the press.

The overwhelming impression of the Commons Chamber (it was destroyed during World War Two) must have been of dark, carved wood. On the upper level there were stained-glass windows containing arms of the municipal boroughs and ceiling panels painted with the portcullis and Tudor rose symbols, both of which were extensively used throughout the building.

There was much less colour and gilding than in the Lords Chamber, and no paintings or sculpture. After much wrangling about space and complaints about acoustics from the MPs, the chamber finally opened in 1852.

Published: 2005-02-07

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