Westminster: A New Palace for a New Age

By Christine Riding
The new Palace of Westminster was built with modern convenience - and the comfort of MPs - very much in mind. So why did the past loom so large during the planning stage?
Palace of Westminster, following the fire of 1834  

New palace

On 16 October 1834, fire broke out under the Lords Chamber of the Palace of Westminster, and quickly took hold. Within hours the whole site was engulfed in flames, the fire burning throughout the night, watched by thousands of people on Westminster Bridge and in the streets.

'Some commentators viewed the fire as divine retribution ...'

One spectator described it as ‘certainly the grandest thing we have ever witnessed’. Journalists recounted the progress of the fire as if it were a major theatrical event, and artists such as JMW Turner produced spectacular paintings as a visual record of this historic moment.

By the following day, most of the central area was in ruins. Some commentators viewed the fire as divine retribution for the recent parliamentary reforms and others as a sign of more significant political changes to come. In the history of the Palace of Westminster, it was certainly the best opportunity since the 16th century for a modern, purpose-built structure for the houses of Parliament.


Image of the Gothic entrance to the Palace of Westminster
Gothic splendour of the rebuilt Parliament
After the fire of 1834, the two houses of Parliament were homeless, and the question of how and where to relocate Parliament became a priority.

Although some of the old palace remained, by 1835 there was a general consensus that the opportunity for a brand new building was too good to miss. A Royal Commission was set up, and an open architectural competition was decided upon. It was also decided that the style of the new palace should be Gothic (or Elizabethan), and that it should be rebuilt upon the original Westminster site.

'Westminster was ... the home of British politics, with ancient royal and Christian associations.'

The interest in European medieval culture, now loosely described as the Gothic Revival, had been gathering pace since the mid-18th century, and by the early 19th century Britain’s medieval heritage was greatly admired.

It is perhaps difficult for us to understand now, but at this time styles of architecture were regarded as political. During the long, almost continuous wars with France from 1792 to 1815, Gothic came to be seen as Britain's ‘national’ style - largely in opposition to the classical style (derived from ancient Greece and Rome) associated with France during the French Revolution and under Napoleon Bonaparte.

Gothic was hought to have originated in Britain, and had religious resonance as the style of the great British medieval cathedrals. Westminster was also seen as the home of British politics, with ancient royal and Christian associations. For all these reasons, Gothic was thought to be the most appropriate architectural style.

'For many, the survival of Westminster Hall was nothing short of a miracle ...'

The choice of the original site was undoubtedly due to the fact that the fire had focussed people’s minds on the importance of historic places, such as Westminster, which had direct physical links to the nation’s past. For many, the survival of Westminster Hall was nothing short of a miracle, and The Times reported that the nation should be grateful given that it was:

‘... the scene, the witness ... the living associate, of so many of the most ancient and noble passages of English history ...’

The deadline for the new Palace of Westminster competition was 1 December 1835, and there were 97 entries. In the following January, the commissioners announced the architect Charles Barry as the winner, leading to a further debate concerning the choice of style and location.

Gothic was felt by some to be too backward-looking for a modern parliamentary legislature, and Westminster, being near the Thames, was a notoriously impractical and unsanitary site. These arguments were ignored, however, underlining the fact that for most politicians at the time continuity with the past was of primary importance to the symbolic meaning of this new national monument. On 27 April 1840, the foundation stone was laid, and the building work began.


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.

Art in Parliament

Image of Blucher's Duke of Wellington
Field Marshall Blucher meets the Duke of Wellington - painting in the Royal Gallery
In tandem with the architectural decorations, the Fine Art Commission was formed in 1841, with Prince Albert as chairman. Its task was to develop and implement a programme of painting and free-standing sculpture for the new Palace of Westminster.

Over and above the need for decoration, it was hoped that the vast building would provide ample opportunity for state support of contemporary art. This was something that had not happened before on such a scale. Indeed, traditionally politicians thought that government intervention in such cultural matters was inappropriate. ‘God help the minister who meddles in art’, was Lord Melbourne’s response when an artist approached him on the subject.

'The Prince’s Chamber had portraits and events from the Tudor dynasty ...'

The Fine Art Commission assigned a period or subject from British history (and in some areas literature) for each area of the palace. The Royal Robing Room, at the suggestion of Prince Albert, was assigned scenes from the Arthurian legend, and this commission was executed by William Dyce.

The Royal Gallery was assigned the subject of Britain at war, and eventually was home to gilded sculptures of warrior kings and queens, and painted scenes of the battles of Trafalgar (1805) and Waterloo (1815). The two enormous wall paintings by Daniel Maclise, which illustrated these two events, were the only elements of this ambitious scheme to be completed.

The Prince’s Chamber had portraits and events from the Tudor dynasty, as well as a massive sculpture of Queen Victoria by John Gibson (the only portrait of the Queen within the interior of the palace). The Lords Chamber had a series of six allegorical and historical paintings representing the three types of Lords (Lords Temporal, Lords Spiritual and the Law Lords) and sculptures of the Magna Carta barons.

Perhaps the most contentious schemes were those assigned to the two corridors that connected the Lords Chamber in the south of the palace, via Central Hall (now Central Lobby), to the Commons Chamber in the north. The subjects were the 17th-century conflicts of the English Civil War (1742-9) and the 'Glorious Revolution' (1688) respectively.

These events had seen the successful curtailment of royal power at the hands of Parliament. How could these periods of national division and strife be depicted? It was decided that events revealing individual heroism or sacrifice on both sides would offer a fair and constructive interpretation. For example, the scheme includes Charles I Raising his Standard at Nottingham and the Burial of Charles I - but not his execution.

There were other schemes installed in the palace, but on the whole the immense project was never completed, largely running out of puff after the death of Prince Albert in 1861.

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.

Working building

Image of Gilbert Scott's Commons Chamber
Gilbert Scott's Commons Chamber
The new Palace of Westminster may have looked like a medieval royal palace, but it was also a modern working building, employing up-to-date construction and ventilation methods.

Charles Barry had to balance the complex ceremonial, residential and working needs of Parliament, making provisions for the State Opening, parliamentary debates, accommodation for officials (the most important being Speaker’s House), committee rooms, offices, kitchens, refreshment areas and so on.

This was no easy task, as the palace was the working environment for thousands of individuals - from the monarch, Lords and MPs to librarians, clerks, catering staff and household servants.

'... in the 1820s the MPs demanded a smoking room.'

Beyond the ceremonial core, as represented by the Royal Approach and the two debating chambers, the new building was to contain facilities specified by the two houses in accordance with modern expectations of comfort and convenience. The most important of these new facilities for MPs and Lords lay on the principal floor, with libraries and refreshment rooms near the debating chambers, which were the heart of parliamentary life.

This focussing of utilities on site was a relatively new development. For example it was only in 1794 that the Speaker’s House was introduced, and in 1817 that the House of Commons had a library. In the 1770s, John Bellamy had begun to provide refreshments within the Palace of Westminster in two improvised spaces near the old Commons Chamber. And in the 1820s the MPs demanded a smoking room.

All of this underlined the fact that MPs and Lords were spending longer at the palace than before. Not surprisingly, their expectations of what the new palace should provide was based on the new gentlemen’s clubs that were then springing up down Pall Mall, which was just across St James’s Park from Westminster.

'... the Palace of Westminster was described as "the best club in London".'

Barry himself was the architect for the Travellers' Club (1829-32) and the Reform Club (1837-41), both of which provided a grand setting with all the modern conveniences. As the century progressed the facilities increased - to such an extent that in 1905 the Palace of Westminster was described as ‘the best club in London’.

As with the ceremonial areas of the building, these parts of the palace were specifically designed and decorated in the Gothic style - in everything from wallpapers, carpets, tiles and ceiling panels to mirrors, hat stands and desk calendars. All of these employed the same hierarchy as set out in the royal apartments and the Chambers, but this time also taking into account the function of the room - the residences, libraries and dining rooms were more richly furnished than the cloakrooms or bathrooms.

The interiors also (to an extent) followed the colour code established elsewhere in the building, where the House of Lords areas were predominantly red, a royal colour, and the House of Commons predominantly green. The colour coding is still used today.

The Constitution

Image of the Black Rod ceremony during the State Opening of Parliament
Black Rod ceremony, during State Opening of Parliament
As the 19th century progressed, the image of the British Constitution, as represented by the Palace of Westminster, became increasingly anachronistic.

When the palace was designed and constructed from the 1830s and 1840s, broadly speaking the balance of political power between the three parts of the Constitution were, from top to bottom, the Monarchy, the House of Lords and then the House of Commons. By the end of the century the balance had largely reversed.

The journalist Walter Bagehot, in his treatise The English Constitution, published in 1867, noted this process of political change. He argued that the Constitution could now be divided into two parts. First

‘the dignified parts... which excite and preserve the reverence of the population’, that is the Monarchy and the House of Lords ...'

and second,

'... the efficient parts ... those by which it, in fact, works and rules, that is the House of Commons.'

In Bagehot’s opinion the monarchy was a national figurehead, no longer primarily about the business of ruling but about state ceremony and theatre, the 'timelessness' of which would act as a disguise to political and social change. Of course, the Palace of Westminster itself played a part in this disguise, simply because of the way in which it was constructed and decorated.

'... their areas of the building were sumptuous and ornate ...'

The monarchy and Lords in some ways appeared to hold power because their areas of the building were sumptuous and ornate, but the House of Commons’ plain, workaday environment was where the real business of Parliament was now conducted. This equation of plainness with actual political power is even more exaggerated in the present Commons Chamber, which was rebuilt after the bombing of Barry and Pugin’s chamber in World War Two.

The architect Giles Gilbert Scott designed the chamber in an even simpler form of Gothic than its 19th-century predecessor. By the time the chamber opened in October 1950, the House of Commons was beyond doubt the driving force of British politics.

Published on BBC History: 2005-02-07
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