All Change at the Palace of Westminster

By Jacqueline Riding
Find out how the palace of Westminster came to be at the centre of English political and religious power. Follow the dramatic twists of fate that left their impressions on the buildings themselves, and learn to how to look for the evidence for yourself.
Alfred rebuilds London after its capture from the Danes in 886 

The early history of Westminster

The establishment of a royal palace at Westminster is bound up with the foundation of a great abbey in the eighth century. Its location was west of the former Roman city, Londinium, and was close to the Anglo-Saxon centre on the north bank of the Thames (an area we now call the Strand).

'The royal patronage of the abbey instigated the building of a new Royal Palace nearby.'

The church that preceded the abbey was dedicated to St Peter and founded on Thorney Island, where the Thames meets the Tyburn. It was probably built by the East Saxon King Offa, and was called Westminster to differentiate it from the city minster of St Paul, which lay to the east.

During the time of Alfred the Great (871-899) Westminster’s fortunes declined, as the centre of activity moved back towards the former Roman settlement to the east, probably for defensive reasons. Westminster’s importance was diminished until it was revitalised by St Dunstan, who reformed and reconstituted the church as a Benedictine abbey c.960. Perhaps more significantly it was also adopted as a royal church.

The royal patronage of the abbey instigated the building of a new royal palace nearby. Although the precise date of first construction is subject to debate, it is probable that the palace was founded by Edward the Confessor.

[If you would like to find out any additional information about any of the terms or words used in this article, please refer to the glossary page [/history/trail/church_state/westminster_palace/change_palace_westmin_fact_file.shtml] .]

From Confessor to Conqueror

Image of Edward the Confessor enthroned
Edward the Confessor, enthroned in 1064
Westminster appealed to Edward the Confessor because, according to an anonymous 11th-century source:

... it lay hard by the famous and rich town of London and also was a delightful spot, surrounded with fertile lands and green fields and near the main channel of the river, which bore abundant merchandise of wares of every kind for sale from the whole world to the town on its banks.

In addition, the Confessor was a devotee of St Peter, to whom the church was dedicated, so having decided to be buried there, he set about rebuilding it. It was at about this time that he decided to build a royal residence alongside Westminster Abbey.

Little is known of the Confessor’s palace but it probably included a Great Hall and a series of private chambers for the king himself. The Bayeaux Tapestry depicts the Confessor seated in a stylised palace, almost certainly intended to represent Westminster. The combination of a magnificent new abbey (unprecedented by its size and architectural style in England) and palace, elevated Westminster, architecturally at least, to the status of the primary royal residence of the English monarchy.

'William Duke of Normandy ... chose Westminster Abbey for his own coronation on Christmas Day 1066.'

The Confessor died at Westminster and was duly buried in Westminster Abbey on 6 January 1066. On the same day, his brother-in-law, Harold Earl of Wessex became the first English king to be crowned at the abbey. Thus Westminster’s status was increased, not only as the residence and burial place of kings, but also as the site where kings were annointed.

After the Norman invasion and the defeat of Harold at the Battle of Hastings, William Duke of Normandy, the cousin of the Confessor and known to posterity as 'the Conqueror', chose Westminster Abbey for his own coronation on Christmas Day 1066. This was a considered and significant move, clearly intended to demonstrate what he - William - perceived as his rightful assumption of the English crown. The adoption of the Confessor’s own church and palace by the new Norman dynasty was an extension of this.

William set about restoring order to his newly won kingdom. With no central or local administration (ie no civil servants or lawyers) to exercise the king’s will throughout his new domain, William developed the system of government called feudalism. The system was based on tenancy - as opposed to ownership - of land. William had disinherited most of the English nobles who had survived Hastings, and divided their estates amongst his own followers, giving them their tenancy in return for military service.

There was no parliament at this time, however it is from the assembly known as the King’s Great Council - formed from the leading nobles of the realm and the successor of the Anglo-Saxon council, the Witan - that a parliament based at Westminster was eventually to evolve.

The Great Hall

Image of the Norman Great Hall at Westminister
The Norman Great Hall at Westminster
The first major change to the Palace after the Norman invasion was the building of a new, magnificent hall between 1097 and 1099 by the second son of William the Conqueror, William II (known as Rufus).

The Great Hall was an important element and focus of any noble residence. But Rufus’s Hall was larger than any comparable building in England at that time. Rufus’s plans were so grandiose that, due to its length, the new hall had to stand parallel to the banks of the Thames in order to fit on the narrow, isolated plot of land upon which the palace stood.

'The 11th-century Great Hall was retained and remodelled by Richard II in the late 14th century ...'

Intriguingly, it has been recorded that Rufus intended to create a much larger hall - the king allegedly commenting that it was ‘... a mere bedchamber compared with what I had intended to build'. Even so, as built the Hall stood a mighty 240ft long, 67½ ft wide and with walls 40ft high and over 6½ ft thick.

On one level it was built to accommodate the large numbers of people who would gather for royal occasions. On another, it satisfied Rufus’s intention to create a sense of awe – both of his vision as an architectural patron and, by extension, of himself.

The 11th-century Great Hall was retained and remodelled by Richard II in the late 14th century (and to a much lesser extent by Sir Charles Barry in the 19th), and therefore, although visitors to Westminster Hall today are no longer able to see the original internal and external decorations, they can at least get a sense of the extraordinary dimensions of Rufus’s hall.

The first reference to an entertainment being held at Great Hall was by Rufus, at Whitsun, in 1099, and indeed its main function throughout the Middle Ages was as a place for feasting. Occasions as varied as the gathering of the King’s Council, or the visit by the king and queen of Scotland in 1260, were accompanied by a banquet in the Great Hall.

'... whilst Westminster was pre-eminent in architectural terms, its practical role in affairs of state was only evident when the king was in residence.'

A more unusual event occurred in 1237 when Henry III commanded the Treasurer ‘to fill the King’s Great Hall from Christmas Day to the Day of the Circumcision (1 January) with poor people, and feed them there'. The grandest of these entertainments was the coronation banquet, a lavish affair occurring after the coronation ceremony in the adjoining abbey, of which the first recorded was that of Richard I, in 1189.

But whilst Westminster was pre-eminent in architectural terms, its practical role in affairs of state was only evident when the king was in residence. The monarchy was still itinerant, and the crown’s continuing authority relied on the king being seen in all corners of the realm. As a result, under the Normans, the court and mechanisms of government assembled wherever he was.

As the king was on an almost perpetual progress around the kingdom, no one individual royal palace was more significant than another in regard to government. The only department with a fixed location was the Treasury, and that was still based at Winchester.

The Painted Chamber

Image of Edward the Confessor being crowned
Edward Confessor is crowned at Winchester by Eadsige, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1043
The centralising of the administration of government at Westminster occurred during the 13th century. It began with the reign of Henry II, when the Exchequer took up permanent residence, and was consolidated along with its position as principal royal residence during the reign of Henry III.

It was during the latter’s reign that major rebuilding of the abbey occurred, as well as some significant alterations to the palace, including the building of the celebrated 'Painted Chamber'. During the reign of Henry III, Parliament also began to convene on a regular basis at Westminster.

'Surrounded by this glorious profusion of colour was a canopied state bed.'

The Lords sat in the newly completed Queen’s Chamber but the Commons (who were not regularly called until late in the 14th century) did not have a permanent home on site but tended to sit in the Chapter House (completed 1259) or the refectory of the abbey.

Behind this major building work at Westminster was the adoption and augmentation by Henry of the cult of St Edward the Confessor (who had been sainted 100 years after his death) to enhance his kingly position by association. The abbey at Westminster not only housed the body of the royal saint but was now the traditional site of the coronation of English kings - a ritual with divine association. It was Henry’s intention to locate the government of his kingdom, with himself at its head, in proximity to the spiritual forces that legitimised his authority.

Of the additions that Henry made to the palace, the most celebrated was the King’s (later known as the Painted) Chamber. The chamber itself no longer exists, but it is possible to gain some idea of its sumptuous decoration through two surviving ceiling panels (now at the British Museum) and the early 19th-century watercolours by Charles Stothard (Society of Antiquaries of London).

The ceiling was painted and punctuated along its length and breadth with polychrome bosses. Its surviving panels are exquisite, and depict a seraph and a prophet. The biblical theme was continued through the wall paintings, which illustrated stories from the Old Testament. Surrounded by this glorious profusion of colour was a canopied state bed. Beneath the canopy a large painted and gilded scene of the coronation of St Edward the Confessor took pride of place.

'By the 14th century the process of parliament had settled into a regular pattern ...'

From the Middle Ages, the most important ceremonies held in the Lords Chamber were the opening and closing of Parliament. The king attended these ceremonies, and subsequent proceedings, as it was his parliament. By the 14th century the process of parliament had settled into a regular pattern and there are signs that a protocol was developing in regard to location and in the form these meetings took.

It began with a proclamation in Great Hall forbidding the playing of games and the bearing of arms in the palace during Parliament. The opening commenced with the summoned Lords assembling in the Painted Chamber whilst the Commons gathered in Great Hall. After the names of the respective assembled houses (Lords and Commons) had been checked, the Commons were led to the bar of the House of Lords - within the Painted Chamber - where the Lords were seated and where, at the centre, the king was enthroned 'in state'.

An address was then made, usually by the chancellor, constituting in part a statement regarding the state of the kingdom and the reasons for the summons. The two houses would then discuss the issues separately, usually the following day, in their respective debating chambers.

A symbol of good kingship

Image of a line drawing of the New Palace Yard at Westminister
New Palace Yard at Westminster in 1647
Throughout the 14th century the privy (or royal) residence aswell as the public parts of the Palace of Westminster, now called the Great Palace, continued to develop.

In addition to his patronage of St Stephen’s Chapel, Edward III built a high clock tower in the courtyard to the north of the Great Hall - now known as New Palace Yard - near to where the modern-day clock tower now stands, housing the great bell, Big Ben. He also built the Jewel Tower located at the south-west corner of the palace, which still exists today although separated from the new palace by Abingdon Street and Old Palace Yard.

By the reign of Edward’s grandson, Richard II, the palace, and particularly the Great Hall at Westminster, was established at the heart of English secular and, to an extent, ceremonial life. In an old manuscript entitled 'The Ancient Form of the Coronation of the Kings and Queens of England' it was stated that:

The king to be newly crowned, the day before his coronation, shall be brought forth in royal robes, and shall ride from the Tower of London to his Palace of Westminster with his head uncovered, being accompanied on horseback by his temporal lords, his nobles, the commons of London, and other his servants.

According to the 19th-century antiquarian AJ Kempe, Richard II, having arrived in the Great Hall:

then departed with his nobles and his household into his chamber and having supped in state, and undergone the accustomed formality of bathing, he retired to rest.

The following day, prior to his short journey to Westminster Abbey, the king sat in state, enthroned on a dais, in Great Hall, and after the ceremony, returned there for a coronation banquet, and entertainments - which may have included tournaments.

'Richard’s remodelling of the Hall was an attempt to visualise his belief in his divinely-appointed position ...'

Richard’s extensive remodelling of the Great Hall was an attempt to visualise his belief both in his divinely-appointed position and in his unquestionable authority within the kingdom, after successive personal humiliations at the hands of his opponents. His remodelling included the magnificent 'hammer-beam' roof, a feat of medieval design and craftsmanship, which spanned the extraordinary vastness of Rufus’s Hall.

A carved angel holding a shield with the king’s personal coat of arms impaled (or joined) with that of the Confessor terminated each hammer-beam. This was clearly intended to represent the divine nature of Richard’s office, and to stress his affinity with a monarch renowned for his piety and good kingship.

Below the roof, the interior was richly and emphatically decorated with Richard’s personal emblems, particularly the White Hart. To complete the scheme, a series of life-size, colourful statues of kings (possibly representative of the royal line from the Confessor) was commissioned.

It was probably Richard’s intention to appear enthroned beneath these statues as the living embodiment of the lawful succession. This outward show was to fail in its intent, when Richard was deposed and killed, in 1400. But his patronage at Westminster reveals the significance and resonance of architecture as an expression of ideas, ideals and kingly magnificence.

Ironically, Richard’s deposition was announced to an assembly in Westminster Hall. It is also recorded that Richard’s cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who subsequently reigned as Henry IV, symbolically assumed the throne in Great Hall after the announcement of Richard’s deposition. After centuries of hereditary monarchy, parliament had effectively elected a king.

The great drama of Richard II

Image of portrait of Richard II
Richard II - his deposition broke the line of kingship
The deposition of Richard II was a significant moment both historically and in regard to the status and dignity of kingship. Kings had been deposed before - most notably Edward II - but the direct line had been maintained through the assumption, in Edward II’s case, of his son Edward III.

Richard had no direct heir and he was therefore the last of an unbroken line from William the Conqueror. Henry IV was haunted by his role in the deposition and murder of Richard, who was after all an anointed king, and although his son (Henry V) inherited without opposition, the latter’s early death and the assumption of his infant son as Henry VI, reactivated an extended family feud. This eventually led to the Wars of the Roses, during which kings were made and unmade by alternating Yorkist and Lancastrian factions.

'Shakespeare’s Richard II was a deeply flawed but poetic king ...'

In the late 16th century, William Shakespeare focused on the cataclysmic effect of this reign on national history - a situation that ended only with the ‘good government’ of Queen Elizabeth I’s grandfather, Henry VII. The result of this focus was the play King Richard the Second, the story of a deeply flawed king, containing some of the most patriotic lines in English literature. They come in the speech by John of Gaunt where he extols his native land:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden – demi-paradise – This fortress built by nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house Against the envy of less happier lands; This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England ...’

Due to the unheroic nature of its lead character, Shakespeare’s play was rarely performed during the 17th and 18th centuries. Then, in the early 19th century, the medieval period began to be viewed in a romantic and essentially human way.

'... a chapter of medieval history was being re-enacted, in all its antiquarian glory ...'

At the same time, a more vigorous appreciation, documentation and conservation of the nation’s antiquities occurred, and the surviving evidence of Richard’s cultural patronage at Westminster - his exquisite tomb and life-size portrait in Westminster Abbey and Great Hall at the Palace - raised his status as a defining example of medieval magnificence and an embodiment of the Age of Chivalry.

The antiquarian interest in the medieval period and the new sympathy with Richard II combined in the revival of Shakespeare’s play by Charles Kean (1857). Whilst the new Gothic Palace was rising from the ashes of the old - with the venerable hall at its heart - a chapter of medieval history was being re-enacted, in all its antiquarian glory, to packed audiences at the Queen’s Theatre. The production was remembered for years afterwards, as Walter Pater wrote in 1889:

Yet it is fair to say that in the painstaking "revival" of King Richard the Second, by the late Charles Kean ... afforded much more than Shakspere’s [sic] play could ever have been before - the very person of the king based upon that stately old portrait in Westminster Abbey ... the tasteful archaeology confronting vulgar modern London with ... the London of Chaucer.

Show trials

Image of a drawing of New Palace Yard at Westminister
Joshua Bryant's depiction of New Palace Yard, Westminster
Prior to the end of the 12th century, royal justice was administered, as with all mechanisms of government, where the king was. However, a series of reforms culminated in the signing of the Magna Carta, where it was decreed that common pleas should be heard in a fixed place. And that place was invariably Westminster Hall.

By the late 15th century, the main Courts of Law as they were now known - Kings Bench, the Court of Chancery and the Court of Commons Pleas - were all housed in Great Hall at Westminster whilst the Exchequer had been relocated to a building adjoining the Hall, thus increasing Westminster’s status as the centre of government.

'Such trials were concerned with matters of national importance such as treason.'

Indeed, the Courts of Law remained within the Hall and its environs until the late 19th century when they were removed to their new Gothic buildings in the Strand. By the end of the 18th century, in addition to the courts themselves, the interior of the Hall was populated by book and wig stalls and the exterior obscured by the surrounding ramshackle collection of buildings, including taverns and coffee houses. In the early 19th century, as part of the restoration of the Hall, the courts were re-housed in a new building adjoining the Hall, designed by Sir John Soane.

In addition to regular courts, it was within Westminster Hall that state trials were staged. Such trials were concerned with matters of national importance such as treason. At such trials, the interior of the Hall tended to be cleared to allow for temporary seating and perhaps to create a greater sense of occasion and import. Some of the most dramatic events in British history were played out here.

'... the most extraordinary trial was that of Charles I in 1649 ...'

William Wallace, after successfully challenging Edward I, was tried at Westminster Hall in 1305 and immediately taken to Smithfield, where he was hideously executed. Having failed to blow up James I - and Parliament with him - Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were tried in the Hall in 1606, and having been found guilty, were executed in Old Palace Yard.

But perhaps the most extraordinary trial was that of Charles I in 1649, who after the Civil War was charged as ‘a tyrant, traitor and murderer, and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth of England'. Never before had a king been tried and condemned whilst still king, and indeed no court had authority over him.

However, Charles was found guilty, and on 30 January 1649 was beheaded outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall. The last major trial was the impeachment of Lord Melville in 1806.

A palace for Parliament

Image of Henry VIII flanked by bishops in the House of Peers
Henry VIII on the throne in the House of Peers
Throughout the 15th century, it is probable that the palace buildings continued to be developed and adapted although there is no documentation to indicate exactly how these changes would have appeared.

Henry VII’s greatest single patronage at Westminster was the building of the Lady Chapel at the east end of Westminster Abbey - originally intended for the burial of another royal saint, Henry VI. In the event, it was where Henry VII himself was interred. The design and iconography of this chapel, above all else, was to greatly influence the new Palace of Westminster.

'Henry VIII was to be the last monarch to reside at the Palace of Westminster.'

In 1512, just after Henry VIII came to the throne, a fire gutted the royal residential (or 'privy') area of the palace and in 1529 Henry VIII abandoned Westminster completely, having appropriated the more commodious York Palace (the residence of the Archbishops of York). This palace is better known as Whitehall.

The ruins of the Privy Palace were demolished and removed - thus ending almost 500 years of royal residence. The palace was now devoted to administration and law, and Henry VIII was to be the last monarch to reside at the Palace of Westminster.

'Henry had increased his power and wealth but in addition ... had also increased the power of parliament itself. '

Despite Henry’s absence, the Westminster Parliament’s influence increased, and an extraordinary programme of legislation was carried out, following ‘the break with Rome’. Some acts, like the various acts of succession, dealt not only with Henry’s marital situation but the line of the succession itself. Others were seemingly religious in intent - the Dissolution of Monasteries and Chantries acts - but were in essence economic and political.

Henry had increased his power and wealth but in addition, through the necessity of parliament as the vehicle for this legislation, he had also increased the power of parliament itself. Perhaps we can perceive the transfer of the Palace of Westminster from royal to parliamentary home, as symbolic of the shift of government itself, from monarch to parliament.

And as if to confirm this transition, in 1548 Edward VI gave the royal Chapel of St Stephen, whose college had been suppressed, to the House of Commons as their permanent home.

[If you would like to find out any additional information about any of the terms or words used in this article, please refer to the glossary page [/history/trail/church_state/westminster_palace/change_palace_westmin_fact_file.shtml] .]

Published on BBC History: 2005-02-02
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