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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 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.

Published: 2005-02-07

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