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The hidden history of Westminster

By Rob Shepherd
BBC Westminster

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How did a small, secluded island on the marshy banks of the Thames become a spiritual centre, royal ceremonial stage and political capital?

The story of the Westminster village - the small enclave around the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament - is full of unexpected twists.

It is a tale of power and of all that comes with it: ambition, intrigue, protest and terror.

More than a thousand years ago, well-off Anglo-Saxons living by the site of present-day Downing Street built a small church on nearby Thorney island.

Being located to the west of Anglo-Saxon Lundenwic, Thorney's church became known as 'west minster'.

By 960 AD, the church had become a Benedictine monastery, and the Abbey's black-robed monks were familiar figures at Westminster for almost 600 years, until Henry VIII split from Rome.

Today, Parliament Square occupies the old plateau of Thorney island; the Abbey stands on its highest point; and nearby streets (Storey's Gate, Great Smith Street and Great College Street) follow the courses of streams that flowed round the island.

The street names of Spring Gardens (near Trafalgar Square) and Millbank (where the Abbey's mill once stood) echo Westminster's watery past.

'Terrible place'

'Spin' was a feature of Westminster from early times.

The 'dodgy dossier' has an ancient pedigree. A charter of King Offa, dated 785 AD, refers to "that terrible place which is known as Westminster" - a chilling description that many might echo today.

However, the charter is a fake. The forgery was sanctioned by Osbert of Clare, a prior at the Abbey in the 1150s, whose qualifications as the patron saint of spin doctors are unrivalled.

Osbert's purpose was to enhance Westminster's reputation as a place of religious awe (or holy terror).

His tireless campaign for the canonization of Edward the Confessor finally succeeded.

To this day, the Confessor's shrine in the Abbey attracts worshippers from round the world, including President George W. Bush who prayed there in 2003.

First palace

Evidence unearthed beneath Parliament Square suggests that Cnut, the Dane who ruled England during 1016-35, may have been the first king to build a palace at Westminster.

A timber structure and walled ditch, dating from c.950-1050 AD, was discovered in the 1990s, close to the spot where Brian Haw, the anti-war protester, later harangued all and sundry.

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image captionWestminster Abbey became known as the "most glorious work in England"

According to medieval chroniclers, Cnut's palace burnt down, but Edward the Confessor rebuilt the palace and also the nearby Anglo-Saxon Abbey in grand style. Edward wanted to show that he was the equal of any European ruler. His palace is remembered in the name of Old Palace Yard.

Westminster's place-names can be misleading.

New Palace Yard, the courtyard overlooked by Big Ben's clock tower (recently re-named the Elizabeth Tower), is more than 900 years old.

Its name derives from the 'new palace' built in the 1090s by William II, the Conqueror's son. Westminster Hall survives as a statement of Norman power.

It was the forerunner of a state broadcasting service and social networking site.

Centre of gossip

News of royal proclamations quickly spread through the multitude in the Great Hall and across the kingdom. For centuries, people flocked to the Hall for the latest gossip.

media captionThe Westminster Hour interview with Robert Shepherd

The French-speaking ruler of an empire that stretched from the Pyrenees to the Scottish borders was an unlikely figure to make Westminster the seat of English government.

Henry II is usually associated with the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, but he changed the course of English history by moving the Exchequer from Winchester to Westminster and establishing the law courts in Westminster Hall, where English common law was created.

The courts remained in the Great Hall until the nineteenth-century, sharing the space with stalls that sold all manner of things - imagine if Lord Leveson had held his inquiry into the press in the middle of Westfield shopping centre.

Politicians are renowned for spending other people's money, but Henry III's profligacy made modern governments appear Scrooge-like.

Henry's extravagance provoked bloody revolt in the 1260s but left us two great legacies, one intended, the other unintended.

His new Abbey became regarded as "the most glorious work in England" but his eye-watering tax demands resulted in Parliament's emergence as a check on the crown.

Representative Parliament

Henry III's rival, Simon de Montfort, established the principle of a representative parliament and left his mark on Henry's costly new Abbey by installing his armorial shield and those of his fellow rebels in the Quire aisles.

"We shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us", Winston Churchill declared when speaking about the rectangular Commons chamber, where government MPs sat on one side, opposition MPs on the other, and both sides faced one another.

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image captionThe Palace of Westminster was badly damaged by bombing during the Second World War

However, in the 1350s, after the Commons first began meeting separately from the Lords, MPs sometimes sat in the Abbey's Chapter House, where the seating was arranged in a circle round the octagonal chamber.

But MPs were not able to grow accustomed to a circular seating plan, because they damaged the beautiful fabric and the monks relegated them to the refectory.

After the Reformation, MPs were moved into the defunct St Stephen's Chapel in the old palace, with its tiers of benches on opposite sides.

After the chamber's destruction by fire in 1834 and by bombs in 1941, it was re-built to replicate the chapel's lay-out.

Medieval labyrinth

It is difficult to visualise, but until the nineteenth century much of the site now occupied by Parliament Square was a labyrinth of medieval alleys and lanes crammed with shops, slums, taverns and tenements that harboured Westminster's notorious thieves and vagabonds.

Part of the old warren was cleared in the 1740s and 1750s when the first Westminster Bridge was built and broad thoroughfares (Bridge Street, Parliament Street and Great George Street) cut through the slums.

MPs continued to fear for their safety.

In 1771, the prime minister, Lord North, was manhandled by protesting printers, and in 1780 rioters invaded Downing Street.

A window of the King's coach was smashed at the state opening of Parliament in 1795, and a mass protest in New Palace Yard against the war with France caused great alarm.

In response, by 1815 the authorities had cleared the remnants of Westminster's notorious warren from Parliament's close proximity.

By the 1860s the present Houses of Parliament had risen majestically from the ashes of the old palace.

In the early twentieth century, the last vestiges of Westminster's maze of old alleys and lanes to the north of Parliament Square, were replaced by government offices.

Westminster Hall and the Abbey survive from the middle ages, but they are only the visible tips of Westminster's hidden past.

Rob Shepherd is the author of Westminster: A Biography - From Earliest Times to the Present

More on this story

  • Westminster Hour: Westminster past