The Palace of Westminster, more commonly known as the Houses of Parliament, is the seat of the bicameral Parliament of the United Kingdom, comprising the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It is located on the left bank of the River Thames in the borough of Westminster, London. The building, now considered one of the finest gothic structures in the world, has had many incarnations, thanks to a turbulent history which has included destruction by fire and bombing.
A royal palace was said to have existed at the site under King Cnut in the 10th century. The building, however, spoken of by William Fitzstephen as an "incomparable structure," was built for Edward the Confessor in the 11th century and enlarged by William I. In 1512 the palace suffered greatly from fire and thereafter ceased to be used as a royal residence. St. Stephen's Chapel was used by 1550 for the meetings of the House of Commons, held previously in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey; the Lords used another apartment of the palace. A fire in 1834 destroyed the whole palace except Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, the cloisters, and the crypt of St. Stephen's Chapel.
Sir Charles Barry, assisted by Augustus Pugin, designed the present buildings in the Gothic Revival style. Construction was begun in 1837, the cornerstone was laid in 1840, and work was finished in 1860. The Commons Chamber was burned out in one of the numerous air raids that targeted London during World War II, but it was restored and reopened in 1950. The House of Lords is an ornate chamber 97 feet (29.5 metres) in length; the Commons is 70 feet (21 metres) long. The southwestern Victoria Tower is 336 feet (102 metres) high. The Clock Tower, 320 feet (97.5 metres) in height, contains Big Ben, originally the nickname given to the clock's bell, but now also commonly used as a name for the tower. The Clock Tower was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012. Along with Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret's Church, the Palace of Westminster was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
For much more information on the Palace of Westminster, including Big Ben and Westminster Hall, please see Living Heritage.
Records about the Palace
The Parliamentary Archives holds several good collections for students interested in the study of art, architecture and the Palace of Westminster, including:
The Architectural Archive (ARC) - The architectural archive is a centralised source of documents relating to the building and fabric of the Palace of Westminster. It contains copies of original documents (plans, drawings, reports and other papers) held at various institutions in England. There are also copies of some documents held in other departments of Parliament, such as the House of Commons Library and the Works of Art department.
The Ballantine Drawings (BAD) - Designs for the windows of the House of Lords Chamber by Messrs. Ballantine & Allen, submitted to the Royal Commission of Fine Arts in 1844. Ballantine and Allen were stained glass manufacturers based in Edinburgh. They founded their firm in 1837 and were part of the gothic revival in architecture and design in the nineteenth century. James Ballantine (1808-1877) was recommended by the Fine Arts Commission to design and make the windows. These designs were, however, subsequently re-designed by A W N Pugin, but, with the exception of a specimen window by J Hardman & Co, Birmingham, were made by Ballantine & Allan.
Papers of Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860), Architect (BAR) - This collection contains plans, drawings and letters relating to Barry's work on the Palace of Westminster. There are architectural drawings of the Palace of Westminster made in Charles Barry's office c1841-c1845 and six working drawings, which are almost certainly in AWN Pugin's hand. There is also: a first floor plan of the New Palace of Westminster, by Barry; photographic copies of his designs for the House of Lords Throne and various other documents, including his family tree, and the diary of his eldest son, Charles Barry Junior, kept while he worked in his father's office. Some of the papers relate to Edward Middleton Barry and the work he did to complete the New Palace of Westminster after his father's death.
Designs of John Hardman Studios, Birmingham (HAR) - This collection consists of two files of working drawings and cartoons prepared in the studios of Messrs. John Hardman, relating to the provision of stained glass and other ornamentation for the new Houses of Parliament. John Hardman Powell was Pugin's only assistant and later became his son-in-law. Messrs. John Hardman Studios, of which John Hardman Powell was part, made all of the stained glass (from designs often by AWN Pugin) for the New Houses of Parliament, with the exception of that in the House of Lords.
Benjamin Stone: Photographs (HC/LB/1/111) - 415 photographs of the interior and exterior of the Houses of Parliament taken by Sir Benjamin Stone MP (1838-1914) between 1897 and 1910. These splendid photographs form the first comprehensive photographic survey of the building, and thus are of considerable historical importance.
The Library Westminster Collection (HC/LB/1/114) - This collection consists of plans, drawings, engravings, volumes and photographs mostly relating to the buildings of the Palace of Westminster in the 19th and 20th centuries. Of particular interest are a volume of measured drawings of the Star Chamber made in Dec 1835 and Jan 1836, plans of the temporary Houses of Parliament, 1835, 1843, 1845-1847 and 1853, showing how the building was being used during reconstruction and a volume of 38 measured drawings made in 1914 in connection with the restoration of the hammer beam roof of Westminster Hall by the Office of Works under the supervision of Sir Frank Baines.
The Prize Cartoons' (PRC) - A folio containing eleven lithographs of the winning Royal Commission of the Fine Arts competition designs for fresco decorations in the New Houses of Parliament by various artists, dated circa 1843.
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