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Anglo-Saxon origins

The site in and around the present day Houses of Parliament has been a location for ecclesiatical buildings, kingship and power since at least the Middle Ages. Indeed its history could reach even further back as legend holds that a Roman temple to Apollo once stood here, but that it was destroyed by an earthquake.

Saxon church

In the early eighth century, a Saxon church dedicated to St Peter was constructed on the site.

The church became known as the West Minster (west monastery), while St Paul's, lying to the east in the heart of London, was known as the East Minster (east monastery).

Benedictine abbey

In the tenth century, the church was reconstituted as a Benedictine abbey and adopted as a royal church. It was the royal interest in this abbey, both as a burial place and an expression of Christian kingship, which prompted the construction of a palace at Westminster.

An Anglo-Saxon royal palace

Over the centuries, buildings have come and gone, but in some shape or form the palace has been in continuous existence since the Danish King Cnut (1016-1035) began building here in the first half of the 11th century.

Originally, these buildings stood on Thorney Island (Thorney means Thorn Island in Anglo Saxon). Back then, the Thames was a much wider and shallower river, and two branches of one of its tributaries, the River Tyburn, created this tiny island. Much of it was marshland and would have looked very different from the river today.

Edward the Confessor

Soon after his coronation in 1042, St Edward the Confessor, the penultimate Saxon monarch of England, began building Westminster Abbey which stands adjacent to the current Houses of Parliament. He also built a neighbouring palace so that he could oversee the construction of his new Abbey.

Edward lived to take up residence in his new palace, but only just long enough to see the Abbey completed in 1065. He was buried in his beloved Abbey in 1066.

Abbey church

Very little is known about Edward's palace, although it was probably a collection of buildings which included a hall and private apartments for the king. The awkward site occupied by the early palace buildings at Westminster was because the Abbey church was already built on the best land on the island.

These buildings nevertheless gave Westminster new significance as an important royal residence and church of the English monarchy.

Did you know?

King Cnut (Canute) famously attempted to control the waves of River Thames from the site of his royal palace to show his nobles that he was not omnipotent


You can access biographies of

King Cnut
St Edward the Confessor

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.