Palace of Westminster

The Palace of Westminster lies on the bank of the River Thames in the heart of London
The Palace of Westminster lies on the bank of the River Thames in the heart of London
The Houses of Parliament, seen over Westminster Bridge
The Houses of Parliament, seen over Westminster Bridge

The Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament, is where the two Houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (the House of Lords and the House of Commons) meet to conduct their business. The Palace lies on the north bank of the River Thames in the London borough of the City of Westminster, close by other government buildings in Whitehall. Coordinates: 51°29′58″N, 0°07′29″W

The oldest part of the Palace still in existence, Westminster Hall, dates from 1097. The palace originally served as a royal residence but no monarch has lived in it since the 16th century. Most of the present structure dates from the 19th century, when the Palace was rebuilt after it was almost entirely destroyed by a fire in 1834. The architect responsible for rebuilding the Palace was Sir Charles Barry with Augustus Welby Pugin. The building is an example of Gothic revival. One of the Palace's most famous features is the clock tower, a tourist attraction that houses the famous bell Big Ben. The latter name is often used, erroneously, for the clock itself, which is actually part of St Stephen's Tower.

The Palace contains over 1,000 rooms, the most important of which are the Chambers of the House of Lords and of the House of Commons. The Palace also includes committee rooms, libraries, lobbies, dining-rooms, bars and gymnasiums. It is the site of important state ceremonies, most notably the State Opening of Parliament. The Palace is very closely associated with the two Houses, as shown by the use of "Westminster" as a metonym for "Parliament". Parliamentary offices overspill into nearby buildings such as Portcullis House, and Norman Shaw Buildings.


The Palace of Westminster was strategically important during the Middle Ages, as it was located on the banks of the River Thames. Buildings have occupied the site since at least Saxon times. Known in mediæval times as Thorney Island, the site may have been first used for a royal residence by Canute the Great (reigned 1016 to 1035). The penultimate Saxon monarch of England, St Edward the Confessor, built a royal palace in Thorney Island just west of the City of London at about the same time as he built Westminster Abbey (1045 to 1050). Thorney Island and the surrounding area soon became known as Westminster (a contraction of the words "West Monastery"). After the Norman Conquest (1066) King William I established himself at the Tower of London, but later moved to Westminster. Neither the buildings used by the Saxons nor those used by William I survive. The oldest existing parts of the Palace (Westminster Hall and the Great Hall) date from the reign of William I's successor, King William II.

The Palace of Westminster was the monarch's principal residence in the late Mediaeval period. The predecessor of Parliament, the Curia Regis (Royal Council), met in Westminster Hall (though it followed the King when he moved to other palaces). The Model Parliament, the first official Parliament of England, met in the Palace in 1295. Since then, almost all Parliaments have met in the Palace. However, some Parliaments have met in other locations.

A detail from John Rocque's 1746 map of London.
A detail from John Rocque's 1746 map of London.
J. M. W. Turner watched the fire of 1834 and painted several canvases depicting it, including The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835).

Westminster remained the monarch's chief London residence until a fire destroyed part of the structure in 1529. In 1530 King Henry VIII acquired York Palace from Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, a powerful minister who had lost the King's favour. Renaming it the Palace of Whitehall, Henry VIII used it as his principal residence. Although Westminster officially remained a royal palace, it was used by the two Houses of Parliament and as a law court.

Because it was originally a royal residence, the Palace did not include any purpose-built chambers for the two Houses. Important state ceremonies, including the State Opening of Parliament, were held in the Painted Chamber. The House of Lords usually met in the White Chamber. The House of Commons, however, did not have a chamber of its own; it sometimes held its debates in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey. The Commons acquired a permanent home in the Palace—St Stephen's Chapel, a former royal chapel, but only during the reign of Henry VIII's successor, King Edward VI. The Chantries Act 1547 (passed as a part of the Protestant Reformation) dissolved the religious order of the Canons of St Stephen's (among other institutions); thus the Chapel was left for the Commons' use. Alterations were made to St Stephen's Chapel for the convenience of the lower House.

On 16 October 1834, most of the Palace was destroyed by fire. Only Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, the crypt of St Stephen's Chapel and the cloisters survived. A Royal Commission was appointed to study the rebuilding of the Palace and decided that it should be rebuilt on the same site, and that its style should be either Gothic or Elizabethan. A heated public debate over the proposed styles ensued. In 1836, after studying 97 rival proposals, the Royal Commission chose Charles Barry's plan for a Gothic style palace. The foundation stone was laid in 1840; the Lords' Chamber was completed in 1847, and the Commons' Chamber in 1852 (at which point Barry received a knighthood). Although most of the work had been carried out by 1860, construction was not finished until a decade afterwards.

The Palace of Westminster continued to function normally until 1940. In 1941, the Commons' Chamber was destroyed by German bombs in the course of the Second World War. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was commissioned as architect for the rebuilding of the Chamber; he chose to preserve the essential features of Sir Charles Barry's design. Work on the Commons' Chamber was completed by 1950.


Sir Charles Barry's design for the Palace of Westminster uses the Perpendicular Gothic style, which was popular during the 15th century and returned during the Gothic revival of the 19th century. Barry was himself a classical architect, but he was aided by the Gothic architect Augustus Pugin. Westminster Hall, which was built in the 11th century and survived the fire of 1834, was incorporated in Barry's design. Pugin was displeased with the result of the work, especially with the symmetrical layout designed by Barry; he famously remarked, "All Grecian, sir; Tudor details on a classic body."


The stonework of the building was originally Anston, a sand-coloured magnesian limestone quarried in the village of Anston in South Yorkshire. The stone, however, soon began to decay due to pollution. Although such defects were clear as early as 1849, nothing was done for the remainder of the 19th century. During the 1910s, however, it became clear that some of the stonework had to be replaced.

In 1928 it was deemed necessary to use Clipsham Stone, a honey-coloured limestone from Rutland, to replace the decayed Anston. The project began in the 1930s but was halted due to the Second World War, and completed only during the 1950s. By the 1960s pollution had once again begun to take its toll. A stone conservation and restoration programme began in 1981, and ended in 1994.


The Palace of Westminster's two most famous towers are the Victoria Tower (left) and the Clock Tower (with the clock faces).
The Palace of Westminster's two most famous towers are the Victoria Tower (left) and the Clock Tower (with the clock faces).

Sir Charles Barry's Palace of Westminster includes several towers. The tallest is the 98 m (323 ft) Victoria Tower, a square tower at the south-western end of the Palace. The tower was named after the reigning monarch at the time of the reconstruction of the Palace, Queen Victoria. The tower is home to the House of Lords' Record Office, which, despite its name, has custody of the records of both Houses of Parliament. Atop the Victoria Tower is an iron flagstaff, from which the Royal Standard (if the Sovereign is present in the Palace) or the Union Flag is flown. At the base of the Victoria Tower is the Sovereign's Entrance to the Palace. The monarch uses this entrance whenever entering the Palace of Westminster for the State Opening of Parliament or for any other official ceremony.

Over the middle of the Palace lies the Central Tower. The Central Tower is 91 m (300 ft) tall, making it the shortest of the three principal towers of the Palace. Unlike the other towers, the Central Tower possesses a spire. It stands immediately above the Central Lobby, and is octagonally shaped. Its function was orginally as a high-level air intake.

A small tower is positioned at the front of the Palace, between Westminster Hall and Old Palace Yard, and contains the main entrance to the House of Commons at its base, known as St. Stephen's entrance.

At the north-western end of the Palace is the most famous of the towers, the Clock Tower (often referred to as Big Ben) which is 96 m (316 ft) tall. The Clock Tower houses a large clock known as the Great Clock of Westminster. On each of the four sides of the tower is a large clock face. The tower also houses five bells, which strike the Westminster Chimes every quarter hour. The largest and most famous of the bells is Big Ben (officially, the Great Bell of Westminster), which strikes the hour. This is the third heaviest bell in England, weighing 13 tons 10 cwt 99 lb (about 13.8 t). Although the term "Big Ben" properly refers only to the bell, it is often colloquially applied to the whole tower.


There are a number of small gardens surrounding the Palace of Westminster. Victoria Tower Gardens is open as a public park along the side of the river south of the palace. Black Rod's Garden (named after the office of Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod) is closed to the public and is used as a private entrance. Old Palace Yard, in front of the Palace, is paved over and covered in concrete security blocks (see security below). Cromwell Green (also on the frontage, and in 2006 enclosed by hoardings for the construction of a new visitor centre), New Palace Yard (on the north side) and Speaker's Green (directly north of the Palace) are all private and closed to the public. College Green, opposite the House of Lords, is a small triangular green used for television interviews with politicians.


The layout of the Palace of Westminster. Click on the image for a key to the annotations.
The layout of the Palace of Westminster. Click on the image for a key to the annotations.

The Palace of Westminster includes approximately 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, and 3 miles (5 km) of passageways. The building includes four floors; the ground floor includes offices, dining rooms, and bars. The 'first floor' (known as the principal floor) houses the main rooms of the Palace, including the Chambers, the lobbies, and the libraries. The Robing Room, the Royal Gallery, the Prince's Chamber, the Lords' Chamber, the Peers' Lobby, the Central Lobby, the Members' Lobby, and the Commons' Chamber all lie in a straight line on this floor, from south to north, in the order noted. (Westminster Hall lies to a side at the Commons end of the Palace.) The top two floors are used for committee rooms and offices.

Formerly, the Palace was controlled by the Lord Great Chamberlain, as it was (and formally remains) a royal residence. In 1965, however, it was decided that each House should control its own rooms. The Speaker and Lord Chancellor exercise control on behalf of their respective Houses. The Lord Great Chamberlain retains custody of certain ceremonial rooms.

Lords Chamber

The old House of Lords chamber in the early 19th century. Benches in the House of Lords are coloured red. The Sovereign's Throne and Canopy are located at one end of the chamber.
The old House of Lords chamber in the early 19th century. Benches in the House of Lords are coloured red. The Sovereign's Throne and Canopy are located at one end of the chamber.

The Chamber of the House of Lords is located in the southern part of the Palace of Westminster. The lavishly decorated room measures 14 by 24 m (45 by 80 ft). The benches in the Chamber, as well as other furnishings in the Lords' side of the Palace, are coloured red. The upper part of the Chamber is decorated by stained glass windows and by six allegorical frescoes representing religion, chivalry and law. The upper part, or the viewing gallery, features a small curtain, around ten inches high. This was constructed in the 1920s to hide the ankles and lower legs of viewing women; fashion was becoming increasingly promiscuous, as they saw it, and the sight of bare legs was deemed unsuitable for Lords.

At one end of the Chamber are the ornate gold Canopy and Throne; although the Sovereign may theoretically occupy the Throne during any sitting, he or she attends only the State Opening of Parliament. Other members of the Royal Family who attend the State Opening use Chairs of State next to the Throne. In front of the Throne is the Woolsack, a backless and armless red cushion stuffed with wool, representing the historical importance of the wool trade. The Woolsack is used by the officer presiding over the House (the Lord Chancellor or a deputy). The House's mace, which represents royal authority, is placed on the back of the Woolsack. In front of the Woolsack are the Judges' Woolsack (a larger red cushion occupied by the Law Lords during the State Opening) and the Table of the House (at which the clerks sit).

Members of the House occupy red benches on three sides of the Chamber. The benches on the Lord Chancellor's right form the Spiritual Side and those to his left form the Temporal Side. The Lords Spiritual (archbishops and bishops of the established Church of England) all occupy the Spiritual Side. The Lords Temporal (nobles) sit according to party affiliation: members of the Government party sit on the Spiritual Side, whilst those of the Opposition sit on the Temporal Side. Some peers, who have no party affiliation, sit on the benches in the middle of the House opposite the Woolsack; they are accordingly known as cross-benchers.

The Lords' Chamber is the site of important ceremonies, the most important of which is the State Opening of Parliament, which occurs at the beginning of each annual parliamentary session. The Sovereign, seated on the Throne, delivers the Speech from the Throne, outlining the Government's legislative agenda for the forthcoming parliamentary session. The Commons do not enter the Chamber; instead, they watch the proceedings from the Bar of the House, just inside the Chamber. A similar ceremony is held at the end of a parliamentary session; the Sovereign, however, does not normally attend, and is instead represented by a group of Lords Commissioners.

Commons Chamber

Benches in the House of Commons Chamber are coloured green.
Benches in the House of Commons Chamber are coloured green.

The Chamber of the House of Commons, which was opened in 1950 after the Victorian chamber had been destroyed in 1941 (architect: Giles Gilbert Scott) is at the northern end of the Palace of Westminster. The Chamber measures 14 by 21 m (46 by 68 ft). It is far more austere than the grand Lords' Chamber; the benches, as well as other furnishings in the Commons side of the Palace, are coloured green. It is illegal for a member of the public to sit on the green benches. Other parliaments in Commonwealth nations have copied the colour scheme under which the Lower House is associated with green, and the Upper House with red.

At one end of the Chamber is the Speaker's Chair, a present to Parliament from Australia. In front of the Speaker's Chair is the Table of the House, at which the clerks sit, and on which is placed the Commons' ceremonial mace. There are green benches on either side; members of the Government party occupy benches on the Speaker's right, whilst those of the Opposition occupy benches on the Speaker's left. There are no cross-benches as in the House of Lords. The Chamber is relatively small, and can accommodate only 427 of the 646 Members of Parliament. During Prime Minister's Questions and in major debates Members of Parliament stand at either end of the House.

By tradition, the British Sovereign does not enter the Chamber of the House of Commons. The last monarch to enter the Chamber was King Charles I (in 1642); he sought to arrest five Members of Parliament on charges of high treason. When the King asked the Speaker, William Lenthall, if he had any knowledge of the whereabouts of these individuals, Lenthall famously replied: "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."

The two red lines on the floor of the House of Commons are, by (probably apocryphal) tradition, two sword lengths and one foot (0.3 m) apart. Protocol dictates that MPs may not cross these lines when speaking. Historically, this was to prevent disputes in the house from devolving into duels.

Westminster Hall

Westminster Hall in the early 19th century.
Westminster Hall in the early 19th century.

Westminster Hall, the oldest existing part of the Palace of Westminster, was erected in 1097. The roof was originally supported by pillars but, during the reign of King Richard II, it was replaced by a hammerbeam roof designed by Henry Yevele and Hugh Herland. Westminster Hall is one of the largest halls in Europe with an unsupported roof; it measures 21 by 73 m (68 by 240 ft). An Essex legend has it that the oak timber came from woods in Thundersley, Essex.

Westminster Hall has served numerous functions. It was primarily used for judicial purposes, housing three of the most important courts in the land: the Court of King's Bench, the Court of Common Pleas, and the Court of Chancery. In 1873, these courts were amalgamated into the High Court of Justice, which continued to meet in Westminster Hall until it moved to the Royal Courts of Justice in 1882. In addition to regular courts, Westminster Hall also housed important state trials, including impeachment trials and the trial of King Charles I at the end of the English Civil War.

Westminster Hall has also served ceremonial functions. From the twelfth century to the nineteenth, coronation banquets honouring new monarchs were held here. The last coronation banquet was that of King George IV (1821); his successor, William IV, abandoned the idea because he deemed it too expensive. Westminster Hall has also been used for lyings-in-state during state funerals and ceremonial funerals. Such an honour is usually reserved for the Sovereign and for their consorts; the only non-royals to receive it in the twentieth century were Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts (1914) and Sir Winston Churchill (1965). The most recent lying-in-state was that of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 2002.

George IV's coronation banquet was held in Westminster Hall in 1821. It was the last such banquet held.
George IV's coronation banquet was held in Westminster Hall in 1821. It was the last such banquet held.

In 1999 and 2003, the staff of the Palace were given special permission to return the Hall to its original purpose, by the holding of two Grand Parties there.

The two Houses have presented ceremonial Addresses to the Crown in Westminster Hall on important public occasions. For example, Addresses have been presented at Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee (1977) and Golden Jubilee (2002), the 300th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution (1988), and the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War (1995).

Under reforms made in 1999, the House of Commons uses a specially converted room next to Westminster Hall (not the main hall) as an additional debating chamber. (Usually, however, the room is spoken of as a part of Westminster Hall.) The room is shaped like an elongated horseshoe; it stands in contrast with the main Chamber, in which the benches are placed opposite each other. This pattern is meant to reflect the non-partisan nature of the debates held in Westminster Hall. Westminster Hall sittings occur thrice each week; important or controversial matters are not usually discussed.

Other rooms

There are several other important rooms that lie on the first floor of the Palace. At the extreme southern end of the Palace is the Robing Room, the room in which the Sovereign prepares for the State Opening of Parliament by donning official robes and wearing the Imperial State Crown. Paintings by William Dyce in the Robing Room depict scenes from the legend of King Arthur. Immediately next to the Robing Room is the Royal Gallery, which is sometimes used by foreign dignitaries who wish to address both Houses. The walls are decorated by two enormous paintings by Daniel Maclise: "The Death of Nelson" (depicting Lord Nelson's demise at the Battle of Trafalgar) and "The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher" (showing the Duke of Wellington meeting Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher at the Battle of Waterloo).

To the immediate south of the Lords Chamber is the Prince's Chamber, a small ante-room used by Members of the Lords. The Prince's Chamber is decorated with paintings of members of the Tudor dynasty. To the immediate north of the Lord's Chamber is the Peers' Lobby, where Lords informally discuss or negotiate matters during sittings of the House.

The centrepiece of the Palace of Westminster is the octagonal Central Lobby, which lies immediately beyond the Peers' Lobby. The lobby, which lies immediately below the Central Tower, is adorned with statues of statesmen and with mosaics representing the United Kingdom's constituent nations' patron saints: St George for England, St Andrew for Scotland, St David for Wales, and St Patrick for Ireland (these predate the secession of the Republic). Constituents may meet their Members of Parliament in the Central Lobby. Beyond the Central Lobby, next to the Commons Chamber, lies the Members' Lobby, in which Members of Parliament hold discussions or negotiations. The Members' Lobby contains statues of several former Prime Ministers, including David Lloyd George, Sir Winston Churchill, and Clement Attlee.

There are two suites of libraries on the Principal Floor, overlooking the river, for the House of Lords and House of Commons Library.

The Palace of Westminster also includes state apartments for the presiding officers of the two Houses. The official residence of the Speaker stands at the northern end of the Palace, whilst the Lord Chancellor's apartments are at the southern end. Each day, the Speaker and Lord Chancellor take part in formal processions from their apartments to their respective Chambers.


The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod oversees security for the House of Lords, whilst the Serjeant at Arms does the same for the House of Commons. These officers, however, have primarily ceremonial roles outside the actual chambers of their respective Houses. Security is the responsibility of the Palace of Westminster Division of the Metropolitan Police, the police force for the Greater London area. Tradition still dictates that only the Serjeant at Arms may enter the Commons chamber whilst armed.

The assassination of Prime minister Spencer Perceval in 1812 in the lobby of the House of Commons.
The assassination of Prime minister Spencer Perceval in 1812 in the lobby of the House of Commons.

Probably the most famous attempt to breach the security of the Palace of Westminster was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The plot was an attempt by Roman Catholic extremists to cause an explosion in the Palace of Westminster during the State Opening of Parliament, thereby killing the Protestant King James I, his family, and most of the aristocracy. The plot was discovered, however, when a Roman Catholic nobleman, William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend the State Opening. The authorities conducted a search of the Palace, discovered the gunpowder, as well as one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes. The conspirators were later tried for high treason in Westminster Hall, and were hanged, drawn and quartered. Since 1605, the Yeomen of the Guard have conducted a ceremonial search of the Palace's cellars prior to each State Opening of Parliament.

The previous Palace of Westminster was also the site of a prime ministerial assassination in 1812. Whilst in the lobby of the House of Commons, on his way to a parliamentary inquiry, Spencer Perceval was shot and killed by John Bellingham. Perceval remains the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated.

On the 17 June 1974 a 20 pound (9 kg) bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded in Westminster Hall. In 1979 Airey Neave, a prominent Conservative politician, was killed by a car bomb as he drove out of the Palace's new car park. Both the Irish National Liberation Army and the Provisional IRA claimed responsibility for the murder; security forces believe the former were responsible. With rising concern about the possibility of a truck full of explosives being driven into the building (despite the effective cessation by that time of Northern Irish terrorism), a series of concrete blocks was placed in the roadway in 2003.

Tony Blair being hit by a flour bomb (the purple cloud on the right of the image).
Tony Blair being hit by a flour bomb (the purple cloud on the right of the image).

The Palace has also been the site of a number of acts of politically motivated "direct action". In 1970 a canister of tear gas was thrown into the Chamber of the House of Commons to protest against conditions in Northern Ireland. In 1978 manure was thrown by, among others, the daughter of Dom Mintoff. Concern about such attacks and a possible chemical or biological attack led to the construction of a glass screen across the Strangers' Gallery in early 2004.

The new barrier did not cover the front three rows, which are termed the "Distinguished Strangers' Gallery" and in May of that year protesters from Fathers 4 Justice attacked Prime Minister Tony Blair with flour bombs from this part. In September, five protesters opposed to the proposed ban on fox hunting disrupted the proceedings of the House of Commons by running into the Chamber.

Despite the recent security breaches, members of the public continue to have access to the Gallery. Visitors are heavily vetted.

Large numbers of heavily armed police guard the building and security checks take place before people are allowed to enter the building. When ministers are present their personal security also attend.

Culture and tourism

The exterior of the Palace of Westminster—especially the Clock Tower—is one of the most visited tourist attractions in London. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) classifies the Palace of Westminster as a World Heritage Site. It is also a Grade I listed building. There is no casual access to the interior, but it may be seen in a number of ways:

  • Viewing debates from the public galleries of the House of Commons or the House of Lords: UK residents may obtain tickets in advance from their MP. It is also possible for both UK residents and overseas visitors to queue for admission on the day, but capacity is limited and there is no guarantee of admission. Only a very small part of the Palace's interior may be seen. Either House may exclude "strangers" if it desires to sit in private.
  • Tours during Parliamentary sessions: UK residents may apply to their MP or a peer for a place on a guided tour of Parliament while it is in session. British educational institutions may also arrange a tour through their MP. The system for issuing overseas visitors with permits to tour the Palace while Parliament is in session has been suspended temporarily.
  • Summer opening: tours are available during a two-month period during the summer when Parliament is not sitting. These tours are open to both UK residents and overseas visitors. Advance bookings are recommended.
  • Television Viewing: live broadcasts of Parliamentary sessions can be viewed on BBC Parliament, recorded footage is shown whilst Parliament is not in session.

Since 1 August 2005, under a provision of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 it has been illegal to hold a protest, without the prior permission of the Metropolitan Police, within a designated area extending half a mile around the Palace.


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World Heritage Sites in the United Kingdom (list)

England: Avebury · Blenheim Palace · Canterbury Cathedral · Bath · Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape · Derwent Valley Mills · Durham Castle · Durham Cathedral · Hadrian's Wall · Ironbridge Gorge · Jurassic Coast · Kew Gardens · Liverpool · Maritime Greenwich · Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey St. Margaret's · Saltaire · Stonehenge · Studley Royal Park · Tower of London

Scotland: New Lanark · Edinburgh Old TownNew Town · St Kilda · Skara Brae

Wales: Beaumaris Castle · Blaenavon · Caernarfon Castle · Conwy Castle · Harlech Castle

Northern Ireland: Giant's Causeway

Overseas territories: Henderson Island · Gough Island and Inaccessible Island · St. George's

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