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The Houses of Parliament


Location: House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA; House of Lords, London, SW1A 0PW
Telephones: 020 7219 3000
Strangers Gallery House of Commons up-to-date visiting information.
Strangers Gallery House of Lords up-to-date visiting information.
Tours of the Houses of Parliament up-to-date visiting information.


Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector


The Houses of Parliament are officially known as the New Palace of Westminster. Here the foundations were laid according to Edward I's Model Parliament of 1295. The walled and moated royal Palace of Westminster was inhabited originally by Edward the Confessor. The 12.5 acre complex was heavily damaged in 1515 and was then discarded by Henry VIII-who had recently acquired Cardinal Wolsey's Hampton Court and had also built St. James Palace. Another fire caused by exchequer tally sticks in 1834 destroyed all but the Crypt Chapel, Westminster Hall and the cloisters.

An offer by William IV to allow Parliament to have Buckingham Palace was declined in 1834 following the devastating fire. Sir Charles Barry designed the new Palace of Westminster and work commenced in 1840. The House of Lords (unelected senior members of state and church) was officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1852, but were completed in 1847. The House of Commons (elected Members of Parliament,) incorporating the Churchill Arch, was not restored until 1950.

Bobbies stand guard at the entrance to Parliament
Big Ben and the Towers

Big Ben as seen from the west

Big Ben, the hour bell of the present clock tower of the Houses of Parliament, was installed in 1858. It was named after the First Commissioner of Works at the time, Sir Benjamin Hall. The bell weighs over 13 tons and the clock mechanism alone weighs about 5 tons. The figures on the clock face are approximately 2 feet long, the minute spaces are 1 square foot and the copper minute hands are 14 feet long. The tower stands 320 feet high. A light above Big Ben signals that Parliament is in session.

Victoria Tower, measuring in at 336 feet tall, is situated just south of where Guy Fawkes was executed at Old Palace Yard. It is the tallest of the three towers of the New Palace of Westminster. The Union Jack flying from Victoria Tower indicates Parliament is in session.

The octagonal Central Tower is the smallest of the three towers, rising 300 feet above Central Hall. The open lantern at its top is richly ornamented.

Parliament's northern facade

Big Ben and the Towers

The origins of Parliament go all the way back to the medieval Curia Regis, or Great Council, a body of noblemen and ecclesiastical advisors to the King that evolved into the House of Lords. Quasi-legislative, it was primarily a judicial and executive body.

The Model Parliament of 1295 encompassed a mixture of clergy, lords and elected officials. Representatives of the Knights and Burgesses were also assembled to approve royal to the monarchy. They eventually developed into the Houses of Commons and Lords.

The House of Lords dominated until Henry VIII's Reformation Parliament act, which put an end to the Church's domination of Parliament and shifted the balance of power to the Commons. A Catholic conspiracy to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605, failed and ended with the execution of Guy Fawkes in Old Palace Yard.

During the English Civil War (1642-48) and its aftermath, Parliament gained legislative supremacy over taxation and expenditures. Parliamentary sovereignty was permanently affirmed by the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The Palace of Westminster was destroyed nearly completely by a major fire in 1834. The King offered Buckingham Palace as an alternative to rebuilding, but his offer was declined by Parliament. Sir Charles Barry and A. W. Pugin began construction of a new government complex and created a masterpiece in the Victorian Gothic style which stands today.

The Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century led to the demands of the new classes for representation and passage of reform bills that greatly extended masuffrage. Universal male and female suffrage was granted in the early 1900's.

Modern Parliament consists of three governing bodies, the Monarch (who is basically just a ceremonial figurehead,) the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

The House of Lords is made up of hereditary nobles and Anglican prelates. It has wielded negligible power since 1911. The House of Commons is an elected body consisting of 651 members. It is presided over by a non-partisan speaker elected by the Commons. In addition, a Prime Minister (also elected by Commons,) who is the executive head of the government, must be a member of the Commons by modern tradition. The Prime Minister's Cabinet, however, can be selected from either House. Thus, the Executive Branch is essentially a committee of the Legislature.

Elections are required to be conducted every 5 years, but the Prime Minister can call for them to be held as frequently as every year. If the party in power fails to obtain a parliamentary majority on an important issue, it must call a general election. The major parties in Parliament are the Conservative, Labour and the Coalition of the Social Democrats and Liberals.

The western facade of the New Palace of Westminster

Links to my other London Attractions pages

St. Paul's Cathedral
H.M. Tower of London
Tower Bridge Experience
Windsor Castle
Buckingham Palace
Hampton Court Palace
Kensington Palace
St. James' Palace
Trafalgar Square & Admiralty Arch

Westminster Abbey
St. Margaret's Church

The Official Parliament Website
The Official Royal Family Website
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Last Updated: 9 May 2004

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