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THE PALACE OF WESTMINSTER

The site of the Houses of Parliament is the Palace of Westminster, a royal palace and former residence of kings. The layout of the Palace is intricate, with its existing buildings containing nearly 1,200 rooms, 100 staircases and well over 3 kilometres (2 miles) of passages. Among the original historic buildings is Westminster Hall, used nowadays for major public ceremonial events.

Control of the Palace of Westminster and its precincts was for centuries exercised by the Queen's representative, the Lord Great Chamberlain. By agreement with the Crown, control passed to the two Houses in 1965. Certain ceremonial rooms continue to be controlled by the Lord Great Chamberlain.

Admission to the Palace of Westminster

A brief history of the Palace of Westminster

Layout of the Palace

Westminster Hall



Admission to the Houses of Parliament

The public entrance to the Palace is through St Stephen's entrance in Old Palace Yard.

Visitors wishing to watch the proceedings of either House should either obtain tickets well in advance - normally seven to eight weeks - from their MP, or else join the queue outside St Stephen's Entrance. It is generally easiest to get in to the House of Commons between 6.00pm and 10.30pm on Mondays,  after 1.30pm on Tuesdays,  Wednesdays and Thursdays and at 9am on sitting Fridays. For further information on visits to the galleries, click on House of Commons or House of Lords. For UK residents, permits for guided parties to tour the Palace and Westminster Hall can be obtained from your local MP.

The system for issuing overseas visitors with permits to tour the Houses of Parliament has been temporarily suspended. Please click here for further information.


History of the Palace of Westminster

The Palace of Westminster was the principal residence of the kings of England from the middle of the 11th century until 1512. In medieval times kings summoned their courts wherever they happened to be. But by the end of the 14th century the court in all its aspects - administrative, judicial and parliamentary - had its headquarters at Westminster.

Although the Lords were accommodated in the Palace, the Commons originally had no permanent meeting place of their own, meeting either in the chapter house or the refectory of Westminster Abbey. After the Chantries Act 1547 abolished all private chapels, the Royal Chapel of St Stephen within the Palace of Westminster was handed over to the Commons.

The Commons assembled in St Stephen's until 1834 when the Palace was burned down. This fire destroyed almost all of the Palace except Westminster Hall, the crypt of St Stephen's Chapel, the adjacent cloisters and the Jewel Tower.

The present Houses of Parliament were built over the next 30 years. They were the work of the architect Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) and his assistant Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-52). The design incorporated Westminster Hall and the remains of St Stephen's Chapel.

The House of Commons Chamber was destroyed in a German air attack in 1941. It was rebuilt after the Second World War, taking care to preserve the essential features of Barry's building - the architect was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The new Chamber was completed in 1950.

The Palace of Westminster
Parliamentary Factsheet G11
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Layout of the Palace of Westminster

After coming through the public entrance - St Stephen's Entrance - the approach to the Central Lobby of the Palace is through St Stephen's Hall from St Stephen's Porch at the southern end of Westminster Hall. Central Lobby, a large octagonal hall, is the centrepiece of the Palace. When waiting to see their MP, members of the public wait here. The Central Lobby is a great masterpiece of Victorian art.

From the Central Lobby, corridors lead northward to the House of Commons Lobby and Chamber and southward to the House of Lords. Beyond the House of Lords are the ceremonial rooms used at the State Opening of Parliament - the Queen's Robing Room and the Royal Gallery - reached by a separate entrance under the Victoria Tower. The Royal Gallery is 33 m long, 13 m high and 13 m wide (110 ft x 44 ft x 44 ft). The Queen processes through it on her way to the Chamber of the House of Lords on the occasion of the State Opening of Parliament. It is also often used when members of the two Houses meet together to hear addresses by visiting heads of State or Government.

To the north of the House of Commons are the residences of the Speaker and the Serjeant-at-Arms, and various offices for ministers and officials. Beyond them is one of the most famous features of the Palace - the huge bell Big Ben housed in the Clock Tower. Big Ben came into operation in 1859 and weighs 13.7 tonnes.

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Westminster Hall

The Mediaeval Hall

William I, having established his first stronghold at the Tower, later moved to Westminster; and it is from the reign of his son, William Rufus, that the first extant buildings on the site date, including Westminster Hall, the Great Hall, which was built at the northern end of the Palace and still stands today after celebrating nine hundred years of continuous use in 1999.

The hall was designed originally as a place for feasting and entertaining, but its very size made it more than that. Among other uses, the Royal Council of bishops, nobles and ministers assembled there. The special later form of this Council, which came to be known as Parliament, was the forerunner of the present House of Lords. It was also the site of the first true English parliament to include elected representatives, summoned by Simon de Montfort in 1265. While Parliament has never met in the Hall on a regular basis, it was the existence of the Hall, which at that time was the largest in Europe, that helped to make Westminster the judicial and administrative centre of the kingdom.

The Palace was one of the monarch's principal homes throughout the later Middle Ages, and for this reason the institutions of Government came to be clustered in the Westminster area. To the east and south of the Hall lay the domestic apartments of the mediaeval Palace, and later, the royal chapel of St Stephen. Kings worshipped in the upper Chapel and their courtiers in the lower level or "crypt" chapel below.

The Hall, of which the walls were built in 1097-99, as part of an intended reconstruction of the whole palace, is the oldest extant building on the Palace of Westminster site. Its floor area is about 1850 sq yds, and it is one of the largest mediaeval halls in Europe with an unsupported roof. The roof was originally supported by two rows of pillars, but the present magnificent hammerbeam roof was designed in the reign of Richard II. The mason/architect of the 14th century rebuilding was Henry Yevele, and the carpenter/designer of the roof, Hugh Herland. Westminster Hall was the traditional venue for Coronation banquets.

The Hall and the Law

During later centuries, the Hall housed the courts of law, and was the place of many notable state trials, for instance, those of Thomas More, Charles I, Warren Hastings, and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. With its many shops and stalls, selling wigs, pens, books and other legal paraphernalia, it became one of the chief centres of London life.

Ceremonies

The Hall, which survived the fire of 1834 and the bombing of 1941, is now used for major public ceremonies. Among recent events there have been the presentation of Addresses to the Queen on the Silver Jubilee in 1977, to mark 50 years since the end of World War II in 1995, and the opening of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in 1986. A similar event took place in 1988, to mark the tercentenary of the Glorious Revolution, and in 1989 the Inter-Parliamentary Union's Centenary Conference was held there. In 1995 the Government organised a ceremony to mark 50 years of the United Nations. On these occasions, the Hall is brightly lit and decked with flowers and coloured hangings, and presents an altogether different public face from its normal rather sombre appearance. Distinguished heads of state sometimes address both Houses of Parliament there, as did President Mandela in 1996.

Lyings-in-state

The Hall is also the place where lyings in state, of monarchs, consorts, and, rarely, very distinguished statesmen, take place. The first such occasion was Gladstone in 1898, followed by, in the last century, King George VI [1952], Queen Mary [1953] and Sir Winston Churchill [1965]. In April 2002 several hundred thousand people queued to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother, as she lay in state in the Hall.


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