Although we commonly refer to the building in which the government meets as the Houses of Parliament, the correct name is actually the Palace of Westminster. This is where the two separate houses within the parliament sit, namely the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The building’s most recognisable feature is the Queen Elizabeth Clock Tower which is usually referred to as Big Ben, the name of the bell at the top of the tower. It was during the eleventh century that the royal court under the rule of King Edward (the Confessor) took up residence in the palace, and not until 1265 that parliament as we recognise it today was established.
In the beginning it was the House of Lords which used the palace as a regular meeting place while the House of Commons met elsewhere. The Palace of Westminster remained a royal residence up until the rule of Henry VIII who in 1530 decided to relocate the royal court to the Palace of Whitehall. The House of Lords however retained use of the Palace of Westminster. The House of Commons made the palace their permanent meeting place in 1547 making the palace the central seat of the nation’s government where it has remained ever since.
Rebuilding the Palace
The original Palace of Westminster was almost totally destroyed by fire in 1834, the only parts of the building to survive were the crypt, St Stephen’s Cloister, the Jewel Tower and Westminster Hall. The design for the building, a home for the country’s government, was made something of a competition. The designing of the new Houses of Parliament was awarded to Sir Charles Barry, and along with his assistant Augustus Welby Pugin, their design was picked as the winner from a total of ninety seven design entries. Their neo gothic design not only offered a striking new look, it also incorporated remaining parts of the original structure that did not succumb to the fire. It was not until 1870 that the construction of the new palace was completed, thirty years after work first started. The new Palace of Westminster consists of the clock tower (renamed Queen Elizabeth Tower), Victoria Tower, the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the Lobbies and the original Westminster Hall.
Lord’s and Common’s Chambers
The building sustained more damage during the bombing raids of the Second World War when the Commons Chamber was destroyed. Rebuilding took place in 1950 under the control of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott who used the same new gothic style in the construction. Although very similar in design and size, the two chambers can be distinguished by the colour of the benches used. Those within the House of Commons sport a green leather finish while those in the House of Lords are red. As the centuries have passed the House of Lords has lost much of its power to the House of Commons and this is where much of the activity takes place. The benches of the government and those of the opposition are directly opposite each other at exactly two sword length apart, which suggests that the original debates which took place there were much more exciting than today’s political debates.