A Palace of Government – Westminster Palace

 Part 1 – The Medieval Palace of Westminster

The Houses of Parliament – a UNESCO heritage site and seen by millions every year. It is the home of the English government and where the decisions of the country are made. The current building covers 5 acres and has 1,100 rooms. Did you know that it’s official title is the Palace of Westminster and that its history goes back to pre 1066?

The king, newly crowned, the day before his coronation, shall be brought forth in royal robes and shall ride from the Tower of London to his Palace of Westminster with his head uncovered, being accompanied on horseback by his temporal lords, his nobles, the commons of London, and other his servant (the Ancient form of the Coronation of Kings and Queens of England)

Since the coronation of Harold Godwinson in 1066, nearly all of the monarchs of England the same route and been crowned in Westminster Abbey. After the ceremony, they would head over to the Royal Palace of Westminster, to have a large banquet.

The Palace would have its beginnings with Canute, a Danish King who ruled England in 1016-35. He first established a Palace in the area we now know as Westminster. His Royal Palace was further developed by Edward the Confessor when he decided to build a large abbey and wanted to live nearby. It was the building of the new Abbey and Palace, which would elevate Westminster to the status of the primary royal residence of the monarch.



We do not know much of what Edward the Confessors Palace would have looked like. We know he would have had a great hall and private chambers. We can gain a small glimpse from an image of him in the Bayeux tapestry. His Palace was completely demolished to make way for a larger one.

The first major change to take place at the Palace since the conquest of William the Conqueror in 1066 was by his son William Rufus. He was responsible for building the great hall that still exists. A great hall is an important element of any noble residence. Williams Rufus’ Great Hall was really something to see. Even today, one stands in the hall in complete awe of the beauty and the power it emits.

Today it is the oldest building on the estate and almost in its original form. The roof was replaced in 1394 and is the largest hammer-beam roof in northern Europe – 20.7m by 73.2. The hall itself is 240 feet long by 67.5, with walls 6.5 thick. Inside one can see the beautiful roof along with a number of statues of kings dated from 1385. Much of the stonework on display dates from the 19th century.

WESTMINSTER HALL (News desk 9/5/2017)

There have been a number of events taking place in the great hall from marriage feasts, meetings of parliament and state trials. The majority of great events in medieval Westminster would usually be marked by a state banquet. The first would be in 1099.

THE PAINTED CHAMBER – William Capon 1799

The banquet in the medieval sense was a means of displaying the great wealth and importance of the monarch. All of their servants would be on display with much pomp and ceremony. The food would be decorated with gold and served on expensive plates accompanied by playing throughout. It was also for the monarch to show their status and generosity. During the reign of Henry III, a number of feasts for the poor would be held in the hall In 1237, 6000 of the poor were invited into the hall to eat and drink to celebrate the Queen’s coronation. Ten years later, more were invited over the Christmas period to feast and be warm.

In 2006, remains of the King’s Seat and table used in the hall were found during some archaeological work. This seat and table were not only an indication of the king’s also the power of the law. have used the table include Henry V, Richard III, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Originally made of wood and later of Purbeck marble, placed in a fixed position, it became a symbol of royal authority and judgement.

 THE KINGS TABLE – Parliment.uk

Under Henry Palace would become a royal hub of activity and status. He would add royal apartments, including the painted chamber, which took 60 years to paint. Originally known as the Kings Chamber, the Painted Chamber was a sight to see in the Palace. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in a from and accounts, we can gain an understanding of its decor which took so long to complete. There are two ceiling panels located at the British Museum, which once were in  the Chamber, and there are paintings by Charles Stohard. We also know that biblical paintings were on the wall, with a canopied bed of state and a painted scene of Edward the Confessor.

Two Painted Panels – British Museum (c)

As well as being the home of kings, the Palace of Westminster would also become the home to Parliament. Parliament would have its beginnings at the palace. It can be said that the first instance of a parliament, being held, was in 1295 when Edward I summoned the Model Parliament at Westminster. It was the first time that those of the Representative Assembly were elected rather than nominated.


Another important building of the Palace was St. Stephens Chapel. It was the first to be built in England in the perpendicular Gothic style (final gothic phase in England. late 14-early 16th century. A style with strong vertical lines, ornate roofs, vaulting and large windows.) and was built at the request of Edward I. He was also trying to out show the French king Louis IX and wanted his chapel to rival that of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. St. Stephens Chapel had three master masons over its time of creation and development, these men were called Michael of Canterbury, Thomas of Canterbury, and William Ramsey. The roof vault was added in the 1320s and the painting of the chapel was by Hugh of St. Albans.

It was a two-storey structure with St Stephens above at St Mary’s undercroft below and would be built in a number of stages between the years 1292-1363. The buildings accounts for its construction still exist today and can be seen at the National Archives and give an idea of the many people who worked on the chapel.

Later, it became but the dimensions of still kept, in addition to studs on the floor showing where the and the chair, would have been placed. St Stephens Hall would be the location where King Charles I tried to arrest five members of parliament before the outbreak of and where William Wilberforce would argue against slavery.

St Mary’s undercroft, situated below is still in existence today. It was called such to distinguish it from the small chapel of St Mary Le Pew upstairs in the Palace. It has a lower ceiling and was much darker than the chapel above. Aside from a number of services, its main use was for burials. There are at least twenty people in the records who asked to be buried in St Mary’s undercroft including William Lyndwood (adviser to the King and Bishop of St Davids, Wales) who is buried in the walls.

 ST MARYS UNDERCROFT- Royalcentral.co.uk

Another building, which is still in existence is that of the Jewel Tower. Today it stands alone, nearly hidden from many in the shadow of the abbey it was once a working building charged with housing the Kings personal treasure of precious stone, gems and silverware

The Jewel Tower is an L shaped three-storey building built of Kentish ragstone and was completed in 1365 by Henry Yevele a famous architect of his day. The  window embrasure and a door on the second floor still survive from the medieval period. In 1621, it housed government documents and in 1869 it was an official weight and measurement office.

“The tower was in other words, an office as well as a treasure house and its day to day workings may not have been very unlike those which we know from the black book of the household of Edward to have been followed at the jewel house in the tower of London (English 2011. p8)

The Palace would have two main courtyards – the Old Palace Yard and New Palace yard and along with Westminster Hall, these places would be witness to trails and executions in the Palace walls. The Hall, as previously mentioned was used for state trials. Historical figures such as William Wallace, Thomas More, Guy Fawkes and King Charles I were all placed on trial within the hall before being sentenced to death. Guy Fawkes and those tried with him would later be executed in the Old Palace-yard. In 1618, Walter Rayleigh was executed there and buried in the nearby St Margaret’s Church. Today the statue of Richard the Lionheart marks the site of the yard. Originally, Old Palace Yard was actually a place of peace and meditation. It connected the Palace with that of the Abbey, such a contrast from one period to the next.

OLD PALACE YARD – Thomas Allen (British Museum)

There were many alterations to the Palace over time by a number of Sir Christopher Wren and John Soane. 1690s was to maintain the Kings Palaces, including that of Westminster. He was responsible for lowering the height of the Queens Hall and changed the interior to give it a neo-classical style. He felt the medieval stone looked outdated.

John Soane’s involvement with the Palace came in 1791 when he was appointed Clerk of Works for Westminster, Whitehall and St. James’s. However, this ended in 1799. His second involvement with Westminster came twenty years later when he became an Attached Architect to the Palace and was asked to add temporary galleries to the House of Lords for the trial of Queen Caroline. He would also build a brand new Royal Entrance from Old Palace Yard to the House of Lords with a Gothic arcade and grand Scala Regia, a decorated royal gallery with columns in addition to a new library next to the Painted Chamber.

Alas, the medieval palace is no longer in existence except for Westminster Hall, St. Mary’s undercroft and some of the cloisters.  As with a number of Royal old buildings a fire would be the culprit for destroying the Palace and what that did survive (aside from what has just been mentioned) was demolished later to make way for the new Palace.


By the 18th century, the Palace was considered inadequate for its function as a home to Parliament. It was a mixture of buildings and additions all linked with lanes and corridors in a mixture of styles. For some, it was a maze of rooms and structures. Many had planned to rebuild it was never actioned until fate made that decision for them.

In 1834 when some workmen were disposing of the exchequer tally panelling caught alight and fire took hold. This was not the first fire to take would be responsible for utterly destroy the Palace. A fire in 1263 destroyed the original interior of the painted chamber, and then another in 1298 laid much of the Palace to waste. In 1512 the residential part was burnt out, it was this that led Henry VIII to eventually move the principal royal residence to Whitehall.

With all these fires one would think caution would have been taken. There were even reports highlighting the concern of what a fire would do. One of these reports was signed by 14 architects, including John Soane. Still, the burning of the tally sticks was allowed to happen and the fire spread, allowing their predictions to come into existence. It would be the largest conflagration in London, aside from the Great Fire in 1666 and the Blitz.

Although destroyed it was not the end of the Palace of Westminster, from the embers it would rise like a phoenix from the ashes once more. This time in a Gothic style by Charles Barry. Next week we will find out all about the new Palace of Westminster and its iconic role in English politics.


Commack, P (1981) Westminster Palace and Parliament. Fredrick London.

English Heritage (2011) Jewel Tower English Heritage: London


 “A Brief Chronology of the House of Commons” (PDF). House of Commons Information Office. April 2009. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 May 2015. Accessed 18/11/2018]


Anon (2018) Palace of Westminster: Restoration and Renewal. Available from:https://restorationandrenewal.parliament.uk/ [Accessed 13/11/2018]

Anon (nd) Destruction by fire Available from: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/estatehistory/reformation-1834/destruction-by-fire/ [Accessed 16/11/2018]

Anon (nd) Feasts and Banquets. Available from: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/westminsterhall/other-uses/feasts-banquets/ [Accessed 16/11/2018]

Anon (nd) he Kings seat and Table. Available from: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/westminsterhall/architecture/king-s-seat-and-table/ [Accessed 16/11/2018]

Anon (nd) Old and New Palace Yard. Available from: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/estatehistory/the-middle-ages/oldandnewpalaceyards-/ [Accessed 16/11/2018]

Anon (nd) Adapting the chapel: Christopher Wren and James Wright. Available from:https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/ststephenschapel/ststephensthehouseofcomonns/adapting-the-chapel/christopher-wren-and-james-wright/ [Accessed 18/11/2018]

Anon (2017) Building St Stephens: Building the Chapel. Available from: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/ststephenschapel/medievalststephens/building-st-stephens/building-the-chapels/ [Accessed 16/11/2018]

Anon (2017) Building St Stephens: Design. Available from: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/ststephenschapel/medievalststephens/building-st-stephens/design/ [Accessed 16/11/2018]

Anon (2017) St Marys Undercroft. Available from: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/ststephenschapel/stmaryundercroft/middle-ages/ [Accessed 16/11/2018]

Collins, M Dr. 2016) Tudor Thames Embankment uncovered in of Westminster Excavations. Available from:https://www.virtualststephens.org.uk/blog/tudor-thames-embankment-uncovered-palace-westminster-excavations[Accessed 16/11/2018]

Drysdale, T and Lever, J (2014) London: Palace of Westminster: designs for alterations and additions, 1793-1828 Available from: http://collections.soane.org/THES97168 [Accessed 18/11/2018]

Farrell, S (nd) The Old Palace of Westminster. Available from: https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/old-palace-westminster [accessed 16/11/2018]

Riding, J (2005) All change at the Palace of Westminster. Available fromhttps://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/church_state/westminster_palace/change_palace_westmin_01.shtml [Accessed 12/11/2018]

Walter Thornbury, ‘New Palace Yard and Westminster Hall’, in Old and New London: Volume 3 (London, 1878), pp. 536-544. Available from: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol3/pp536-544 [accessed 16/11/2018].

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