What Is the Palace of Westminster?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2019
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The Palace of Westminster in London, England, is an ancient royal palace now inhabited by the British Parliament. Though its origins are somewhat murky, the palace is believed to have been first built sometime in the 11th century on the orders of Edward the Confessor. A long era of natural disasters, political shifts, and rebuilding has lead to its current status as the home of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, as well as its premier position as an historic landmark of the city.

The history of the Palace of Westminster is believed to begin with a church built around the 9th century in the same era. When the church at Westminster received royal patronage a century after its completion, historians believe that the Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, ordered a palace built on the site. His reasons for doing so may have included the access of Westminster to major commerce crossroads, as well as the existing church's association with Edward's preferred patron, St. Peter.

For the next several centuries, the Palace of Westminster was used both as a royal residence, and as the meeting house for early versions of Parliament. King Henry VIII became the first monarch to fully abandon the Palace as a residence during the early 16th century, preferring the Palace at Whitehall. From that point on, the Palace of Westminster served primarily as the meeting house for Parliament and the royal courts.


Since the Palace was woefully insufficient for the needs of a large body such as Parliament, reconstruction and remodeling were common practices throughout the next several centuries. An enormous fire in 1834 destroyed much of the original Palace, as well as many of the later expansions, leading to the opportunity for an almost completely new building. A Royal Commission offered an open competition for the new building, choosing a Gothic-style proposal by architect Charles Barry; the first stone for the modern Palace of Westminster was laid in 1840.

In the 21st Century, the new Palace at Westminster remains a shining symbol of the city of London and the government of the country. The Palace itself contains well over a thousand rooms, and features two distinct towers: the 325 ft (98.5 m) Victoria Tower, and the Elizabeth Tower, home of the iconic “Big Ben” clock. Despite its completion during the 19th century, the Palace has required several phases of repair and refurbishment throughout the years, including a major reconstruction effort following the bombing of London during World War II. While the Palace remains the center of Parliament, it is often open for public visitation, school tours, and even the opportunity to attend Parliamentary debates.


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