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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Westminster Palace

Westminster Palace is, in fact, listed as one of the queen's seven residences, though she seldom, if ever, spends the night there.
At least everyone in London
has the correct time.
I began thinking I would write about London's iconic symbol known as Big Ben, then found out the name technically referred to nothing more than a damned big bell--not very interesting. Then I decided I'd write about the tower and the enormous clock parched on top only to find out the clock had no name and the tower was actually called the Elizabeth Tower, so designated in in 2012 to com-memorate the Diamond Jubilee of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. Interesting, but not very. Finally, my eyes moved to the base of the tower to encompass the huge expanse of The Palace of Westminster, which is, in fact, owned my the monarchy but loaned to Parliament as a place to get together and pass laws. It didn't take long to realize that Westminster Palace (as it's interchangeably called) was, in fact, very interesting.

When we think of a "palace" we naturally conjure up an ornate royal residence where a king and queen and their family reside, tended by dozens, of servants. We think of a lot of carved stone, rooms of massive size with gardens, courts, a throne room, long, spacious corridors, a chapel, enormous dining rooms, towers, and a whole host of other royal structures. By those standards, Westminster is, indeed, quite a palace...except for one thing. It's been around five-hundred years since any king or queen slept under its roof. Today, the only high official sleeping at Westminster Palace might be a bleary-eyed Member of Parliament who has dozed off in the midst of a particularly boring speech.

The House of Commons once met for a time in the Painted Chamber (named for the murals on the walls).
The Queen of England still has a bedchamber (above) in the palace. There are, by my count, seven dining rooms of various size (but only one kitchen). The palace contains over 1,100 rooms organized symmetrically around several open courtyards. The palace has a floor area of 1,210,680 sq.ft. (112,476 m2). Part of the palace's area of 8 acres (3.24 hectares) was reclaimed from the Thames, which is the setting of its nearly 980 foot-long (300-metre) façade called the River Front. The first king of England to sleep at the palace (such as it was) would have been King Canute, around 1016. Nothing of that era survives, but the magnificent Westminster Hall comes close, having been built around 1097. Westminster Hall is something of a party room used by royalty when they want to celebrate something, such as George IV's Coronation Banquet in 1821 seen in the painting just below.

Claude Monet did at least two Impressionist paintings of Westminster Palace during a short sojourn to London. England's J.M.W. Turner depicted the catastrophic 1835 Burning of the Houses of Parliament, which had long before taken over the palace as their own.
Perhaps one of the reasons British monarchs have long been reticent to call Westminster Palace home is the tendency for the place to burn down every few centuries. The first time was in in 1512. From then on, only the houses of Parliament dared take up residence there, worried that the stone structure's timber roof allowed even small fires to quickly spread out of control. As well they should, for in 1834 and even bigger fire all but leveled the place. Only, by something approaching a miracle of primitive firefighting did Westminster hall and the detached Jewel Tower survive. Turner's painting (above) gives some indication of the scale of the conflagration.

For orientation purposes, the Thames River runs along the west front of the palace (top of diagram).
Sir Charles Barry
So complete was the devastation the government called in a 19th-century ver-sion of a wrecking crew and demolished the burned out structure. Then, following an 1841 competition, they called upon at-chitect, Sir Charles Barry (right) to design and sup-ervise the building of a totally new and larger palace in a "Vertical Gothic" style specifically designed to house the British Parliament. His plans and design bear only a passing resemblance to that which they replaced. Barry was assisted by Augustus Pugin (only 20 years old at the time), a leading authority on Gothic arch-itecture and style. He designed the interior of the Palace. Construction started in 1840 and lasted for 30 years, suffering great delays and cost overruns, as well as the death of both leading architects. Work on the interior decoration of the palace con-tinued intermittently well into the 20th-century. Major conservation work has been carried out since then to reverse the effects of London's air pollution. Extensive repairs were again needed after German bombs destroyed the House of Commons Chamber in 1941 during the Second World War.

Westminster Palace before the 1834 fire--an architectural hodge-podge of old and new construction made still more unsightly by mismatch styles and aging materials.
From the clean lines of Commons Chamber, to St Stephen’s Hall, the original site of the House of Parliament from the mid 16th-century until the Great Fire of 1834 Westminster Palace is history, art, and democratic ideals written in wood, stone, and glass displaying the unique and curious nature of the English people. Moving from the austere green of the House of Commons to the gaudy red and gold décor of the House of Lords, we catch a glimpse of a very class-conscious society, an "us" and "them" mentality where wealth and birthright outweigh the meritocracy which Americans take for granted.

The houses of the elected and the selected.
Since I've now covered the important stuff residing on the banks of the Thames, I guess I should get back to my original intention, a few words on the 315 foot tall clock tower which so perfectly represents the stubborn will of Westminster Palace and those who govern from within it's gothic confines. The tower itself was completed in 1859, though it's four-faced clock is actually five years older than that. The architect was the same Augustus Pugin who designed the interior of the palace. The real Big Ben (the bell, that is) was to have been even larger - weighing 16 tons, however the first casting 1856 cracked in use. The bell was recast into it's current 13 ton form. For a time the tower was the tallest in the world, and today remains the world's largest free-standing clock in the world.

The new Westminster Palace with its iconic
clock tower and bell, ca, 1859.

Nearby Westminster Abbey,
just across the street and round
the block from the palace.


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