The striking building of the Houses of Parliament in the heart of London is a true icon of British politics. The building is easily recognisable on the banks of the River Thames as its flagship clock tower, which houses the famous bell dubbed Big Ben, majestically looms over the London Borough of Westminster.
The Houses of Parliament is a popular tourist attraction welcoming over 1 million visitors each year. Visitors can tour the parliament with a designated tour guide, and they can also go and see a debate or watch the Prime Minister’s Questions. Officially referred to as the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament is the home of British politics.
Republicans & Monarchies
Republicanism in the UK is the political movement that seeks to replace the United Kingdom’s monarchy with a republic. Followers of this movement, called republicans, would prefer an alternative form of governance to the current monarchy, such as an elected head of state, or no head of state at all.
Monarchy has been the form of government used in the United Kingdom since the Middle Ages. Although the countries that now make up the United Kingdom, together with Northern Ireland, were briefly ruled as a republic in the 17th century, this was short-lived, and subsequent polls in the UK have shown that the majority of people still favour the monarchy as the head of state.
In May 2012, in the lead up to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, a survey found that 76% of British adults were in favour of the monarchy. Ten years later, in May 2022, in the build up to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, this number dropped to just under 60%, especially among the younger age groups.
Who Rules the Country Today?
The British Isles have been under a King or Queen’s rule for approximately 1200 years. However, it was James VI who became the first monarch in 1603 to rule over England, Scotland and Ireland, which earned him the title “King of Great Britain” (even though he did not rule over Wales).
Today, the country is governed within the framework of a parliamentary democracy, under, what is called, a constitutional monarchy where the monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, is the head of state, and the Prime Minister is the head of government.
Executive power is exercised by the British government on all matters on behalf and by the consent of the monarch. Every year, at the annual State Opening of Parliament, Members of Parliament (MPs) are summoned to the Houses of Parliament for the Queen’s Speech.
The Houses of Lords and Commons
British Parliament is bicameral, meaning it has two Chambers, or two Houses, but in reality it has three parts. It consists of the Sovereign (Crown-in-Parliament), the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. Both houses of Parliament meet in separate chambers.
During the reign of Edward III (1327 - 1377), Parliament separated into two distinct chambers: The House of Commons (consisting of representatives from all parts of England), and the House of Lords (consisting mainly of archbishops, bishops and abbots). Today, the House of Commons is the primary chamber of Parliament responsible for making decisions about money, new tax laws and legislations concerning all areas of life in the UK.
The House of Commons consists of 650MPs (Members of Parliament) who are elected by the public. The Prime Minister also works in the House of Commons.
The House of Lords is the second chamber of Parliament and it is made up of 780 members who are not elected. Some members inherit their status from their family, while others are chosen by the Prime Minister because of their expertise. While they can not pass any laws, the House of Lords help in making and shaping decisions, and they often challenge the work of the government.
The Houses of Parliament is the hub of UK politics, and here are ten interesting facts about this iconic building.
1. The Official Name is the Palace of Westminster
The site of the Houses of Parliament was strategically important in the Middle Ages, as it was located on the banks of the River Thames. It was known in mediaeval times as Thorney Island, and it is a little known fact that where the Houses of Parliament stands today it once used to be a royal palace.
It was Edward the Confessor who built the first royal residence on Thorney Island between 1045-1050, about the same time as Westminster Abbey was erected. The area soon became known as Westminster (from the words west and minster), and the Palace of Westminster served as the English monarch’s principal residence.
2. Westminster Hall is the Only Survivor
Westminster Hall is the oldest building on the Parliamentary estate and it has played a crucial role in over 900 years of British history. It dates back to the reign of King William II (1087-1100), and it is the only surviving building from the original Palace of Westminster. The first official Parliament of England met at Westminster Hall in 1295, and the building is still regularly used today for occasions of state and important ceremonies.
3. Designed After a Competition
After fires almost completely destroyed the original Palace of Westminster on 6 October 1834, the new Houses of Parliament design was decided through a competition in 1835.
The winning design was submitted by architect Charles Barry, who built the new Palace of Westminster with the help of talented architect Augustus Welby Pugin from 1840-1860. After Barry’s death in 1860, the building work was completed by his son, Edward, in 1876.
The new Palace of Westminster was built in a Gothic Revival style, which allowed him to incorporate those areas which had survived the fires. The new building is much larger than the original palace with 100 staircases, more than 1000 rooms and three miles of passages.
4. There is Not Enough Space
Despite the fact that the House of Commons has 650 MPs, the Commons chamber only has 427 seats, which means that during big meetings and debates there is often only standing room left. If MPs wish to save a seat, they have to arrive very early on the day and place a ‘prayer card’ to reserve their seat.
Today, Westminster Palace is in urgent need of restoration. Many features of the building have not been renovated since it was built in the 19th century. Therefore, to safely continue the work of Parliament, in 2019 the Restoration and Renewal Programme was set up to tackle some of the most urgent building needs of Westminster Palace. Among a long list of things, the work includes updating the roofs, renewing the drainpipes, cleaning and restoring stonework and reviewing disability access.
5. The House of Commons was Destroyed
In 1941 during World War Two, the House of Commons was destroyed in a bombing raid. It was later rebuilt to the designs of Giles Gilbert Scott who was also the creator of the much loved red British telephone boxes. In a generous act of solidarity, the whole of the Commonwealth countries helped and contributed to the rebuilding of the House of Commons.
6. No Sword Fighting Allowed!
In the chamber of the House of Commons there are two red lines on the floor in front of the front benches of the government and the opposition. It is believed that the red lines are two sword lengths apart, and they were placed there a long time ago in order to discourage sword fighting between the opposing members of Parliament.
7. Symbolic Decorations
There is strong symbolism running through the Houses of Parliament and many ceremonial items have centuries-old history. The Lord’s Chamber, which is home to the House of Lords is highly decorated with ornate carvings and bright red colours.
The Commons Chamber on the other hand is less lavish, with many of its furnishings and ornaments sourced from various Commonwealth countries. Green is the principal colour for furniture and fabrics used throughout the House of Commons.
Interestingly, the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords is still seated on a sack of wool, which historically represents the British wool trade.
8. Animals Not Allowed
Although it is not at all surprising that animals are banned from entering the premises of the Houses of Parliament (apart from guide dogs), this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when horse trials were regularly hosted at Westminster Palace, and rumour has it that there still exists a large population of mice in the Parliament building who regularly cause mischief!
9. The Origins of Bonfire Night
The Houses of Parliament was the staging ground for the infamous Gunpowder Plot in 1605, which was a failed attempt to assassinate King James I. The key figures behind this attempted assasination included Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes.
Bonfire Night is also known as Guy Fawkes Day in the UK, and it is still widely remembered and celebrated each year on 5 November with bonfires and firework displays nationwide.
10. More Than Just Politics
Understandably, the Houses of Parliament is associated with serious government business. However, it also offers a wide range of modern workplace commodities such as in-house hair salons, gyms, restaurants and even a shooting range!
Visit the Houses of Parliament with Us
At St Mary’s School, Cambridge, we are delighted to offer international students a chance to learn first-hand about British history and politics. Our popular illuminate Cambridge summer study abroad program is specifically designed for girls aged 13-17 to immerse them in British culture, push their limits, develop new skills and interests, and expand their academic and social potential.
During their two-week stay in Cambridge, students will get the chance to explore a series of lively academic themes devised by our Oxbridge-educated course leaders. Beyond the classroom, exciting educational and cultural visits, such as a tour of the Houses of Parliament in London, will bring their learning to life.
Don’t hesitate! Make your summer memorable and book your place with us today!