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The Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Palace, is the seat of the two houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom—the House of Lordsmarker and the House of Commonsmarker. The Palace lies on the north bank of the River Thames in the heart of the London borough of the City of Westminstermarker, close to the historic Westminster Abbeymarker and the government buildings of Whitehallmarker and Downing Streetmarker. The name may refer to either of two structures: the Old Palace, a mediaeval building complex most of which was destroyed in 1834, and its replacement New Palace that stands today; it has retained the style and status of a royal residence, despite its actual use.

The first royal palace was built on the site in the eleventh century, and Westminster was the primary London residence of the Kings of England until a fire destroyed most of the complex in 1512. After that, it served as the home of Parliament, which had been meeting there since the thirteenth century, and the seat of the Royal Courts of Justice, based in and around Westminster Hall. In 1834, an even greater fire ravaged the heavily rebuilt Houses of Parliament, and the only structures of significance to survive were Westminster Hall, the Cloisters and Chapter House of St Stephen's, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroftmarker and the Jewel Towermarker. With the exception of the latter, architect Sir Charles Barry incorporated these into his design for the new Palace: a massive building in the Perpendicular Gothic style but with symmetrical proportions, long and covering an area of , part of it reclaimed from the Thames. Barry was assisted by Augustus W. N. Pugin, a leading authority on Gothic architecture and style, who provided designs for the decoration and furnishings of the Palace. Construction started in 1840 and was completed thirty years later, much delayed and past the death of both leading architects, while works for the interior decoration continued intermittently well into the twentieth century. Major conservation work has been carried out since, due to the effects of London's pollution, and extensive repairs took place after the Second World War, including the reconstruction of the Commons Chamber following its bombing in 1941.

The Palace is one of the centres of political life in the United Kingdom; "Westminster" has become a metonym for the UK Parliament, and the Westminster system of government has taken its name after it. Its Clock Tower, in particular, which has become known as "Big Ben" after its main bell, is an iconic landmark of London and the United Kingdom in general, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city and an emblem of parliamentary democracy. The Palace of Westminster has been a Grade I listed building since 1970 and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.


The Old Palace

The Palace of Westminster site was strategically important during the Middle Ages, as it was located on the banks of the River Thames. Buildings have occupied the site since at least Saxon times. Known in medieval times as Thorney Island, the site may have been first-used for a royal residence by Canute the Great (reigned 1016–35). St Edward the Confessor, the penultimate Saxon monarch of England, built a royal palace on Thorney Island just west of the City of Londonmarker at about the same time as he built Westminster Abbeymarker (1045–50). Thorney Island and the surrounding area soon became known as Westminster (a contraction of the words West Minster). After the Norman Conquest in 1066, King William I established himself at the Tower of Londonmarker, but later moved to Westminster. Neither the buildings used by the Saxons nor those used by William I survive. The oldest existing part of the Palace (Westminster Hall) dates from the reign of William I's successor, King William II.

The Palace of Westminster was the monarch's principal residence in the late Medieval period. The predecessor of Parliament, the Curia Regis (Royal Council), met in Westminster Hall (although it followed the King when he moved to other palaces). The Model Parliament, the first official Parliament of England, met in the Palace in 1295; almost all subsequent Parliaments have met there.

The Jewel Towermarker was built approximately in 1365 to house the treasures of King Edward III.

Westminster remained the monarch's chief London residence until a fire destroyed part of the complex in 1512. In 1530, King Henry VIII acquired York Palacemarker from Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, a powerful minister who had lost the King's favour. Renaming it the Palace of Whitehall, Henry used it as his principal residence. Although Westminster officially remained a royal palace, it was used by the two Houses of Parliament and as a law court.

Because it was originally a royal residence, the Palace included no purpose-built chambers for the two Houses. Important state ceremonies were held in the Painted Chambermarker. The House of Lords originally met in the Queen's Chamber, a modest Medieval hall at the south end of the complex. In later years the Upper House met in the larger White Chamber, which had formerly housed the Court of Requests; the expansion of the Peerage by King George III during the 18th century necessitated the move as the original chamber could not accommodate the increased number of peers.

The House of Commons, which did not have a chamber of its own, sometimes held its debates in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey. The Commons acquired a permanent home at the Palace in the form of St Stephen's Chapelmarker during the reign of Edward VI. The Chantries Act 1547 (passed as a part of the Protestant Reformation) dissolved the religious order of the Canons of St Stephen's, among other institutions; thus, the building became available for the Commons' use. Alterations were made to St Stephen's Chapel for the convenience of the Lower House. Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to carry out major work on the chapel in the late 17th century. During these works the chapel's clerestory was removed and its Gothic interiors concealed behind oak panelling. More seating was added over the years to accommodate the new MPs created by the Acts of Union with Scotland (1707) and Ireland (1800), including an upper-level gallery.

The palace complex was substantially remodelled by Sir John Soane during the early 19th century. The medieval House of Lords chamber, which had been the target of the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, was demolished as part of this work in order to create a new ceremonial entrance at the southern end of the palace. The original undercroft where Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding the barrels of gunpowder was also lost during the reconstruction. Soane's work at the palace included new law courts adjoining Westminster Hall and a new Members' entrance to St. Stephen's Chapel.

Fire and reconstruction

On 16 October 1834, a fire broke out in the Palacemarker after a stove used to destroy the Exchequer's stockpile of tally sticks ignited panelling in the Lords Chamber. In the resulting conflagration both houses of Parliament were destroyed along with most of the other buildings in the palace complex. Westminster Hall was saved largely due to heroic firefighting efforts. The Jewel Tower, the crypt of St Stephen's Chapel and the cloisters were the only other parts of the palace to survive.

At one stage, King William IV considered converting Buckingham Palacemarker, which was being renovated at the time, into the new Houses of Parliament.

A Royal Commission was appointed to study the rebuilding of the Palace and a heated public debate over the proposed styles ensued. The neo-Classical design, similar to that of the White Housemarker and the federal Capitolmarker in the United States, was popular at the time, but had connotations of revolution and republicanism, whereas Gothic design embodied conservative values. The Commission announced in June 1835 that "the style of the buildings would be either Gothic or Elizabethan".

In 1836, after studying 97 rival proposals, the Royal Commission chose Charles Barry's plan for a Gothic-style palace. The foundation stone was laid in 1840; the Lords Chamber was completed in 1847, and the Commons Chamber in 1852 (at which point Barry received a knighthood). Although most of the work had been carried out by 1860, construction was not finished until a decade afterwards. Barry (whose own architectural style was more classical than Gothic) relied heavily on Augustus Pugin for the sumptuous and distinctive Gothic interiors, including wallpapers, carvings, stained glass and furnishings, like the royal thrones and canopies.

During the Second World War, the Palace of Westminster was hit fourteen times by bombs (see The Blitz). The worst of these was on 10 May 1941, when the Commons Chamber was destroyed and three people were killed. The chamber was re-built under the architect Giles Gilbert Scott in a similar but more austere style; the work was completed in 1950.

As the need for office space in the Palace increased, Parliament acquired office space in the nearby Norman Shaw Buildingmarker in 1975, and more recently in the custom-built Portcullis Housemarker, completed in 2000. This increase has now allowed all MPs to have their own office facilities.


Notice regarding a strike of stonemasons during the reconstruction of the Palace.
(Click on the image to enlarge and read.)

Sir Charles Barry's collaborative design for the Palace of Westminster uses the Perpendicular Gothic style, which was popular during the 15th century and returned during the Gothic revival of the 19th century. Barry was a classical architect, but he was aided by the Gothic architect Augustus Pugin. Westminster Hall, which was built in the 11th century and survived the fire of 1834, was incorporated in Barry's design. Pugin was displeased with the result of the work, especially with the symmetrical layout designed by Barry; he famously remarked, "All Grecian, sir; Tudor details on a classic body".


The stonework of the building was originally Anston, a sand-coloured magnesian limestone quarried in the village of Anstonmarker in South Yorkshiremarker. The stone, however, soon began to decay due to pollution and the poor quality of some of the stone used. Although such defects were clear as early as 1849, nothing was done for the remainder of the 19th century. During the 1910s, however, it became clear that some of the stonework had to be replaced.

In 1928 it was deemed necessary to use Clipsham Stone, a honey-coloured limestone from Rutlandmarker, to replace the decayed Anston. The project began in the 1930s but was halted due to the Second World War, and completed only during the 1950s. By the 1960s pollution had once again begun to take its toll. A stone conservation and restoration programme to the external elevations and towers began in 1981, and ended in 1994. The House Authorities have since been undertaking the external restoration of the many inner courtyards, a task due to continue until approximately 2010.


At the time of its completion, the Victoria Tower was the tallest and largest square tower in the world.

Sir Charles Barry's Palace of Westminster includes several towers. The tallest is the Victoria Towermarker, a square tower at the south-western end of the Palace. It was named after the reigning monarch at the time of the reconstruction of the Palace, Queen Victoria; today, it is home to the Parliamentary Archivesmarker. Atop the Victoria Tower is an iron flagstaff, from which either the Royal Standard (if the Sovereign is present in the Palace) or the Union Flag (on royal or other special days or when either House is sitting) is flown. At the base of the tower is the Sovereign's Entrance to the Palace, used by the monarch whenever entering the Palace of Westminster for the State Opening of Parliament or for any other official ceremony.

Over the middle of the Palace, immediately above the Central Lobby, stands the octagonal Central Tower. At , it is the shortest of the Palace's three principal towers. Unlike the other towers, the Central Tower culminates in a spire, and was designed as a high-level air intake.

At the north end of the Palace is the most famous of the towers, the Clock Tower, commonly known as Big Benmarker after its main bell. The Clock Tower is tall. Pugin's drawings for the tower were the last work he did for Barry. The Clock Tower houses a large, four-faced clock—the Great Clock of Westminster—also designed by Pugin. The tower also houses five bells, which strike the Westminster Chimes every quarter hour. The largest and most famous of the bells is Big Benmarker (officially The Great Bell of Westminster), which strikes the hour. This is the third-heaviest bell in England, weighing . Although Big Ben properly refers only to the bell, it is colloquially applied to the whole tower. A light, called the Ayrton Light, is located at the top of the Clock Tower. The Ayrton Light is lit when either the House of Commons or the House of Lords is sitting after dark. The light takes its name from Thomas Ayrton, the first Commissioner of Works who installed a gas lamp in the tower soon after it was built in 1885. It was installed at the request of Queen Victoria, so she could see from Buckingham Palace whether the members were "at work".

A small tower, St. Stephen's Tower, is positioned at the front of the Palace, between Westminster Hall and Old Palace Yard, and contains the main entrance to the House of Commons at its base, known as St. Stephen's Entrance. Other towers include Speaker's and Chancellor's Towers, at the north and south ends of the building's river front respectively. They are named after the presiding officers of the two Houses of Parliament at the time of the Palace's reconstruction, the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord High Chancellor.


There are a number of small gardens surrounding the Palace of Westminster. Victoria Tower Gardensmarker is open as a public park along the side of the river south of the palace. Black Rod's Garden (named after the office of Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod) is closed to the public and is used as a private entrance. Old Palace Yardmarker, in front of the Palace, is paved over and covered in concrete security blocks (see security below). Cromwell Green (also on the frontage, and in 2006 enclosed by hoardings for the construction of a new visitor centre), New Palace Yardmarker (on the north side) and Speaker's Green (directly north of the Palace) are all private and closed to the public. College Greenmarker, opposite the House of Lords, is a small triangular green commonly used for television interviews with politicians.


Layout of the principal floor, showing the central axis around which the Palace is organised

The Palace of Westminster includes over 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases and of passageways. The building includes four floors; the ground floor includes offices, dining rooms and bars. The "first floor" (known as the principal floor) houses the main rooms of the Palace, including the Chambers, the lobbies and the libraries. The Robing Room, the Royal Gallery, the Prince's Chamber, the Lords Chamber, the Peers' Lobby, the Central Lobby, the Members' Lobbymarker and the Commons Chamber all lie in a straight line on this floor, from south to north, in the order noted. (Westminster Hall lies to a side at the Commons end of the Palace.) The top-two floors are used for committee rooms and offices.

Formerly, the Palace was controlled by the Lord Great Chamberlain, as it was (and formally remains) a royal residence. In 1965, however, it was decided that each House should control its own rooms; the Speakers now exercise control on behalf of their respective Houses. The Lord Great Chamberlain retains custody of certain ceremonial rooms.

Lords Chamber

Benches in the House of Lords are coloured red.
The Sovereign's Throne and Canopy are located at one end of the chamber.

The Chamber of the House of Lordsmarker is located in the southern part of the Palace of Westminster. The lavishly decorated room measures 13.7 by 24.4 metres (45 by 80 ft). The benches in the Chamber, as well as other furnishings in the Lords' side of the Palace, are coloured red. The upper part of the Chamber is decorated by stained glass windows and by six allegorical frescoes representing religion, chivalry and law.

At the south end of the Chamber are the ornate gold Canopy and Throne; although the Sovereign may theoretically occupy the Throne during any sitting, he or she attends only the State Opening of Parliament. Other members of the Royal Family who attend the State Opening use Chairs of State next to the Throne. In front of the Throne is the Woolsackmarker, a backless and armless red cushion stuffed with wool, representing the historical importance of the wool trade. The Woolsack is used by the officer presiding over the House (the Lord Speaker since 2006, but historically the Lord Chancellor or a deputy). The House's mace, which represents royal authority, is placed on the back of the Woolsack. In front of the Woolsack are the Judges' Woolsack, a larger red cushion occupied by the Law Lords during the State Opening, and the Table of the House, at which the clerks sit.

Members of the House occupy red benches on three sides of the Chamber. The benches on the Lord Speaker's right form the Spiritual Side and those to his left form the Temporal Side. The Lords Spiritual (archbishops and bishops of the established Church of England) all occupy the Spiritual Side. The Lords Temporal (nobles) sit according to party affiliation: members of the Government party sit on the Spiritual Side, while those of the Opposition sit on the Temporal Side. Some peers, who have no party affiliation, sit on the benches in the middle of the House opposite the Woolsack; they are accordingly known as cross-benchers.

The Lords Chamber is the site of important ceremonies, the most important of which is the State Opening of Parliament, which occurs at the beginning of each annual parliamentary session. The Sovereign, seated on the Throne, delivers the Speech from the Throne, outlining the Government's legislative agenda for the forthcoming parliamentary session. The Commons do not enter the Lords' debating floor; instead, they watch the proceedings from beyond the Bar of the House, just inside the door. A similar ceremony is held at the end of a parliamentary session; the Sovereign, however, does not normally attend, and is instead represented by a group of Lords Commissioners.

Commons Chamber

The Chamber of the House of Commonsmarker is at the northern end of the Palace of Westminster; it was opened in 1950 after the Victorian chamber had been destroyed in 1941 and re-built under the architect Giles Gilbert Scott. The Chamber measures 14 by 20.7 metres (46 by 68 ft) and is far more austere than the Lords Chamber; the benches, as well as other furnishings in the Commons side of the Palace, are coloured green. Members of the public are forbidden to sit on the red benches, which are reserved for members of the House of Lords. Other parliaments in Commonwealth nations, including those of India, Canadamarker and Australia, have copied the colour scheme under which the Lower House is associated with green, and the Upper House with red.

Like its predecessor, the post-war chamber of the House of Commons can only seat about two-thirds of all Members of Parliament.

At the north end of the Chamber is the Speaker's Chair, a present to Parliament from the Commonwealth of Australia. The current British Speaker's Chair is an exact copy of the Speaker's Chair given to Australia, by the House of Commons, on the celebration of Australia's Parliamentary opening. In front of the Speaker's Chair is the Table of the House, at which the clerks sit, and on which is placed the Commons' ceremonial mace. The dispatch boxes, which front-bench Members of Parliament (MPs) often lean on or rest notes on during Questions and speeches, are a gift from New Zealandmarker. There are green benches on either side of the House; members of the Government party occupy benches on the Speaker's right, while those of the Opposition occupy benches on the Speaker's left. There are no cross-benches as in the House of Lords. The Chamber is relatively small, and can accommodate only 427 of the 646 Members of Parliament—during Prime Minister's Questions and in major debates MPs stand at either end of the House.

By tradition, the British Sovereign does not enter the Chamber of the House of Commons. The last monarch to do so was King Charles I, in 1642. The King sought to arrest five Members of Parliament on charges of high treason, but when he asked the Speaker, William Lenthall, if he had any knowledge of the whereabouts of these individuals, Lenthall famously replied: "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."

The two red lines on the floor of the House of Commons are apart, which, by (probably apocryphal) tradition, is intended to be just over two sword-lengths. Protocol dictates that MPs may not cross these lines when speaking. Historically, this was to prevent disputes in the House from devolving into duels. If a Member of Parliament steps over this line while giving a speech he or she will be lambasted by opposition Members. This is a possible origin for the expression "to toe the line".

Westminster Hall

Westminster Hall in the early 19th century

Westminster Hall, the oldest existing part of the Palace of Westminster, was erected in 1097, at which point it was the largest hall in Europe, though it was subsequently overtaken over a hundred years later by the Palais de la Citémarker in Paris (1301-6) and a hall in Paduamarker of similar date. The roof was probably originally supported by pillars, giving three aisles, but during the reign of King Richard II, this was replaced by a hammerbeam roof by the royal carpenter Hugh Herland, "the greatest creation of medieval timber architecture", which allowed the original three aisles to be replaced with a single huge open space, with a dais at the end. Richard's architect Henry Yevele left the original dimensions, refacing the walls, with fifteen life-size statues of kings placed in niches. The rebuilding had been begun by Henry III in 1245, but had by Richard's time been dormant for over a century.

Westminster Hall has the largest clearspan medieval roof in England, measuring 20.7 by 73.2 metres (68 by 240 ft). Despite an Essex legend that the oak timber came from woods in Thundersleymarker, Essex, it is known that the original roof was constructed with Irish black oak from County Galway and the chestnut roof timberwork was framed in 1395 at Farnhammarker in Surreymarker, south-west of London. Accounts record the large number of wagons and barges which delivered the jointed timbers to Westminster for assembly.

Westminster Hall has served numerous functions. It was primarily used for judicial purposes, housing three of the most important courts in the land: the Court of King's Bench, the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Chancery. In 1875, these courts were amalgamated into the High Court of Justicemarker, which continued to meet in Westminster Hall until it moved to the Royal Courts of Justicemarker in 1882. In addition to regular courts, Westminster Hall also housed important trials, including impeachment trials and the state trials of King Charles I at the end of the English Civil War, Sir William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, John Cardinal Fisher, Guy Fawkes, the Earl of Strafford, the rebel Scottish Lords of the 1715 and 1745 uprisings, and Warren Hastings.

George IV's coronation banquet was held in Westminster Hall in 1821; it was the last such banquet held.

Westminster Hall has also served ceremonial functions. From the twelfth century to the nineteenth, coronation banquets honouring new monarchs were held here. The last coronation banquet was that of King George IV, held in 1821; his successor, William IV, abandoned the idea because he deemed it too expensive. The Hall has been used for lyings-in-state during state and ceremonial funerals. Such an honour is usually reserved for the Sovereign and for their consorts; the only non-royals to receive it in the twentieth century were Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts (1914) and Sir Winston Churchill (1965). The most recent lying-in-state was that of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 2002.

The two Houses have presented ceremonial Addresses to the Crown in Westminster Hall on important public occasions. For example, Addresses were presented at Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee (1977) and Golden Jubilee (2002), the 300th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution (1988), and the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War (1995).

Under reforms made in 1999, the House of Commons uses the Grand Committee Room next to Westminster Hall as an additional debating chamber. (Although it is not part of the main hall, the room is usually spoken of as such.) The seating is laid out in a U-shape, in contrast with the main Chamber in which the benches are placed opposite each other. This pattern is meant to reflect the non-partisan nature of the debates held in Westminster Hall. Westminster Hall sittings occur thrice each week; controversial matters are not usually discussed.

Other rooms

The Palace of Westminster from across the river, at dusk

There are several other important rooms that lie on the first floor of the Palace. At the extreme southern end of the Palace is the Robing Room, the room in which the Sovereign prepares for the State Opening of Parliament by donning official robes and wearing the Imperial State Crown. Paintings by William Dyce in the Robing Room depict scenes from the legend of King Arthur. Immediately next to the Robing Room is the Royal Gallery, which is sometimes used by foreign dignitaries who wish to address both Houses. The walls are decorated by two enormous paintings by Daniel Maclise: "The Death of Nelson" (depicting Lord Nelson's demise at the Battle of Trafalgarmarker) and "The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher" (showing the Duke of Wellington meeting Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher at the Battle of Waterloomarker).

To the immediate south of the Lords Chamber is the Prince's Chamber, a small anteroom used by members of the Lords. The Prince's Chamber is decorated with paintings of members of the Tudor dynasty by Richard Burchett and his pupils, and features a marble statue of Queen Victoria. To the immediate north of the Lords Chamber is the Peers' Lobby, where Lords informally discuss or negotiate matters during sittings of the House.

The centrepiece of the Palace of Westminster is the octagonal Central Lobby, which lies immediately beyond the Peers' Lobby. The lobby, which lies directly below the Central Tower, is adorned with statues of statesmen and with mosaics representing the United Kingdom's constituent nations' patron saints: St George for Englandmarker, St Andrew for Scotlandmarker, St David for Walesmarker and St Patrick for Irelandmarker. Constituents may meet their Members of Parliament in the Central Lobby. Beyond the Central Lobby, next to the Commons Chamber, lies the Members' Lobbymarker, in which Members of Parliament hold discussions or negotiations. The Members' Lobby contains statues of several former Prime Ministers, including David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.

There are two suites of libraries on the Principal Floor, overlooking the river, for the House of Lords Librarymarker and House of Commons Librarymarker.

The Palace of Westminster also includes state apartments for the presiding officers of the two Houses. The official residence of the Speaker stands at the northern end of the Palace; the Lord Chancellor's apartments are at the southern end. Each day, the Speaker and Lord Speaker take part in formal processions from their apartments to their respective Chambers.

There are 19 bars and restaurants in the Palace of Westminster, many of which never close while the House is sitting. There is also a gymnasium, and even a hair salon; the rifle range closed in the 1990s. Parliament also has a souvenirs shop, where items on sale range from House of Commons key-rings and china to House of Commons Champagne.


The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod oversees security for the House of Lords, and the Serjeant at Arms does the same for the House of Commons. These officers, however, have primarily ceremonial roles outside the actual chambers of their respective Houses. Security is the responsibility of the Palace of Westminster Division of the Metropolitan Police, the police force for the Greater Londonmarker area. Tradition still dictates that only the Serjeant at Arms may enter the Commons chamber armed.

With rising concern about the possibility of a lorry (truck) full of explosives being driven into the building, a series of concrete blocks was placed in the roadway in 2003. On the river, an exclusion zone extending from the bank exists, which no vessels are allowed to enter.

Despite recent security breaches, members of the public continue to have access to the Strangers' Gallerymarker (public gallery) in the House of Commons. Visitors pass through metal detectors and their possessions are scanned. Police from the Palace of Westminster Division of the Metropolitan Police, supported by some armed police from the Diplomatic Protection Group, are always on duty in and around the Palace.

Under a provision of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, it has been illegal since 1 August 2005 to hold a protest, without the prior permission of the Metropolitan Police, within a designated area extending approximately one kilometre (0.6 mi) around the Palace.


Probably the most famous attempt to breach the security of the Palace of Westminster was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The plot was a conspiracy among some Roman Catholic gentry to place large quantities of gunpowder beneath the Palace and detonate it during the State Opening of Parliament. If executed, the explosion would have destroyed the palace, killing the Protestant King James I, his family, and most of the aristocracy. The plot was discovered when a Roman Catholic nobleman, William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend the State Opening. The authorities, with Peter Heywood of the town of Heywood, Greater Manchestermarker, conducted a search of the Palace and discovered the gunpowder, as well as one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes. The conspirators were later tried for high treason in Westminster Hall, and were hanged, drawn and quartered. Since 1605, the Yeomen of the Guard have conducted a ceremonial search of the Palace's cellars prior to each State Opening of Parliament, although today officers from the Metropolitan Police join the search.

The previous Palace of Westminster was also the site of a prime-ministerial assassination in 1812. While in the lobby of the House of Commons, on his way to a parliamentary inquiry, Spencer Perceval was shot and killed by a Liverpool merchant adventurer, John Bellingham. Perceval remains the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated to date.

On 17 June 1974, a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded in Westminster Hall. Another attack took place on 30 March 1979, when Airey Neave, a prominent Conservative politician, was killed by a car bomb as he drove out of the Palace's new car park. Both the Irish National Liberation Army and the Provisional IRA claimed responsibility for the murder; security forces believe the former was responsible.

The Palace has also been the site of a number of acts of politically motivated "direct action". In 1970 a canister of tear gas was thrown into the Chamber of the House of Commons to protest against conditions in Northern Ireland. In 1978 Yana Mintoff and another dissident threw manure. Concern about such attacks and a possible chemical or biological attack led to the construction of a glass screen across the Strangers' Gallery in early 2004.

The new barrier does not cover the side galleries, which are sometimes termed the "distinguished strangers' gallery", and in May 2004 protesters from Fathers 4 Justice attacked Prime Minister Tony Blair with flour bombs from this part, after obtaining admission by bidding for a place in the visitors' gallery in a charity auction. Subsequently, rules on admission to the visitors' galleries were changed, and now individuals wishing to sit in the galleries must first obtain a written pass from a Member certifying that that individual is personally known to them. In September of the same year, five protesters opposed to the proposed ban on fox hunting disrupted the proceedings of the House of Commons by running into the Chamber.

Rules and traditions

Eating, drinking and smoking

View from the south-east.
The Union Flag is flying from the Victoria Tower, indicating that Parliament is sitting.
Also visible are the pre-fabricated pavilions erected on the Terrace every summer.

The Palace has accumulated many rules and traditions over the centuries. Smoking has not been allowed in the chambers of the House of Lords and the Commons since the 17th century. As a result, Members may take snuff instead and the doorkeepers still keep a snuff-box for this purpose. Despite persistent media rumours, it has not been possible to smoke anywhere inside the Palace since 2005. Members may not eat or drink in the chamber; the exception to this rule is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who may have an alcoholic drink while delivering the Budget statement.

Dress code

Hats must not be worn (although they formerly were when a point of order was being raised), and Members may not wear military decorations or insignia. Members are not allowed to have their hands in their pockets—Andrew Robathan was heckled by opposing MPs for doing this on 19 December 1994. Swords may not be worn in the Palace, and each MP has a loop of ribbon in the cloakroom for storing weapons.

Forms of address

Members may not refer to each other by name and use either "my honourable friend" (if a member of the same party) or "the honourable gentleman" (for members from other parties); alternatively, "the honourable member for [the constituency]" is used. Members of the Privy Council are referred to as "the right honourable". MPs who have been called to the Bar are entitled to be styled "my learned friend" or "the learned gentleman"; likewise, MPs who have served in the armed services are entitled to be styled "my gallant friend" or "the gallant gentleman". As many styles as are appropriate can be combined; another MP who is a QC and a Privy Councillor on a MPs own side would be styled "my right honourable and learned friend".

In the House of Lords, members are referred to as "the noble lord", or "my noble friend".

As per the Interpretation Act 1978, the male terminology may simply be substituted for female MPs or Peers.

Other traditions

No animals may enter the Palace of Westminster, with the exception of guide dogs for the blind; sniffer dogs and police horses are also allowed on the grounds.

Speeches may not be read out during debate, although notes may be referred to. Similarly, the reading of newspapers is not allowed. Visual aids are discouraged in the chamber.

Applause is not normally allowed in the Lords and Commons. Some notable exceptions to this were when Robin Cook gave his resignation speech in 2003,, when Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared for the last time at Prime Minister's Questions and when Speaker Michael Martin gave his leaving speech on 17 June 2009.

It is a convention that MPs do not discuss the Sovereign nor use the name of the monarch as a point of debate without prior permission from the Speaker. This comes from 19th-century constitutionalist Erskine May, who said, "the irregular use of the Queen's name to influence a decision of the House is unconstitutional in principle and inconsistent with the independence of Parliament ... Any attempt to use her name in debate to influence the judgement of Parliament is immediately checked and censured." Vincent Cable was reprimanded for breaking this convention during a session of Prime Minister's Questions in 2008.

Culture and tourism

The exterior of the Palace of Westminster—especially the Clock Towermarker—is recognised worldwide, and is one of the most visited tourist attractions in London. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizationmarker (UNESCO) classifies the Palace of Westminster, along with neighbouring Westminster Abbeymarker and St. Margaret'smarker, as a World Heritage Site. It is also a Grade I listed building. There is no casual access to the interior, but it may be seen in a number of ways:

  • Viewing debates from the public galleries of the House of Commons or the House of Lords: UK residents may obtain tickets in advance from their MP. It is also possible for both UK residents and overseas visitors to queue for admission on the day, but capacity is limited and there is no guarantee of admission. Only a very small part of the Palace's interior may be seen. Either House may exclude "strangers" if it desires to sit in private.
  • Tours during Parliamentary sessions: UK residents may apply to their MP or a peer for a place on a guided tour of Parliament while it is in session. British educational institutions may also arrange a tour through their MP. Overseas visitors may only tour Parliament during the summer recess.
  • Summer opening: tours are available during a two-month period during the summer when Parliament is not sitting. These tours are open to both UK residents and overseas visitors.
  • Television Viewing: live broadcasts of Parliamentary sessions can be viewed on BBC Parliament; recorded footage is shown when Parliament is not in session. The sessions are also occasionally rebroadcast in the United Statesmarker via C-SPAN.
  • Touring the Clock Tower: Currently, only UK Residents can tour the Clock Tower, by arranging a tour through their local MP.

Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank selected the Palace as one of his five choices for the 2006 BBC television documentary series Britain's Best Buildings.

The nearest London Underground station is Westminstermarker on the District, Circle and Jubilee Lines.





  • Bradley, Simon, and Pevsner, Nikolaus. (2003). The Buildings of England: London 6: Westminster. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
  • Cooke, Sir Robert. (1987). The Palace of Westminster. London: Burton Skira.
  • Fell, Sir Bryan, and K. R. MacKenzie. The Houses of Parliament: A Guide to the Palace of Westminster. (1994). London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
  • Jones, Christopher. (1983). The Great Palace: The Story of Parliament. London: British Broadcasting Corporation.
  • Port, M. H. (1976). The Houses of Parliament. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
  • Riding, Christine, and Jacqueline Riding. (2000). "The Houses of Parliament: History Art Architecture." London: Merrell.

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