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Interesting Facts About the Palace of Westminster

As one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, the Palace of Westminster is symbolic of the indomitable spirit of the British. This Buzzle write-up has all that you need to know about this incredible structure.
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Fact about Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster
Who built the Palace of Westminster?

The Westminster Palace was originally a royal residence built in the 11th century CE for Edward the Confessor. 500 years later, much of the structure was destroyed in a fire. It was subsequently rebuilt, only to be ravaged in another fire, this time in 1834. The currently-standing Gothic design of the Palace is attributed to architect Charles Barry. Major repair works have been done since, following the bombing in WWII and to reverse the effects of London's air pollution.
The Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament, is probably the most beautiful building in all of London. That, combined with its spectacular location on the banks of the Thames in central London, makes it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world today.

The Westminster Palace houses around 1,100 rooms and close to 3 miles of passageways, covering four levels. On the ground floor, one can find offices, dining rooms, and bars; the first floor, or the principal floor, has the main rooms of the Palace, which include the debating chambers, the lobbies, and the libraries. The top-two floors are used as committee rooms and offices.

The Palace has a long-drawn and interesting history, having witnessed a few devastating fires, quite a lot of hooliganism, and of course, the WWII bombing. But it's stood tall through all the ordeal, barring a few wounds of victory.

Historical Facts about the Westminster Palace

The Westminster Hall is the only part of the original Palace which still stands. This opulent hall was built in 1097 under William II (Rufus), the son of William the Conqueror, and took 2 years to complete. In those times, it was probably the largest hall in all of Europe, measuring 240 X 67 feet, with a floor area of 17,000 square feet.

Westminster Palace with Big Ben
The Westminster Palace with the Clock Tower (Big Ben) on the right.

The Hall's massive roof manages to baffle architects even today. It wasn't until the 13th or 14th century CE that carpenters could create roofs which were wider than the length of the available timber. It was therefore assumed that a single or double row of columns supported the Hall's roof. However, recent archaeological explorations found no evidence of these to have ever existed, and that the roof may have been self-supporting from the beginning.

The walls of the Hall are about six feet thick, although they have been heightened and resurfaced over the years.

As it was the Royal residence, the Parliament also met here. In fact, the Model Parliament, the oldest in England, met here way back in 1295.

Construction activity was quite regular on the Palace grounds with a view to accommodate the growing needs of the Members of Parliament. A new west fa├žade facing onto St. Margaret Street was built in the Palladian style between 1755 and 1770, which provided that much-needed space for document storage and committee rooms. An official residence for the Speaker of the House of Commons was built next to St. Stephen's Chapel in 1795. Extensive work was also carried out on both the House of Lords and Commons between 1799 and 1801.

Westminster Palace aerial view
The Westminster Palace as seen from the London Eye.

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, led by Guy Fawkes, was a foiled attempt to reduce the House of Lords to rubble. The tradition of marking the day with the ringing of church bells and bonfires started soon after the Plot's discovery, and fireworks were included in some of the earliest celebrations. In Britain, the 5th of November is variously called Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, in commemoration of the event.

On October 16, 1834, a fire broke out in the Palace caused by an overheated stove, lighting up the House of Lords Chamber. In the ensuing blaze, both Houses of Parliament were destroyed, along with most of the other buildings in the palace complex. Westminster Hall was saved owing to brave efforts of the firefighters and a change in the direction of the wind. The Jewel Tower, the Undercroft Chapel and the Cloisters, and Chapter House of St Stephen's were the only other parts of the Palace to remain unscathed.

Pillar carvings
Pillar carvings seen inside the complex.

In 1836, a public competition was organized inviting ideas to design a new Palace in either Gothic or Elizabethan style. 97 entries came in, from which 4 were shortlisted. Out of these, the one that bore the emblem of the Portcullis was unanimously selected. This design was created by architect Charles Barry. Construction of the new structure began in 1840, and neared completion by 1860.

At the north-eastern end of the Palace stands London's most iconic landmark, the Clock Tower (316 ft), commonly known as Big Ben after its main bell. The tower's four-faced clock was actually designed by Augustus Pugin. It was originally meant to serve as a ventilating chimney for stale air and smoke from fireplaces.

Statue of King Richard I
The statue of King Richard I suffered damage from the WWII bombings.

Incessant bombing during WWII caused great damage to the Palace. The Commons Chamber was hit by bombs on the nights of May 10th and 11th, 1941, and the roof of Westminster Hall caught fire. The Commons Chamber was entirely destroyed by the fire which spread to the Members' Lobby and caused the ceiling to collapse. All that remained was a pile of rubble.

Rebuilding of the Commons Chamber began in May 1945, and was completed in 1950. Designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, it adhered to its original shape, with its small size (containing only 427 seats for 646 MPs) and confrontational design helps to keep debates lively, yet intimate.

A Few Fun Facts

When it comes to the British, traditions can't be too far behind. Here's a quirky one―lifts, despite being a modern contraption, have hooks inside them, meant exclusively for hanging swords. In fact, floor markings in the Commons Chamber have been designed to be 2 sword lengths apart. You know, just in case the debate starts getting too hot.

Smoking is not allowed inside the Commons Chamber. There is, however, a snuffbox by the front door. It's been there since ages as an apparent replacement for a ciggie, and it's always full of snuff.

Westminster Palace at night
The Palace lights up the Thames at night.

In the Anglo-Saxon days, the Parliament was a place where the King and his courtiers met, which was termed the Witenagemot ("meeting of wise men"). Does it ring a bell? Yes, all you Harry Potter fans, we do get 'Wizengamot' from the same word.

If you're confused as to which House you're standing in, just look at the carpets. The House of Commons will have a green one, while the House of Lords will be red.

Until her death, Margaret Thatcher was the only living person to have her statue placed in Westminster Palace. It looks as menacing as the Iron Lady herself, wagging a well-meaning finger at passing people, most of whom are MPs themselves.

Next to her is an impressive statue of Mr. Winston Churchill. The Tory MPs had once made a tradition of touching the feet of the statue as they made their way inside the building, as a salute to the great leader.

And finally, you can't take in any animals inside the Palace, except for guard dogs, but the place is seemingly infested with mice.
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Published: June 2, 2014
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hey - my name [September 23, 2014]