travel guide

History and How to Visit the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben

One of the most iconic landmarks in London, the Houses of Parliament symbolises Great Britain with its image depicted on a multitude of products from sauce bottles to souvenirs.  The majestic neo-gothic building, that is located in the City of Westminster on the northern bank of the River Thames, is the seat of Parliament of the United Kingdom, serving as the meeting place for the two houses: the House of Commons and the House of Lords.    Although commonly known as the Houses of Parliament, the building’s proper name is The Palace of Westminster, taking its name from the neighbouring Westminster Abbey that lies south of Parliament Square. 

The original Old Palace was a medieval building complex that was constructed in the 11th century.  At that time the main building was a large royal palace with adjoining buildings to service the monarch and the monarch’s household.  Up until the early 16th century it was the primary residence of the Kings of England.  Other parts of the complex, from as early as the 13th century, served as the home of the English Parliament and from the late 15th century Westminster Palace was also the home to the main Courts of Law which were based in and around the medieval Great Hall.  This Hall was built at the end of the 11th century and was the largest hall in the country at that time.  Over time the palace was extended and remodelled until,  in 1512,  the royal residences were destroyed in a fire. This resulted in the reigning monarch, King Henry VIII, moving his primary residence to the neighbouring Palace of Whitehall.  As the seat of the Royal Courts of Justice many high-profile trials for treason took place in the Great Hall. In 1606, Guy Fawkes and his collaborators, who together tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, were tried and executed here.  The only English king to be exectuted, Charles I, was also tried and condemned here.  The Courts of Law remained in the Palace of Westminster until the 1880s. 

In 1834 a second fire destroyed most of the remaining buildings of the complex with the only medieval structures which survived being Westminster Great Hall, the Cloisters of St Stephen’s, the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft and the Jewel Tower.  The Old Palace had long been seen as no longer fit for purpose and, in many ways, this fire gave an opportunity to create a building that would be more suitable for its intended use. 

A competition was held to find the best design.  This was won by the architect Charles Barry, with a design in the  Gothic-Revival style, inspired by the English Perpendicular Gothic style of the 14th-16th centuries.  What remained of the Old Palace (with the exception of the detached Jewel Tower) was integrated into the design.  The interior of the Palace was designed by Augustus Pugin who was an expert on Gothic architecture and style. The building took 30 years to complete and both men, sadly, had died before this occurred in 1870.  

The building that you see today, however, is the result of these two men’s visionary talent.  Much larger than the Old Palace, the New Palace contains 1,100 rooms organised around two courtyards.  A large portion of land was reclaimed from the Thames and the result is an impressive 300m river frontage, called the River Front.  In all, this imposing building spans around 8 acres and creates a striking addition to London’s architectural landmarks.   Standing slightly apart from the main building is the iconic clock tower, the Elizabeth Tower but known affectionately as Big Ben. 

The palace is owned by the Crown and, for ceremonial purposes, retains its original status as a royal residence.  In keeping with traditions and symbolism the interior decoration alludes to that.  The two most famous rooms, the Lord’s Chamber (where the House of Lords meet) and the Commons Chamber (where members of Parliament meet) are both decorated in a highly symbolic fashion.  The most lavish is the Lord’s Chamber which has ornate carvings and bright red seating, possibly reflecting the use of red as a royal colour.  The Lord Speaker, however, is seated on a red cushion filled with wool ( the wool sack). The use of wool represents the British wool trade – crucial to the growth and wealth of medieval Britain.  The Commons Chamber is a little more subdued, the seating is green and the carvings less ornate.  The furnishings however are sourced from various Commonwealth countries.  

Traditions of Parliament. 

The Palace of Westminster is the home of modern government.  The business of government, the creation of laws all take place here.  It also allows elected officials to discuss matters of concern to citizens of Britain as well as hosting debates and organising new legislature.  However, within this efficient, modern, democratic system some rather strange traditions, which stretch back hundreds of years, still continue to be observed.  Below we will look at a few.

Statute Forbidding the Wearing of Armour or Carrying of Weapons

Up until the middle of the 18th century it was still commonplace for citizens to carry swords.  Although this was accepted practice in everyday life, the wearing of armour and carrying of weapons was, and still is, forbidden inside Parliament  has been banned  since 1313.  King Edward II signed this into law in that year and it has never been changed or altered since that day.  A place was provided inside the cloakrooms where MPs and Lords could leave their swords whilst carrying out business.  To this day, each Member has a named peg where they hang their coats and, attached to each peg, is a purple ribbon to hang their sword upon. 

Thus, when the Queen visits the Palace of Westminster she has an armed honour guard and there are armed police around the building but, within the House of Lords and the House of Commons itself, only the Serjeant-at-Arms, (who is responsible for keeping order within the House of Commons Chamber during debates and for the security and access to the House of Commons) and Black Rod (whose function is the same but in the House of Lords) traditionally may carry a sword.   They can bear arms because King Edward II legislation only applied to MPs and Peers (Lords), so, in theory, you or I could walk into the Commons with a sword!  Furthermore, it is said that the distance between the government and the opposition benches in the House of Commons is equivalent to two swords length.  However this is merely symbolic as MPs, as noted above, were banned from taking their swords into the House. 

Dragging a New Speaker of the House of Commons to the Chair

The Speaker of the House of Commons is the chief officer and has the highest authority in the House of Commons, the lower house and the primary chamber.  MPs elect the holder of the position and once in office they preside over the debates in the House, determine who can speak and what amendments can be considered.  They must maintain order during the debates and discipline anyone who breaks the rules of the House.  They must be strictly non-partisan, renouncing all former affiliation with a political party.  Neither does the Speaker take part in any of the debates nor vote – except if it is to break ties. 

One strange tradition occurs when a new Speaker is elected.  The successful candidate is then physically dragged to their chair by the other MPs.  The tradition dates back to a time when the speaker may have been killed by a monarch when they relayed decisions made by parliament that the monarch may not have agreed with.  Thus, in the past, the Speaker may have required some encouragement to take up the post. 

Private Members Bills

Another strange tradition is the oddly democratic way that MPs and Lords who have not been selected to be government ministers (i.e. Backbenchers) can get their ideas for bills (or laws) heard in the House.   The purpose of a bill is to change an existing law that applies to the population at large.  Most bills make up part of a Party’s manifesto and if that Party gets into government then some of these bills may go through the process of becoming laws.  A private members’ bill has the same purpose but is not listed by manifesto.  However, any MP or Lord can introduce a bill but not all of them get discussed (or heard) in the House.  A certain number of Fridays are set aside for consideration of these bills.  A ballot is held and the top 20 drawn have precedence in the short time allocated to consider these private members’ Bills.  The names of the MPs who are allowed to introduce such a bill are literally picked out of a hat – with a goldfish bowl being used instead in 2016!  Very few of the Private Members bills heard get passed into law although perhaps the most famous one that did is the one by the then Liberal MP, David Steel, whose bill became The Abortion Act 1967 which legalised abortion on certain grounds and allowed terminations of pregnancy to take place through the NHS.

The Use of Vellum 

At a cost of £80,000, all laws are still being written on vellum, which is made from a combination of calf and goat skin and lasts for up to 500 years. Although there are now methods available to preserve paper and prevent it from perishing, changing to this is fiercely resisted by MPs who wish to safeguard ancient traditions.  

Do Not Mention the Lords in the Commons

Historically, the Lords and the Commons held each other in disdain.  This derives from the times in the 13th century when Parliament was was run by nobles and high clergy.  This changed later in that century when landholders and other owners of property (i.e. commoners as opposed to nobles) began to send representatives to Parliament to present grievances and petitions to the king with regard to taxes.  It was during the 14th century that those ‘commoners’ began to sit in a separate house from the Lords.  Over the centuries the House of Lords gradually lost their power to the Commons.  To this day, although there is no longer any bad blood between the two groups, the House of Lords is always referred to as ‘the other place’ when spoken about in the House of Commons chamber. 

The Function of the Mace

The Mace is a gold staff which must always be inside the chamber when Parliament is in session.  Basically, a mace is a medieval weapon, a type of club that has a heavy head on the end of a handle to deliver powerful blows. It is a symbol of the Monarch’s authority, carried by the Serjeant-at-arms  and it is illegal for debates to take place if the Mace is  not present.   This function has sometimes been used to stop debates.  For example, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell tried to prevent further discussion of the plan to expand Heathrow airport by grabbing the Mace and taking it back to his seat.  This led to a temporary suspension from the House.  In 2018, during the debates over Brexit, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a Labour backbencher, grabbed the Mace when the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced she was going to delay the Brexit meaningful vote in December.   This tradition has been around in the House of Commons since at least the middle of the 13th century.  However, after the English civil war and the establishment of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, Cromwell declared the mace ‘ a fool’s bauble’ and ordered troops to take it away.  The tradition was restored with the return of the monarchy of King Charles II.  Other countries in the Commonwealth also have this tradition of the mace such as Australia, Canada and the Bahamas. 

The Monarch and the Commons

Since 1642 no reigning monarch has been allowed into the House of Commons and when the Queen carries out the official State Opening of Parliament each year this has to take place in the House of Lords.  The reason for this goes back to the last king to enter the Commons, Charles 1st. He was crowned King of England and Scotland in 1625 and shortly after married his Queen, who was a Catholic.  Many English Protestants were insulted by this and also vehemently disagreed with Charles view that the Catholic church should be respected.  Throughout his reign his actions exasperated Parliament and Charles I dissolved parliament three times, one time being for 11 years, and only reassembling it to raise money for warfare. At the same time, there was a struggle between Catholics and Protestants with many of the latter believing that the King was part of a Catholic conspiracy to destroy Protestantism.  In 1641-42 there was a complete breakdown between Charles I and Parliament and the King stormed the House of Commons, bringing in an armed guard, and seeking to arrest 5 MPs who he considered the perpetrators of the fight against him.  This was unsuccessful as the Speaker of the House refused to tell him where they were.  This event was the final straw that eventually led to the civil war and the execution of Charles 1st in 1649. 

The State Opening of Parliament

Many of the traditions surrounding the annual State Opening of Parliament can be traced back to the 16th century and reflect the constant struggle for power between parliament and the monarchy.  The State Opening of Parliament is the only consistent time that the two Houses of Parliament and the Sovereign meet.   The ceremony involves the monarch delivering a speech, written by the government, that outlines the laws and policies they wish to implement.  Before the arrival of the monarch, the Yeomen of the Guard (the Beefeaters) ceremonially search the cellars of Westminster Palace to ensure that no explosives or other possible danger exists that could jeopardise the life of the Sovereign.  This tradition is related to the 1605 Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes who tried to blow up Parliament and King James 1st of England. (James 6th of Scotland).   Further, whilst this is going on, an MP is taken hostage and held in Buckingham Palace until the monarch has safely returned.  This custom stems from the time of the end of the civil war and relates to King Charles 1st execution. The ‘hostage’ is held as a bargaining tool in case anything should happen to the reigning monarch during their time inside the Houses of Parliament.  This still happens today and, although they are not actually locked up, they are not allowed to leave. 

Once it is decided that it is safe and there is no threat to the king or queen, the monarch leaves Buckingham Palace, in the State Coach with a four-gun salute fired from Hyde Park and also the Tower of London,  and proceeds to the Houses of Parliament.  Once there, they dress in ceremonial robes and the Imperial State Crown is placed on their head.  They then advance to the House of Lords.  Before the monarch can enter, however, a further strange custom takes place.  Black Rod, the most senior officer in the House of Lords, is sent by the monarch to the House of Commons to summon the MPs to the ‘other house’.  Black Rod carries with him an ebony staff, from which his name derives.  On reaching the door of the Commons it is quickly slammed in his face, to reiterate the independence of the Commons from both the Lords and the Sovereign.  Black Rod then uses his ebony staff to bang on the door three times.  Only then is the door opened and the MPs, in pairs, follow Black Rod to the House of Lords.  This procession, however, is not a solemn orderly one because, traditionally, they follow in ‘a boisterous way’ which again serves to amplify their independence.  

Behaviour in the House of Commons.

Prayers:  There are 650 elected MPs that sit in the House of Commons but some of them have to stand because there is only 427 seats provided in the Chamber.  A bit like bagging a sunbed on a beach, the only way that MPs can ensure they get a place to sit down is to arrive early at 8am and collect a prayer card to place on a seat to reserve it.  However, this means that they must attend the prayer service that takes place every day that parliament sits.  When prayers are held all MPs must face the wall. There is an ongoing debate that parliamentary prayers are ‘not compatible with a society that respects the principle of freedom of and from religion’.  However, so far, this argument has not been won, again due to the tradition of ‘custom and practice’.  

English Language:  Even though Great Britain is made up of four countries, one of which (Wales) has Celtic Welsh as one of its two official languages, speeches in the House of Commons must only be made in English. 

 

Speeches:  Speeches must not be read.  Extended notes can be used but, for good debating, they should not be closely followed and certainly not just read out. 

Names:  It is not allowed to call each other by name when in the Chamber.  All communication has to be done through the Speaker and fellow MPs should be referred to as ‘honourable members’.  The only person who can use members first names is the Speaker themselves. 

Applauding or taking Photographs:   No one is allowed to take videos, photographs or audio recordings in the chamber except for the TV cameras from which debates are televised.  Photography is also banned in much of the Palace of Westminster.  This is for security reasons.

Applause to show appreciation is also forbidden which is quite bizarre when you consider that groaning, hurling abuse across the Chamber, waving order papers about and shouting is something that is accepted and tolerated to some degree.  Instead appreciation can be displayed by shouting ‘hear, hear’ – which began in 17th century as ‘hear him, hear him’. The reason given why applause is banned, apart from tradition, is that it could be open to abuse or lead to long, standing ovations with the result that a poor or admirable speech could be judged on the length of applause rather than its content.  

Unparliamentary language: Abusive, slanderous or insulting language is banned and, if it occurs, the Speaker insists that it is withdrawn from the parliamentary record.  An MP cannot accuse a fellow MP of being a hypocrite, a liar or a traitor.  Neither can they accuse them of being drunk.   Examples of inappropriate language in recent times, that was said and the MP asked to withdraw the comment have been Michael Gove being called ‘a miserable pipsqueak’ and David Cameron being called ‘Dodgy Dave’.  

Visiting the Palace of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. 

It is possible for UK residents and overseas visitors to visit the public galleries in both Houses to watch MPs and Peers debating.  For general debates tickets are not required but for Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) it is best to request tickets in advance.  This can only be done via your MP so is only available for UK residents.  Overseas visitors can just turn up and wait for entry to either Chamber but there is usually a queue and Visitor Assistants can inform you how long you can expect to wait and how successful you may be.  Tours of the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben are also available. If you are a UK resident, free guided tours can be booked up to six months in advance via your MP and you do not have to personally know your MP to do this – nor support them politically.  Alternatively, bookings can be made on-line. 

For non-UK residents there is usually a charge for the tours.  More  information can be obtained from the parliamentary websites below.  However, under the present Covid-19 conditions entrance to the public galleries is currently suspended and tours or the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben are not taking place until 2022 due to the extensive conservation project that is being undertaken.   Guided tours of the Palace however are happening and the prices are £28 for an adult, £23.50 for a young adult (aged 16-18) Children £12.00 and concessionary tickets for students, people over 60 and UK Armed Forces are £23.50.   Inside UK Parliament guided tours is free to UK residents. 

https://www.parliament.uk/visiting/visiting-and-tours/tours-of-parliament/tours/

https://www.parliament.uk/visiting/visiting-and-tours/