The governing body of the UK, although some member countries such as Scotland have their own additional levels of government.

Made up of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Located in Westminster in London.

The rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament

In the early 19th century, archived records of stocks held by the British government were ordered to be destroyed out of the sight of public. Unfortunately, these stocks were one half of a tally stick, an old counting method made of hard wood. Stuffed in coal stoves under the Palace of Westminster, the floors became so hot that the building's furnishings caught fire and destroyed much of the Palace, also known as the Houses of Parliament.

In early June, 1834, following the fire of the previous October, the Committee on rebuilding the Houses of Parliament advertised across the country for plans to be submitted meeting several resolutions. Chief among these demands was that the ‘style of the buildings be either Gothic or Elizabethan’. With the cloisters and Westminster Hall still standing, and the Westminster Abbey close by, it was practical to keep the new building in a similar style. Gothic architecture had fallen out of favour, however, with only villas and a few churches being built in a neo-Gothic design. As a result, there were relatively few architects accustomed to designing in the Gothic style. The eventual architect of the new Palace of Westminster, Charles Barry, was not well versed in this style so turned to the new aficionado of Gothic design, Augustin Pugin for what turned out to be immense assistance in his designs and furnishings for the new Palace.

Pugin's involvement with designing a new Palace of Westminster sprang from a confluence of fortuitous circumstances: The Relief Act of 1791 (just two decades before his birth), the Great Reform Act of 1832, and the ever-marching Industrial Revolution. The first allowed Roman Catholics in Britain to again have church sponsored schools, worship in their own churches, and practice law, thus ending persecution and providing unity and purpose to British subjects of this religion. With his own conversion to Catholicism, and the rise of political power of the middle classes provided by the Reform Acts, Pugin felt the urgency (and was subsequently in demand) to put into place his theories on design by building cathedrals and homes in the Gothic style. Finally, the tools for more efficient and cheap production as provided by changes in technology were all at hand for Pugin to become a tour-de-force in construction; instead of taking many decades for a cathedral to be built, it took a few years.

The Relief Act, reform acts and the Industrial Age were also the great influences on Parliament’s demands for the rebuilding of the new Palace of Westminster. With the Relief Act ‘relieving’ much of the religious strife, Great Britain set about solidifying world colonisation and was just beginning its ‘Imperial Century’ when the Reform Act gave more power of the vote to the middle class while still holding down the working class, those being already exploited by continual advances in technology. Adult males owning property worth £10 or more now expanded the vote. Rising from these two acts was a return to acceptance of religious traditions, and a cleaning of the houses so that cities—where the Industrial Age drove farmers into factories—were more represented in Parliament.

Although the Palace before the fire had had several buildings built to accommodate the expanding parliamentary representatives, many of these structures were in the Classical style, resulting in a mish-mash that conflicted with the vision of the orderly expansion of the Empire. The resolution of ‘Gothic or Elizabethan’ for the new Palaces’ style was just as important symbolically as it was practically: The Elizabethan style, for example, linked to the beginning of the Empire, and the struggles of Catholics and Protestants to co-exist. The Committee also took care, in resolution 1, that the House of Commons be reduced in breadth to match its length, so that, while not specifically stating it, it became a more stable equilibrium between debating parties. Provision for 30 Committee rooms of various sizes and interweaving with the Library were called for, which suggested that Parliament would be continually reviewing new bills for the good of the Empire. Other resolutions noted passageways ‘conveniently communicating’ the Houses with the lobbies, of which several were requested, mainly for the public to be able to consult with Members. The brief therefore had demands for a stable and open palace, allowing for easier, but compartmentalised, communication with the public. It was meant to be ‘a single edifice, for the sake of unity, public character and effect’ with the surviving ancient buildings ‘converted to useful purposes’ as Barry agreed in a statement to the Committee after being chosen as architect on 8 March, 1836.

Barry embraced the style of the Elizabethan age by raising the roof of several areas like the House of Commons and the high wall front along the Embankment, allowing for windowed vertical sweeps complimenting perpendicular hallways. He also put the three Houses (Monarchy, Lords and Commons) in a row, giving a strong unity between them. There was much debate before and after Barry’s plans, drawn by Pugin, were accepted as to the suitability of Gothic over Classical, with those arguing for the latter claiming that it would be more lasting over time’s tastes or that it was more ‘natural’. Conversely, there were concerns that it wasn’t Gothic enough, or so embellished that it would be too costly. Pugin became the building's most damning critic by, as often reported in books, articles and Parliament’s own website, quipping while gliding by on the Thames: 'All Grecian, sir; Tudor details on a classic body!’

It was Barry’s practical plans fulfilling the brief of the parliamentary committee, however, that provided the space and demand for Pugin’s contributions to fill the Houses with traditional pomp and opulent ceremony. Pugin offset the building with two towers of different height and character, with Victoria Tower representing the respect of the monarchy, and the Clock Tower representing the precise machinations of parliamentary government; the redesigning of the Victoria tower into a greater and greater height is interesting in its parallels to a cathedral spire. From the 180 statues on Victoria Tower, through the seals of landowners on every ceiling, pillar, and lobby floor, to the throne in the Chamber of the House of Lords, Pugin’s embellishments mirror Catholic and royal ceremony. Taxpayers and the ruling class became the new patrons and saints honoured throughout Pugin’s decor, and statues of parliamentary leaders stood with war heroes lining corridors and lobbies.

Through Pugin’s tireless production of embellishments and Barry’s unification of the Houses, the new Halls rose from the ashes to become to a sumptuous palace glorifying the world’s foremost global power. It reflected a twist of an older religious tradition, with Parliament as the intercessors between the subjects and the Monarchy.

Further reading:

Clark, K. (1928) The Gothic Revival

Eastlake, CL. (1872) A history of the Gothic revival

The UK Parliament website contains a good amount of history, plus a 'virtual tour' with lots of details about the furnishing and use of the buildings.


an entry in the Quest of Industry in the Year of Our Lord 2011

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