The Westminster Palace is an outstanding example of Perpendicular Gothic style, of great historic and symbolic significance. Initially build as a royal palace in the eleventh century, the medieval building was ravaged by a disastrous fire outbreak in 1843, and needed massive reconstruction. Nowadays, it is used for housing the British Parliament exclusively, excepting the ceremonial purposes,when the palace retains its original style and status as a royal residence.
St Edward the Confessor, the penultimate Saxon monarch of England, built a royal palace on the Thorney Island at about the same time he started building Westminster Abbey. The oldest existing part of the Palace (Westminster Hall) dates from the reign of William I’s successor, King William II.
In 1530, King Henry VIII started using the Palace of Whitehall as his principal residence. Although Westminster officially remained a royal palace, it was used by the two Houses of Parliament and by the various royal law courts. A famous attempt to breach the security of the Palace of Westminster was the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
On 16 October 1834, a fire almost completely destroyed the old Westminster Palace. The only structures of significance to survive were Westminster Hall, the Cloisters of St Stephen’s, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft and the Jewel Tower. Since 1547, it had been the seat of regular parliamentary assemblies. The subsequent competition for the reconstruction of the Palace was won by architect Charles Barry and his design for a building in the Perpendicular Gothic style. 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.
The foundation stone was laid in 1840 and lasted for thirty years, suffering great delays and cost overruns, as well as the death of both leading architects; works for the interior decoration continued intermittently well into the twentieth century. Major conservation work has been carried out since, to reverse the effects of London’s air 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 of Westminster features three main towers. Of these, the largest and tallest is the 98.5-metre Victoria Tower, which occupies the south-western corner of the Palace. At the north end of the Palace rises the most famous of the towers, the Elizabeth Tower, commonly known as Big Ben. At 96 metres, it is only slightly shorter than the Victoria Tower but much slimmer.The shortest of the Palace’s three principal towers (at 91 metres), the octagonal Central Tower stands over the middle of the building, immediately above the Central Lobby.
Nowadays, the Westminster Palace not only houses the British Parliament, but it have become a renowned touristic attraction, widely appreciated for the splendid facade design and breathtaking position. With an intriguing history behind its gently-sculptured walls, the Palace completely deserves its popularity and, in my opinion, is doubtlessly one of the architecture’s wonders.