Homeschool Field Trip to England: Westminster Palace – ParliamentJenn Hamrick
Yesterday’s photo showed Paddington at Westminster Palace – Parliament! Did you guess correctly? Keep reading for more information about this fascinating site.
Take a good look at this breathtaking building! Can you believe that Paddington (and we!) got to go inside? But we only scratched the surface of everything there is to see. This site, extending over to include the site of Westminster Abbey, has held many buildings, dating all the way back to an 8th century Saxon church. King Canute (the Danish king mentioned in the London post) was the first to put a palace in this location, and he did that in the last part of the 11th century. At that time, this was not great land. It was very marshy, and the people called it Thorney Island or Thorn Island.
Edward the Confessor, the man who built Westminster Abbey as a royal cathedral, was also responsible for building Westminster Palace.
William II (Rufus), the son of William the Conqueror, began to work on what is now known as the Great Hall (now known as Westminster Hall) in 1097. Two years later, it was ready for use as a banquet hall and for other royal celebrations. This incredible work of medieval architecture is still standing, and Paddington was there. Here are pictures of both ends of the Great Hall.
Because Westminster Hall was so large (most likely the largest in Europe at the time, and certainly the largest in England), other smaller halls were built for more practical, daily use, increasing the size of the palace.
Beginning in 1066 with the Norman kings, the seat of government tended to move around to wherever the king happened to be. However, it was dangerous and inefficient to move the treasury, so under King John, the treasury or Exchequer was permanently located at Westminster where it stayed until the 1800s.
Also under King John, the Magna Carta stipulated that the court of common pleas should be held in a fixed place. The most logical place for this was Westminster Hall. The Magna Carta also helped establish two courts — Common Pleas and the King’s Bench. Both tended to be held at Westminster Hall, one in each end of the hall. The spaces were defined by oak planks which were laid out with benches within for people to sit on.
Stop and imagine two different courts taking place in that great room pictured above. What a commotion that must have been! Westminster Hall remained in regular use through the centuries for state trials, including those of William Wallace (The Mystery of History Volume II, Lesson 72.), Sir Walter Raleigh (The Mystery of History Volume III, Lesson 46), Sir Thomas More (The Mystery of History Volume III, Lesson 27), and King Charles I (The Mystery of History Volume III, Lesson 68). As a residence, the palace continued to be remodeled by different kings until the 1500s when a fire made the private quarters unlivable and Henry VIII moved to Whitehall in London.
This move created opportunity for the court system to take over, moving into surrounding halls and Westminster soon became the permanent seat of the British government.
Another important location within Westminster Palace is St. Stephen’s Hall.
St. Stephen’s Hall was built on the site of St. Stephen’s Chapel which was originally the king’s private chapel. This room was the seat of the House of Commons, one of the branches of British government, until the chapel burned down in 1834. The chapel was replaced by St. Stephen’s Hall. This new hall is majestic, and its walls are covered in paintings depicting important scenes from British history.
In addition to its inner chambers, Westminster Palace contains two different yards or squares. The Old Palace Yard was the central location of the Gunpowder Revolt of 1605 in which a group of men, including a man named Guy Fawkes, was caught guarding the explosives, and in commemoration of this failed plot, England now celebrates Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th. The New Palace Yard emerged after William II (Rufus) built the Great Hall. This yard became known as the new yard, to distinguish it from the old yard. I just love that something that was built in 1099 can be known as new!
Now that you’ve learned a bit about it, enjoy some other pictures from around this building, which is an icon of British history and government.