Situated along the River Thames in the heart of London, the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey are of great significance to British history and culture. A symbol of the monarchy, religion and power, these two important landmarks were built by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century.
Today, the Palace and the Abbey continue their original functions, and play critical roles in both the government and society.
The Palace of Westminster
The Palace of Westminster is the meeting place of the House of Lords and House of Commons, or the Houses of Parliament.
Situated along the north bank of the River Thames, the Palace is the heart of British politics.
The site of the Palace of Westminster has been in use since 1016. At the time, it was believed to house the royal residence of Canute the Great. The site was then known as Thorney Island.
Edward the Confessor built a royal palace on the island around the same time he built Westminster Abbey.
Unfortunately, none of the original buildings survive. The oldest existing parts of the palace date back to the reign of King William II.
In the late Medival period, the palace was used as the primary royal residence. But in 1512, during King Henry VIII’s rule, the “privy” area of the palace was destroyed by a fire.
Throughout its history, the Palace has undergone extensive renovations, and has been damaged and repaired.
A devastating fire in 1834 destroyed much of the Palace’s buildings. The fire started in the Lords Chamber, and quickly swept through the entire Palace.
The fire was a great spectacle and the largest conflagration in all of London aside from the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz in WWII.
The Palace of Westminster has three main towers, but the Elizabeth Tower, better known as Big Ben, is the most famous. Big Ben houses the Great Clock of Westminster, and stands 96 metres tall. The other two towers include the Central Tower (91 metres) and the Victoria Tower (98.5 metres).
Visitors can tour the Palace, and free guided tours are available to UK residents throughout the parliamentary session.
With more than a thousand years of history, Westminster Abbey is one of the most important buildings in the monarchy. The Abbey has played host to every coronation since 1066, and is the burial site of 17 monarchs.
The present church was established by Henry III in 1245.
King Edward the Confessor began building the abbey between 1042 and 1052 with the intention of using it as a royal burial church. It was the first English church to be built in the Romanesque style.
Although the church was consecrated in 1065, the building wouldn’t be complete until 1090, a week before Edward’s death.
King Edward’s successor, Harold II, was likely crowned at the Abbey, but the first record of a coronation is for William the Conqueror.
The construction of the present day church began in 1245 under Henry III. Henry III was the first monarch to be buried at the Abbey, and rebuilt the cathedral in Anglo-French Gothic style as a tribute to King Edward the Confessor.
In 1503, Henry VII added a chapel, which was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
During the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, the Abbey was listed as one of the wealthiest in Britain, second only to Glastonbury Abbey. At the time, the church’s annual income was equivalent to £1,320,000 to £1,540,000 (as of 2015).
In 1539, Henry VIII took control of the Abbey, and gave it the status of a cathedral shortly after. By giving the building this status, he saved it from destruction or dissolution that was imposed on most English abbeys at the time.
Westminster was regarded as the third seat of learning in Britain until the 19th century. The last half of the New Testament and the first third of the King James Bible Old Testament was translated here. In the 20th century, the New English Bible was put together here.
The Abbey suffered some damage during the Blitz in 1940, but the staff managed to save much of the furnishings before escaping.
The Westminster School and Westminster Abbey Choir School are both in the precincts of the abbey. The Choir School trains and teaches choirboys who sing during church services. The Westminster School has been providing education since 1179 when the Benedictine monks established it as a charity school.
The Abbey is open to the public Monday through Saturday all year round. On Sundays and religious holidays, the church is open for worship only. All are welcome to attend the services.
Guests can see the famous Coronation Chair, where every monarch since King Edward I has been crowned.