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The complex of buildings found at Westminster is a little architecturally confusing. We have Westminster Abbey, clearly old from what you see inside it, Westminster Hall and the Palace of Westminster, which look similar, and Big Ben, which screams Victoriana. These buildings can easily blend together if you don’t look carefully and that blending was indeed the intention of the designers.
It’s pretty shocking that in 1834, not that long ago, we lost an enormous historical palace at Westminster which consisted of amazing medieval and early modern buildings. This ‘Old Palace’ was destroyed by a terrible fire and the only surviving buildings are the Cloisters of St Stephen’s, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, the Jewel Tower and most notably Westminster Hall.
The Westminster site was used as a residence for Kings of England since the 11th century and much was built and extended over the course of the next 500 years. The oldest part we can still see is Westminster Hall, which was built by William II. In 1295, the Model Parliament met at Westminster, beginning the tradition for all future parliaments of England.
Because the palace was not designed for intensive parliamentary use, drastic alterations were made to it between the 16th and 19th centuries. The palace must have looked a little dilapidated and in the 18th century there were calls for a new palace to be built. This clearly coincides with the fall in popularity of the medieval gothic architectural style. People preferred classical styles and Palladian additions were made. Most notable, Sir John Soane demolished the medieval House of Lords chamber and rebuilt it in the neo-classical style.
This period saw a backlash against the neo-classical style and this destruction of medieval buildings. Several key thinkers began to mourn the loss of the older gothic parts of the Palace of Westminster. Some architectural writers appreciated the aesthetics of England’s gothic buildings. Horace Walpole built his gothic house at Strawberry Hill in 1747 and described the style as ‘venerable’ and ‘charming’.
The enthusiasm for the style among architectural writers increased and many illustration collections and studies were published, including the influential Essays on Gothic Architecture by Thomas Warton and others, published in 1800. The cause was taken up by Auguste Pugin, who published Specimens of Gothic Architecture (1821) and Examples of Gothic Architecture (1831).
The devastating fire at the palace must therefore be seen in this context. The fire was caused by an overheated stove beneath the House of Lords Chamber and raged overnight destroying almost everything. Many people helped fight the fire, preserving some of the buildings, but many watched the fire with glee, seeing it as a punishment for unpopular politicians. If you want to learn more about the fire itself, I recommend a podcast from the House of Commons – listen here.
Architects saw the fire as an opportunity to get rid of the hodgepodge of architectural styles that cluttered up the gothic. After the fire, parliament decided they needed a building more fit for purpose, but that emphasised the governments historical origins. Therefore, a competition was held for architects to redesign the palace in ‘either Gothic or Elizabethan’ style, to lessen the shock of the destruction.
An architectural struggle raged through the nineteenth century between classic and gothic adherents. In 1884 Robert Kerr gave a paper to the General Conference of Architects detailing this ‘architectural civil war’, describing how
at the moment when Barry in his Club-houses offered us a new version of Wren’s Classic, we threw it over and reverted to Gothic; and at the moment when Street in his Law Courts had brought Pugin’s Gothic to a supremacy, we now cast that aside and return to Classic.
In February 1836, Charles Barry’s neo-gothic proposal for the palace was accepted and he employed Augustus Pugin to design the gothic interior. Construction was finally completed in 1870. It was designed to look medieval and fit into the surrounding medieval buildings, while still providing space appropriate for the running of parliament.
The Great Hall is one of the most interesting buildings to visit in Winchester as it has an incredible history and is the last remnant of Winchester Castle. Winchester had a castle since the eleventh century, when it was built for William the Conqueror in 1067 as a defensive stronghold. A royal palace was also added soon afterwards.
These buildings needed repair in King John’s reign and so the Great Hall that stands today was built by Henry III between 1222 and 1235. The painted round table that hangs on the wall encapsulates the legend of King Arthur and was said to be the table that he and his knights used.
However the table was actually created around 1290 to celebrate the betrothal of one of King Edward I’s daughters. Henry VIII then had it painted with a Tudor rose in the sixteenth century.
Winchester was an important royal and administrative centre in the medieval period and the castle was a focus for this. The Treasury and the Exchequer were both based there and monarchs spent a great deal of time at the palace. Empress Matilda’s army was besieged by King Stephen at the castle in 1141, Henry III was born there in 1207 and Edward I and his wife, Margaret of France were nearly killed by fire at the palace in 1302.
The round table hanging on the wall today began as a standing table with 12 legs and a central support. It was built from English oak and weighs 1200kg. It is not known how it was used or displayed originally, but it is thought that it has been hung on the wall of the great Hall since at least 1540.
This was probably the point when the table was painted to portray Henry VIII as King Arthur on his throne, with the Tudor rose and 24 spaces for the Knights of the Round Table.
During the later medieval period Winchester lost significance as London became the centre of government, however the Great Hall was still an important location for court business. The Castle was captured by Parliamentary forces in 1646 and was demolished by Oliver Cromwell. The Great Hall was spared from this fate as it was useful for assemblies and the County Assizes.
After the Restoration, Charles II planned to rebuild the palace as the King’s House, designed by Christopher Wren. However the plans were abandoned by James II. In 1900 a new King’s House was built with the same design, and now the buildings contain private flats and Winchester’s Military Museums.
The Great Hall now contains a small but brilliant exhibition, showing the history of the castle and hall. Outside the hall is a recreation of a medieval garden, Queen Eleanor’s Garden, named after Queen Eleanor of Provence and her daughter-in-law Queen Eleanor of Castile, who may have used the garden.
The Hall also contains several monuments, including a bronze statue of Queen Victoria and two enormous stainless steel gates, designed by Antony Robinson to commemorate the Royal Wedding Charles and Diana in 1981.