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Houses of Parliament London Palace of Westminster London

The houses of Parliament in London is where the government sits to decide on the laws of the land for the country of England. Until 2005 it was also a multinational seat of government which incorporated Scotland and the other countries of the United Kingdom. At that time power was devolved, away from London, to the Capitals of these other nations that are still apart of the United Kingdom. Big Ben is the tower clock that is a main eye catcher attached to the buildings.

Picture of Big Ben.

History of the Houses of Parliament

Located on the North bank of the River Thames very close to Westminster Bridge. The area where the palace stands was called Thorney Island. Buildings here predating the palace include: possibly a Roman temple to Apollo, a Saxon church dedicated to St Peter and the Royal Palace of King Canute. Later, Edward the Confessor built his original Royal palace here, in 1099. They were remodeled during the late 1300's. Later, in 1547, the royal residence was moved to Whitehall Palace.

Officially today's buildings are called the Palace of Westminster. The Houses of Parliament, in Westminster, serve as the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. These are the two branches of the United Kingdom's legislature. The bell, clock, and clock tower are referred to as Big Ben. Big Ben will be included in most pictures of the palace.

Fire of 1834

For almost 300 years, the commons met in St. Stephen's Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. That was until the 16th of October, 1834 when a fire destroyed most of the buildings. This fire is said to have started in the House of Lords. Quite ironic that the Lords destroyed Parliament when you consider later, Parliament did the same to the Lords. The chief building that survived was Westminster Hall. Most of the records in the buildings were destroyed.

Competition to Build a New Palace in the Gothic Style

After the fire, a competition was commissioned to build a new building in the Gothic style. Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin won it. Prince Albert requested artists to create fresco-like designs depicting British history to decorate it. The facade was made to be over 300m long. On 27th August 1840, the first stone of the new buildings was laid Sir Charles Barry's wife. These new buildings were not finished until 1860. The clock was designed in 1859 by E. Denison and E. Dent and is 96m high. The Big Ben bell is only one of five bells but weighs over 13 tons and so is the largest. The two imposing towers are the clock tower and the Victoria tower on which the national flag flies.

The Great Council of England

Before the palace existed, a council of nobles and high-ranking clergy advised the early kings of England. After 1066, this informal advisory group became a formal assembly called the Great Council. During the early 1200's, King John began to call knights elected from the shires (counties) to some meetings of the Great Council. In the mid-1200's, the council, was named Parliament, from the French word "parler" meaning to talk. Parliament was enlarged to include elected representatives from towns, shires, and boroughs. It could be said that the move toward democracy had begun.

Conflicts for Power

Twice in British history, political conflict between the king and the council or Parliament became military conflicts. Firstly, under King John who was trying to raise taxes without their approval. This conflict was resolved with the adoption of the Magna Carta or Great Charter on June 15, 1215 at Runnymede. Secondly, in 1628, King Charles I refused to sign the Petition of Right. This document draw up by Parliament was to limit royal powers. As a result of the offence to the crown, Charles I did not allow Parliament to meet from 1629 until 1640. Civil war then broke out and the king lost. In 1649, the King was beheaded. The legislature, led by Oliver Cromwell, declared England a republic and ruled until 1653. Cromwell then ruled as Lord Protector until his death in 1658. In 1660, a new Parliament restored the monarchy.

Reform to Democracy

During the 1800's, some districts with almost no voters had representation, while districts with large populations had none. Few citizens had the right to vote. In 1832, Parliament passed a reform act that reduced the property requirements for voting. This gave most middle-class men the right to vote. The Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 extended the vote to nearly all adult males. It was not until 1928 that women received full voting rights.

The Lords - Time to Move On

In 1909, a new struggle broke out between the two houses of Parliament after the Lords rejected a budget approved by the Commons. It resulted in the Parliamentary Act of 1911 under which the House of Lords lost its veto power. The Parliamentary Act of 1949 reduced the House of Lords' power to postpone bills. In 1999, legislation abolished the right of hereditary peers to inherit a seat in the Lords along with their title. In 2009 some activities of the Lords were seen to be very embarrassing for the house. New measures to ensure corruption in the House of Lords can be addressed is apparently being drawn up.