Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament are two of the most popular tourist destinations, and they embody the government of Great Britain. See why these buildings are such a draw, learn about their architecture and renovations over the years, and reflect on the nature of Britain’s constitutional monarchy.
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Most visitors to Britain are going to see Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, at least from the outside. They are two of the most conspicuous and most historically significant buildings in the nation, representing the balance of forces that make up Britain’s constitutional monarchy. They also blend beauty with authority.
Exploring Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace is the monarch’s official London residence, while the Houses of Parliament, less than two miles away, is the seat of Britain’s legislature. Both are architecturally impressive and each has an interesting history. When you look at Buckingham Palace today, you are seeing an 18th-century house that was extended in the 1840s and finished in 1913. When you look at Parliament you are seeing a Victorian building, built in the 1840s and 1850s, but designed to look a lot older.
Buckingham Palace sits on land that for centuries was swampy, close to River Tyburn and River Westbourne. The Duke of Buckingham built a house there between 1703 and 1705, designed by William Winde, who was so indignant at his patron’s refusal to pay for it that he threatened suicide by jumping from its roof. Another version of the story says he threatened to push the Duke from the roof.
After the Duke’s death, the house went to his illegitimate son, who sold it to King George III, in 1762. George gave it to his wife, Queen Charlotte, in 1763, and they lived contentedly there for much of the rest of their lives. It was the birthplace of 14 of their 15 children, and in those days was known as Buckingham House or “The Queen’s House.”
The old Houses of Parliament were part of a great complex called the Palace of Westminster, which had also been a royal residence. Most of this complex burned down on the night of October 16th, 1834. As for the rest of Westminster Palace, when the extent of the damage became clear, the government had to decide what to do next.
Meet the Architects of Westminster
The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, decided that new Houses of Parliament would be built on the old site, incorporating the elements of the old complex that had survived the fire. The contract would be awarded to the winner of a competition, whose rules specified that the building had to be in the Gothic or Elizabethan style. Ninety-seven anonymous entries were made, and number 64 was chosen as the winner.
It was the work of Charles Barry, who had been born just a few hundred yards from the site. During a Grand Tour of Europe as a young man, he met several influential young aristocrats, one of whom paid Barry to accompany him to Greece, Turkey, and Egypt, drawing the sites they visited. This was the starting point of a lucrative practice with influential Liberal patrons. Barry was age 40 at the time of the competition. His design for Parliament was strongly reminiscent of the Henry VII Chapel of Westminster Abbey, right across the road, England’s last, great pre-Reformation gothic structure. It also recalled several of the Flemish gothic buildings that he had studied in Bruges and Brussels.
Remembering the fire, he kept the use of wood to a minimum. He had anticipated that the whole job would take six years. In fact, it took 26 years and was still not quite finished at the time of his death in 1860.
As you approach the building, you’re aware of the intricate decoration on every surface and of how everything points up into the sky. The windows are nearly all lancets, with pointed tops; many surfaces are intricately carved with niches, statues, heraldic beasts, and coats of arms. Barry’s intention was to induce a feeling of reverence by making Parliament strongly reminiscent of England’s Gothic cathedrals.
His principal assistant during the competition stage, and the man who did most of the drawings, was Augustus Welby Pugin, who was 22 at the time of the competition. Pugin joined the project in 1844. His chief task was the interior decoration, furnishings, tiles, wood carvings, metalwork, doors, and traceries.
When you are inside the Houses of Parliament today you are surrounded by Pugin’s work. Look particularly at the elaborately carved benches in the House of Lords, and its royal throne, the bright floor tiles, and the intricate metal grillwork, for most of which he was responsible.
A third major figure on the project was David Boswell Reid, a Scottish physician and chemist. He was convinced that inadequate ventilation was a leading cause of ill health. To ensure that the new Parliament had state-of-the-art ventilation, a parliamentary committee appointed him to Barry’s staff in 1840. Because of his presence, a third tower, that had not been included in the original design, was added. It appears to be decorative but has the function of ventilating the entire structure, drawing air through the other parts of the building and ensuring good circulation.
What about the interior walls? Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, headed a committee to select artists. They were commissioned to paint scenes from the Bible and from British history, emphasizing the dignity of Parliament, its development from humble origins, and its cooperation with the monarchy. The committee hoped that the work could be done in fresco, a technique not familiar to most British artists and difficult to carry out in the humid atmosphere. Many of the works were painted by William Dyce and John Rogers Herbert.
Tour Tips for Buckingham Palace
To tour the Houses of Parliament you need to buy a ticket, on the day if it’s quiet, but ahead of time, on the web, to be sure of getting the time you want, especially in summer.
The way to approach Buckingham Palace today is along the Mall, which stretches about a mile from Admiralty Arch leading out of Trafalgar Square. This road, cutting through St. James’s Park, was built in 1911 by Sir Aston Webb. It is wide, spacious, and straight, normally very busy but closed on Sundays and given over to pedestrians. At the same time, Aston Webb and the sculptor Thomas Brock built the memorial to Queen Victoria which stands in front of the palace. It combines a statue of the old Queen herself, a gilded figure of winged victory, fountains, bronze statues, and elaborately carved allegories. It and the Admiralty Arch were both paid for by donations from all over the British Empire, which in those days spanned the world.The changing of the guard takes place in front of Buckingham Palace at 11:00 a.m., on alternate days of the week in winter, and every day in summer. There are seven guards regiments in the British army and they take turns defending the palace. The daily change, usually attended by thousands of visitors, includes military bands, men in brilliant red uniforms and black bearskin busbies marching in step, plenty of shouted commands, and a general feeling of precision. The guards have a reputation for being able to stand stock still, which tempts some visitors to tease or goad them.
Parliament and Buckingham Palace embody Britain’s constitutional monarchy, which has managed to keep the peace internally since the upheavals of the 17th century. Together they symbolize the great paradox of British public culture—deep reverence for the monarchy on the one hand, but an equally deep devotion to representative democracy on the other. These are the principles that have done much to shape the modern world and its institutions. What luck for us that these two places are also accessible and aesthetically delightful.
Interactive Map of Buckingham Palace