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Palace of Westminister and the Beginnings of Parliament

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

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The Palace of Westminister in London, England is the central meeting place of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Its massive structure was built in the neo-Gothic architecture and occupies a central location on the River Thames. Its interesting story begins in 1066 when the first consultative assembly was created, which later evolved into the world`s most popular model of democracy, the parliament. In this article we explore how democracy was grown organically in England and the factors that contributed to its growth.

The origins of the House of Parliament dates back to Medieval times in English history. In 1066, William of Normandy introduced a system in which he created a council of landowner nobles and members of the clergy that he consulted with before passing laws. This system was later more formally written down in the form of a legal charter and was referred to as the “Magna Carta.” This charter simply stated that the king cannot issue any taxes without the consent of the council. The king had to accept this since there was no permanent army or police force that the king can use to enforce whatever laws he saw fit. He had to rely on the cooperation of the nobility to keep his kingdom together. The clergy were included in what would later be called the English Parliament simply because the Roman Catholic church wielded much influence over the population.

Over time this newly created parliament attempted to reduce the power of the monarch. In 1258, under the reign of Henry III, a group of 7 parliament members attempted to force the monarch to sign a new treaty, called the Provisions of Oxford, which would have effectively ended the monarchy. Henry III refused and civil war resulted. Although Henry III was captured in the Battle of Lewes in 1264, his son Edward I, managed to escape and defeated the rebels in the Battle of Evesham in 1265. The significance of this event is that for the year in which the king was absent, the rebels introduced a new element into the parliament: two representative knights from a region and two representative commoners from the general population. Even though, the rebels were defeated, such a scheme was adopted by King Edward I later as he saw it advantageous to have a direct connection with the commoners to support his tax levies. In return, the king would have to listen to and address the grievances of the commoners. This system of a parliament was later formally called the Model Parliament and was adopted by King Edward I in 1295. Later in history, the division of the two classes of parliament became known as the House of Lords and the House of Commons. This system of accountability of the government helped to improve the lives of the common people of England and helped the country to rise to new levels of power. In 1325, a law was passed requiring the presence of the House of Commons in any parliamentary session.

In 1512, a great fire destroyed the royal residence. In its place, the first home to the Parliament of England was built. This would be the same site as the present day Palace of Westminister. In 1707, the English Parliament merged with the Scottish Parliament to create the Parliament of Great Britain. When the Irish Parliament was abolished in 1801 and effectively fused into the British Parliament, the Parliament of the United Kingdom was created. In 1834, another fire destroyed most of the Houses of Parliament. It was rebuilt in the form we have today. A neo-Gothic architecture was chosen for the structure.

In April 10, 1858 work on an iconic structure that would forever be associated with the city of London was completed. It is the great Clock Tower (also known as Big Ben), which built as part of the Palace of Westminister. It measures 61 meters high and consists of brickwork made out of limestone and architected in the neo-Gothic style to match the rest of the Palace of Westminister. Big Ben is the largest four-faced Clock Tower in the world. The clock dials are set in a circular frame measuring seven meters in diameter.

The clock`s designer, Edmund Denison, took great care into the design of the accuracy of the clock. He invented the double three-legged gravity escapement. The invention provides the best separation between pendulum and the clock mechanism. It works by allowing only one tooth in a wheel to escape and turn when the pendulum is fully swung in one direction without disturbing the motion of the pendulum, thus dramatically improving the clock accuracy compared to the original deadbeat escapement design (which was popularized by George Graham in 1715). The pendulum was installed in a windproof box beneath the clock room. It is 3.9 meters long and weighs 300kg and beats every 2 seconds. A container of pennies is used to fine tune the speed of the pendulum. A single penny can offset the clock`s speed of 0.4 seconds per day.

In reviewing its history, it seems that the greatest contributing factor to the success of democracy in England was the implicit political balance of power in the English society. The monarch did not have absolute rule over his subjects. He did not possess a standing army to enforce is rule. He had to rely on local rulers, or landowners to enforce his rule. He could only be as strong as his landowners would allow him. On the other hand, the king had the know-how and the execution efficiency of leading armies and sending political and commercial delegates to foreign lands. When commoners were introduced to the parliament in 1295, it was for raising taxes from commoners. These would be people who dwelled in cities or towns and were not subject to the rule of landowners. King Edward I saw it opportune to make these people permanent members of parliament as a means of extracting taxes from them. In essence, the king bartered his authority and power in exchange for money (most of which was used to raise an army to fight transient wars that would erupt periodically).

Today, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben occupy an area of 8-acres attracting millions of tourists every year. Guided tours in the Parliament structure offer glimpses of where important decisions governing the British Empire were taken and old relic dating from the 19th and early 20th century are on display. An inside tour of Big Ben, however, is open only to Londoners and must seek approval of their representative in parliament.


  • [1] J. R. Maddicott, The Origins of the English Parliament 924-1327, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2010
  • [2] P. MacDonald, Big Ben: The Bell, the Clock and the Tower, Oxford University: Oxford, 2005.
  • [3] R. W. Pfaff, The Liturgy in Medieval Englan: A History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2009.

  • Keywords: London, England, United Kingdom, Big Ben, Palace of Westminister, Model Parliament

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