Alternative uses for the palace of Westminster: the early 17th-century picture

With the palace of Westminster requiring a major restoration programme, and some people suggesting that Parliament should permanently relocate to a new home, Dr Paul Hunneyball of the Lords 1604-29 section considers some of the uses to which the old Palace was put 400 years ago…

Since the 19th century, the palace of Westminster has been synonymous with Parliament – but that wasn’t always the case. As the name suggests, the palace started life as a royal residence, probably built by King Edward the Confessor in the early 11th century. None of that original structure now survives, but one major feature of the medieval palace does still stand – the great hall added in the 1090s by William Rufus, which was remodelled 300 years later by Richard II, and is now known simply as Westminster Hall. Throughout the middle ages, the royal court was itinerant, constantly moving around the country, but by the mid 12th century the crown recognized that it would be more convenient for its administrative departments to have a settled, central base. Over the ensuing centuries, Westminster Hall and adjacent buildings became home to the central law courts, the Exchequer, and several other government offices.

Compared with these permanent institutions, Parliament was just an occasional visitor to the palace. Although Westminster was the most common venue appointed for its assemblies from the late 13th century, members could and did meet elsewhere in England right up to 1681. Moreover, until the famous Long Parliament of the 1640s, parliaments never sat for more than a few months a year, and often with gaps of several years between sessions. Consequently, there was no great need for purpose-built facilities to serve these intermittent events. The House of Lords simply borrowed the hall originally used as the queen’s bedchamber. For the state opening, when the monarch addressed both Houses, the larger Painted Chamber, the king’s own bedchamber, might be employed. The House of Commons had no designated home within the palace until 1548, when Edward VI handed over the former royal chapel of St Stephen. Prior to that, MPs usually met in the monastic buildings attached to Westminster Abbey.

New Palace Yard and Westminster Hall in 1647 (Wenceslaus Hollar)

The palace ceased to be a residence of the crown in Henry VIII’s reign, following a major fire in the royal apartments, and the king moved up the road to Whitehall, where he created a new and more splendid home for his court. However, the lawyers and administrators stayed at Westminster, ensuring that the palace remained a hive of activity regardless of whether Parliament was meeting. Indeed, while the MPs and peers made laws and authorized taxation, it was the other occupants of the palace who enforced these policies at the highest level, and actually took up most of the space.

As is clear from the 17th-century layout of the palace, Westminster Hall was the beating heart of this judicial and administrative powerhouse. Although this massive room, with its cathedral-like proportions, was occasionally emptied to host coronation banquets or major state trials, under normal circumstances it housed the three major central courts, King’s Bench, Common Pleas and Chancery, each in its own draughty, partitioned enclosure. The staircases just inside the Hall’s main entrance led to the offices of the Exchequer, including a fourth central court which ruled on all matters relating to the crown’s major revenues. Adjacent to the Exchequer rooms on the east side of the Hall lay the offices from which the duchy of Lancaster was run, while at the south end of the Hall was the Court of Wards, which oversaw the crown’s residual feudal privileges and dues. South again from the Court of Wards was the Court of Requests, where people too poor to afford large legal bills might still petition the king for justice directly. At the opposite end of the legal spectrum, and in a building north-east of the Hall, overlooking the river Thames, the notorious Court of Star Chamber met, effectively the Privy Council in judicial mode, trying politically sensitive cases and handing down crippling fines.

However, these formal spaces were merely the more visible features of the Westminster machine. The courts also required private office and storage space, which was in short supply, and generally squeezed into any available corners. After the Reformation, the Exchequer auditors took over the buildings surrounding St Stephen’s cloister, adjacent to the House of Commons. Under Elizabeth I the Exchequer complex was also extended westward along New Palace Yard, but expansion southwards was all but impossible because of the buildings down the western flank of Westminster Hall which serviced the courts. Remarkably, throughout the 17th century it also remained possible for private individuals to rent property on the palace site, the best-known example being ‘Cotton’s House’, which stood between the Painted Chamber and the House of Commons, and took its name from its most famous occupant, the Stuart antiquary Sir Robert Cotton. Other local residents included several innkeepers, who occupied less salubrious premises on the fringes of the palace estate, and encouraged drunkenness among the servants loitering there while their masters conducted business.

And commercial activity didn’t stop there. The solemn judges in Westminster Hall handed down their verdicts within earshot of scriveners, booksellers and other tradesmen who occupied the space not required by the courts. The Hall was in effect an early modern shopping mall, and these retail opportunities in turn attracted members of the general public, who came both to browse and socialize. After the Restoration, Samuel Pepys would buy both books and clothing here, while attempting to chat up any attractive women he encountered. And alongside Londoners going about their business, there were tourists drawn to Westminster by the history and political importance of the palace, who already followed an established route encompassing the Hall and also the chambers of the Lords and Commons, if Parliament was not sitting. In short, Westminster was one of the busiest locations in the capital, all year round. When Parliament did meet, its members were able to requisition certain rooms for committee meetings, so their presence did have an impact, but that was as far as their control extended. Parliament added to the crush and bustle of the palace, but in the early 17th century it certainly did not define its identity.


Further reading

  • C. and J. Riding (eds.), The Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture (2000)
  • C.R. Kyle and J. Peacey (eds.), Parliament at Work (2002)
  • C.R. Kyle, Theater of State: Parliament and Political Culture in Early Stuart England (2012)

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