Top things to do in London: visiting the old palace of Westminster

With the Restoration and Renewal project in full swing in Westminster, offices are moving and buildings are being re-purposed to accommodate works, and the ever-changing jigsaw of scaffolding can be seen from street as well as inside the parliamentary estate. Here, at the History of Parliament Trust we thought it pertinent to explore the development of parliamentary buildings and their historic over the centuries uses by way of a blog series. Today our ‘Parliamentary Buildings’ series continues with a piece from the editor of our House of Lords 1715-90 project, Dr Robin Eagles. Robin discusses the pre-1834 palace of Westminster as a tourist attraction in the late 17th and 18th centuries…

Illustration by Andrzej Krauze

On Thursday, 16th October 1834, a party was being shown around Parliament. It should have been a routine tour of what was by then one of the prime tourist sites of London. Arriving in the House of Lords they remarked on the smoke that seemed to be seeping up through the floor. Assured that this was normal they let the matter drop, but members of staff increasingly realized that this was far more than they were used to in the stuffy chamber. In fact, the whole place was ablaze and within a matter of hours, much of the old palace of Westminster had been destroyed by fire.

Westminster had had many guises in its life: royal palace, home of parliament and the courts, shopping mall, and location of several renowned coffee shops and taverns. The memory of infamous trials held in Westminster Hall, not least that of Charles I, gave it a further allure and helped develop it into a key tourist destination.

Not long after the Restoration, in 1661, the Dutch merchant, William Schellinks, recorded his impressions of Westminster during a tour of London, dropping into his diary the miscellany of anecdotes that had clearly been fed to him. Westminster Hall, he noted, was ‘the largest hall in England’ and the oak beams in the roof ‘rot-proof’. He progressed to the Lords and Commons, the former decorated with tapestries and the canopy over the throne ‘very precious with gold and silver, worked with the needle by Queen Mary during her imprisonment’. A few years later, Parliament attracted one of its more exalted visitors in the form of Cosmo de Medici, grand duke of Tuscany. Westminster Hall was picked out as a curious large structure, more suitable as a church than a law court. He noted the presence of the stall-holders with their moveable shops in the hall, along with the courts located in the corners. From there, the grand duke proceeded to the House of Commons, with which he seems not to have been overly impressed:

the circumference of it is not large; it is without any ornament, and is surrounded with benches for the members to sit upon

View of Old Palace Yard, circa 1700 © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 6263

Grand duke Cosmo thought more of the Lords, though more on account of the people associated with it than the elegance (or otherwise) of the chamber, and he noted that as Charles II at that point had no (legitimate) son, the chairs arranged on either side of the throne were occupied by his brother, the duke of York, and cousin ‘Prince Robert’ (better known as Rupert). Besides the seating, though, there was little else for him to see. Cosmo visited when Parliament was not in session, so the walls were bare of the tapestries Schellink had observed, as they were only there when the chamber was in use.

Just over 50 years after Grand duke Cosmo’s visit, in 1725 the Swiss traveller, Cesar de Saussure embarked on an extended tour of Britain, taking in many of the key sights of London early in his trip. These included the inevitable visit to the palace of Westminster, where he remarked on Westminster Hall, ‘filled on either side by booths occupied by booksellers, silversmiths, printers, and picture-dealers’ and the chambers of the Lords and Commons. Unlike Duke Cosmo, de Saussure did see the decorative wall-hangings in place. He regaled his readers with an entirely spurious tale describing the origin of the Armada tapestries as pieces that had formerly belonged to Mary Queen of Scots, ‘and which she is supposed to have embroidered, with the help of her ladies, during her long captivity’. It is not clear whether Saussure himself was confused, or whether his guide had conflated the origin of the tapestries with Schellinks’ descriptions of the decorations on the canopy over the throne.

Saussure appears to have been guilty of perpetuating other erroneous ‘origin myths’, notably of the term ‘hurrah’, which he described as the English version of ‘Vive le Roi’, rather than (as appears to be the case) a handy expression of full-throated approval of no obvious meaning, first heard in the 1680s as a variant on the older ‘Huzza’ [OED].

By the middle years of the 18th century (if not before) Parliament was a fully-fledged tourist destination. This was reflected in the number of descriptions of the palace, its environs and general topographical guides informing the well-read traveller what it was they were looking at when they visited. Daniel Defoe’s A Tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, published around the same time as Saussure’s tour, had this to say about the Lords, noting it:

a venerable old place, though it must be said to be much straitened in the several avenues to it, and rooms above it; and particularly the matted gallery, the lobby, the back ways the king goes to it, are very short of the requisite dignity or convenience of the place, and of the glory of a king of Great Britain

View of Old Palace Yard, circa 1760 © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 2944

About 50 years later, Walter Harrison was more generous. He thought the Lords ‘a spacious lofty room… hung with fine old tapestry’. Britannica Curiosa (1777) described the royal entrance to the Lords ‘through a plain but neat portal’ and echoed Harrison’s description of the chamber as being ‘spacious and lofty’. It also pointed out the ‘handsome gallery’ facing the throne, ‘for the reception of ladies, foreign ministers, &c’ and described in detail (once again) the designs of the Armada tapestries. The work was also impressed by the Commons: ‘a spacious room, wainscoted up to the ceiling’ and made a point of complimenting ‘that admirable architect’ Sir Christopher Wren for his adaptations, including the galleries, and insisted that the lower House surpassed ‘the House of Peers in beauty, being elegant and convenient’.

For some travellers, among them the American, Robert Hunter Morris, who was in London with his father in the mid-1730s, a visit to Parliament might be capped off with attendance at a debate in one or other of the Houses, but what is clear is that for the discerning traveller, able to afford the fee claimed by the housekeepers (or their deputies), access to the very heart of the old palace was far from difficult throughout the 18th and into the 19th centuries. It was an experience that was transformed by the blaze as the hotchpotch of medieval and later buildings gave way to a purpose-built legislature and a whole new tourist opportunity.


Further reading:

  • Caroline Shenton, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012)
  • The Journal of William Schellinks’ travels in England 1661-1663, ed. Maurice Exwood and H.L. Lehmann (1993)
  • Travels of Cosmo the Great (1821)
  • Daniel Defoe, A Tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (4 vols, 1753)

For other posts about parliamentary building and their uses click here.

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