Tours are available when Parliament is not in session - see here for details. The Jewel Tower is managed by English Heritage.
Westminster Palace. Originally contained within a single walled enclosure, the site was divided into two when the legal and administrative roles started to encroach upon the site’s use as a Royal residence.
Jewel Tower. Built during the reign of Edward III, the Jewel Tower partially encroached upon land owned by Westminster Abbey. Originally used to store Royal treasure, it later became the repository for documentation from the House of Lords. In 1869 it was taken over by the Board of Trade Standards Department who used it until 1938.
Westminster Hall. The hugely impressive medieval hammer-beam roof of Westminster Hall.
Victoria Tower. A Royal entrance and a replacement document repository for the Jewel Tower.
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
Houses of Parliament: The tour includes Westminster Hall plus both the Houses of Lords and Commons. Highlights include the spectacular medieval hammer-beam roof of Westminster Hall. Note that this tour is only available when Parliament is not sitting (Saturdays or Parliamentary Holidays).
Jewel House: A three storey building which is architecturally interesting and has some impressive sculpted limestone capitals on display as well as the remains of some timber foundations. However, with no parapet access nor any real interpretation of Westminster Palace (other than a model for children), there isn’t a huge amount to see.
Palace of Westminster
Notes: Both the Visitor Access for the Palace of Westminster and the Jewel Tower can be found off Abingdon Street. There is an underground car park in immediate vicinity of the Jewel Tower off Great College Street. The nearest Underground station is Westminster.
First established as a Royal residence by Edward the Confessor, Westminster was adopted by the Normans and converted into a substantial Palace. By the thirteenth century some components of Government permanently based themselves on the site and in the sixteenth century it became the enduring home of Parliament.
HISTORY OF WESTMINSTER PALACE
Although there may well have been an earlier residence on the site, the first known structure at Westminster was an Anglo-Saxon church, dedicated to St Peter, which was built in the eighth century AD. At this time Westminster was effectively an island with the River Thames on the east and two branches of the River Tyburn, a tributary of the Thames, surrounding the other sides. It was known as the West Minster (the West Monastery) to differentiate it from the East Minster (St Pauls), which stood in the heart of the former Roman walled town of Londinium, which was the main population centre at that time. The church was rebuilt as a Benedictine Abbey in the tenth century AD and at this time it was adopted as a Royal church starting a long association with the monarchs and Government that endures to this day.
It was Edward the Confessor (1042-66) who founded the first Royal residence on the site and who also rebuilt the Abbey. The latter occupied the central ground on the island and accordingly the Royal complex - which presumably included a Hall, Royal apartments and ancillary buildings - was built close to the waterfront. The Royal interest continued following the Norman invasion as William I was keen to prove his legitimacy by demonstrating continuity with Edward's regime. By the late eleventh century AD, Westminster was unique in England for being known as a Palace (derived from palatium in reference to the imperial residences that occupied the Palatine hill in Rome) and a clear indication of its special status. Its importance can also be derived from the construction of the Great Hall, today known as Westminster Hall, by William II (1087-1100). At the time of its completion, around 1099, it was Europe's largest building.
Throughout the early Norman period, the nominal capital of England was Winchester although in reality the Royal court was a mobile affair that moved around the country from castle to castle. However, the reigns of Henry II (1154-80) and King John (1199-1216), saw some Governmental institutions settling permanently at Westminster - most notably the Royal Exchequer. This continued apace during the reign of Henry III (1216-72) who rebuilt Westminster Abbey and positioned more permanent administrative functions at the Palace including the Court of Common Pleas, satisfying a key demand of the Magna Carta. In addition the Court of the King's Bench and the Chancery Court were established at Westminster whilst the first known Parliament at Westminster sat in 1259 within the Painted Chamber. This trend continued during the reign of Edward I (1372-1307) although the venue altered between the Painted Chamber, White Chamber (later the permanent venue for the House of Lords) or Westminster Abbey. However, by the 1350s, the extent of such administrative roles was increasingly encroaching upon the Palace's Royal residential function. Accordingly the northern part of the site, including Westminster Hall, became used exclusively for this purpose. The southern portion, which became known as the Privy Palace, saw an additional Great Hall added for use by the King along with the Painted Chamber. Edward I also rebuilt St Stephen's Chapel into a substantial two storey structure designed to impress.
Further modifications were made to the Palace by Edward III in 1342 and again in the 1360s when Henry Yevele, Master Mason, was commissioned to oversee the work. He built the Clock Tower, which contained a bell named 'Edward of Westminster' for regulating the timings of the adjacent law courts, and also constructed the Jewel Tower. The latter was constructed as a secure stowage for Royal treasure removed from the Tower of London. Yevele also remodelled Westminster Hall heightening the walls and adding the Gothic windows. Hugh Herland, carpenter, was commissioned to create the vastly impressive hammer-beam timber roof that is still in place today.
Westminster Palace was devastated by fire in 1512 and this led to the site becoming the permanent home of Parliament. The extent of the damage is unknown but it prompted Henry VIII to abandoned the site as a Royal residence in favour of the newly built Palace of Whitehall. Part of the Privy Palace at Westminster was demolished to provide building materials for this new structure but clearly significant parts were left standing as the Queen's Chamber was used as the permanent venue for the House of Lords. The Commons used the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey until 1547 when they were given the abandoned St Stephen's Chapel that had been closed as part of the English Reformation. The Jewel Tower became the storage site for Records of Parliament around the late sixteenth century and this evolved into it becoming the formal repository for Acts and Ordinances from the House of Lords. The decaying structure of the Jewel Tower was repaired and upgraded in 1717 with purpose built storages for the records. A brick built parapet, capped in Portland Stone, was added as part of these upgrades. In 1801 the House of Lords was relocated to the Lesser Hall, once occupied by the Court of Requests.
On Thursday 16 October 1834, the Palace of Westminster was gutted by fire. In the early evening, two under floor stoves situated beneath the House of Lords had been inappropriately used for burning obsolete accounting equipment. A fire ensued that engulfed the House of Lords and quickly spread through the rest of the Palace although the prevailing winds meant the Jewel Tower, complete with its precious records, and Westminster Hall were saved intact. Parts of St Stephen's Chapel were also salvageable including the Undercroft Chapel.
A Royal Commission was appointed to select a design for a new Parliament building and in 1836 held a public competition. A gothic style structure, proposed by Charles Barry, was chosen and work started in 1840. The plan included reclaiming eight acres of land from the River Thames and incorporated the surviving fragments of the Palace (excluding the Jewel Tower) into the design. The facility was purpose-built for Parliamentary business with all key elements of the Governmental machine - the Sovereign's throne, the House of Lords and the House of Commons - positioned in a straight line through the centre of the structure. Construction took significantly longer than expected but the building was sufficiently complete for the House of Lords to start using their chamber in 1847 followed by the Commons in 1852. The new facility included a purpose-built, fire-proof document storage - the Victoria Tower - and accordingly the Jewel Tower became superfluous.
With the outbreak of World War II and the risk of aerial bombardment of London, Parliament relocated to Church House in Westminster which proved to be a prudent move as the Palace was damaged by German bombers on fourteen occasions. The most notably attack occurred on 10 May 1941 when both the House of Commons and Westminster Hall were hit by incendiary bombs; whilst the fire brigade saved the latter, the Commons was completely gutted. The Jewel Tower also suffered significant devastation when it too was hit by an incendiary. Nevertheless in June 1941, the Commons moved back into the Palace and sat in the House of Lords. The Lords themselves remained in Church House but returned to the Palace in 1950.
The Palace of Westminster was finally transferred from Royal control to the Houses of Parliament themselves in 1965 although the Crown maintained joint control of Westminster Hall and the historic Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. Today serious consideration is being given to temporarily relocating Parliament from Westminster to enable substantial renovation of the premises.