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Palace of Westminster, London


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The Benedictine abbey on Thorney Island, known as the ‘Minster in the West’ to distinguish it from St Paul's, suffered heavily during Danish incursions, and when Edward ‘the Confessor’ rebuilt it he commenced a new palace close by on the riverside, later occupied by William I. The great hall was erected by William ‘Rufus’ (1097), heightened and given a hammerbeam roof by Richard II (1397–9), and was used increasingly as an administrative centre, since both Treasury and Exchequer were by then centred at Westminster; parliaments, law courts, impeachment trials, coronation and other royal banquets continued to function despite recurrent flooding from the Thames and fires (notably 1263, 1298). St Stephen's Chapel was added to the east, domestic quarters were built by Henry II for the household, and Henry III spent lavishly on both abbey and palace: this was his favourite residence, and the Painted Chamber, covered with biblical scenes, was impressive. Although Westminster was the main royal residence, it was also a ceremonial palace, developing into a warren of corridors swarming with royal retainers and lawyers, and sprawling over several acres. Shortly after exuberant celebrations for the birth of a (short-lived) son to Henry VIII in early 1512, a major fire destroyed the greater part of the palace. Henry consequently moved to Whitehall, and Westminster was never used again as a royal residence.

After the Reformation, St Stephen's Chapel was secularized and assigned to the lower house of Parliament, its crypt being used as a parliamentary storehouse; the Lords settled in the White Chamber, with the Jewel House built for Edward III (1365–6) housing their records. Only Westminster Hall, the cloisters, and the Jewel House survived the conflagration of 1834, after which new Houses of Parliament were constructed to Barry's designs and Pugin's ornamentation.

Subjects: British History.


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