Houses-of-Parliament2 Both Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster (these days better known as the Houses of Parliament – pictured) pre-date 1215 but unlike today in 1215 the upon which they stood was known as Thorney Island.

Formed by two branches of the Tyburn River as they ran down to the River Thames, Thorney Island (a small, marshy island apparently named for the thorny plants which once grew there) filled the space between them and the Thames (and remained so until the Tyburn’s branches were covered over).

One branch entered the Thames in what is now Whitehall, just to the north of where Westminster Bridge; another apparently to the south of the abbey, along the route of what is now Great College Street. (Yet another branch apparently entered the river near Vauxhall Bridge).

The abbey’s origins go back to Saxon times when what was initially a small church – apparently named after St Peter – was built on the site. By 960AD it had become a Benedictine monastery and, lying west of what was then the Saxon city in Lundenwic, it become known as the “west minster” (St Paul’s, in the city, was known as “east minster”) and a royal church.

The origins of the Palace of Westminster don’t go back quite as far but it was the Dane King Canute, who ruled from 1016 to 1035, who was the first king to build a palace here. It apparently burnt down but was subsequently rebuilt by King Edward the Confessor as part of a grand new palace-abbey complex.

For it was King Edward, of course, who also built the first grand version of Westminster Abbey, a project he started soon after his accession in 1042. It was consecrated in 1065, a year before his death and he was buried there the following year (his bones still lie inside the shrine which was created during the reign of King Henry III when he was undertaking a major rebuild of the minster).

Old Palace Yard dates from Edward’s rebuild – it connected his palace with his new abbey – while New Palace Yard, which lies at the north end of Westminster Hall, was named ‘new’ when it was constructed with the hall by King William II (William Rufus) in the late 11th century.

Westminster gained an important boost in becoming the pre-eminent seat of government in the kingdom when King Henry II established a secondary treasury here (the main treasury had traditionally been in Winchester, the old capital in Saxon times) and established the law courts in Westminster Hall.

King John, meanwhile, followed his father in helping to establish London as the centre of government and moved the Exchequer here. He also followed the tradition, by then well-established, by being crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1199 and it was also in the abbey that he married his second wife, Isabella, daughter of Count of Angouleme, the following year. 

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The tower at the northern end of the Houses of Parliament is known to many simply as Big Ben – what isn’t often realised is that (as was pointed out in this earlier article) Big Ben actually refers to a bell inside the tower and not the tower itself. The tower, rather, has the rather plain moniker of The Clock Tower. But in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, that’s all about to change.

News broke this week that politicians have decided to rename the tower the Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth II. The move does have precedent – the great southern tower which stands over the Sovereign’s Entrance to the House of Lords was once known as the King’s Tower but was renamed the Victoria Tower in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 (Queen Victoria is the only other British monarch to have celebrated a Diamond Jubilee).

The 96 metre high tower, part of the Houses of Parliament (officially known as the Palace of Westminster), is not the first clock tower to stand on the site of the palace. The first, located on the north side of New Palace Yard, was built in 1288-90 in the reign of King Edward I and contained a bell and clock.

It was replaced in 1367 with a tower that featured the first public chiming clock in England. This second tower was demolished in 1707 after falling into disrepair and replaced with a sundial.

Following a fire which destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster in 1834, architect Sir Charles Barry was selected to design new buildings to house Parliament but interestingly his initial designs didn’t include a clock tower – this was added to the plans in 1836.

Construction of the new Clock Tower, which was built from the inside out and clad in Yorkshire Anston stone and Cornish granite, began in September 1843 but wasn’t completed until 1859 following considerable delays. The ‘lantern’ at the top is known as the ‘Ayrton Light’, named for Acton Smee Ayrton, an MP and the First Commissioner of Works in the 1870s. Not installed until 1885, it is lit up when either House is sitting at night.

The clock was constructed by Edward John Dent and his stepson Frederick to the designs of Edmund Beckett Denison. It included a “revolutionary mechanism” known as the ‘Grimthorpe Escapement’ (Denison was later created Baron Grimthorpe), which helped ensure the clock’s accuracy despite external factors like wind pressure on the clock’s hands and which was adopted in many subsequent clocks. The design of the dials were a collaboration between Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin.

The clock was installed in April 1859 but the cast-iron hands were too heavy and had to be replaced with copper ones. It began keeping time on 31st May, 1859.

It’s worth noting that the tower tilts at 0.26 degrees to the north-west but experts say this is apparently not going to be a major structural problem for 10,000 years.

For more on the Clock Tower including a terrific virtual tour, see www.parliament.uk/bigben. It is possible to tour the Houses of Parliament – including climbing the 334 steps to the top of the Clock Tower – but this is only open to UK residents (and they book up months in advance). For more on the tours, see www.parliament.uk/visiting/visiting-and-tours/ukvisitors/bigben/.

UPDATED: Excitement has been building for months ahead of this weekend’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations which include a 1,000 boat flotilla which will sail down the Thames on Sunday, the Diamond Jubilee concert on Monday and National Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral on Tuesday which will be followed by a ceremonial procession back to Buckingham Palace.

• First to the flotilla. The formal river procession will be held between 2pm and 6pm, starting upriver of Battersea Bridge and finishing downriver of Tower Bridge. The Queen and her family will be boarding the Royal barge, the Spirit of Chartwell, near Albert Bridge at 2.30pm and will travel upriver at the centre of the flotilla with the aim of pulling up alongside HMS President, near Tower Bridge, at 4.15pm.

The flotilla will be one of the largest ever assembled on the river and feature rowing, working and pleasure boats of all shapes and sizes decked out for the occasion. In addition as many as 30,000 people will be aboard passenger boats and there will also be music barges and boats spouting geysers as well as specially constructed craft like a floating belfry. It is estimated that it will take the flotilla around 75 minutes to pass any static point along the route.

Downriver of London Bridge, near the end of the pageant’s seven mile (11 kilometre) course, a gun salute will be fired and the procession will pass through an ‘Avenue of Sail’ formed by traditional sailing vessels, oyster smacks, square riggers, naval vessels and others. For more on the pageant (including the location of large viewing screens – these positions will be regulated from 8am onwards – and road closures as well as an interactive map of the route), head to www.thamesdiamondjubileepageant.org.

• Diamond Jubilee Concert and Beacons. To be held outside Buckingham Palace, close to the Victoria Memorial, on the evening of Monday, 4th June, the concert – which starts at around 7.30pm and features everyone from Elton John to Paul McCartney and Shirley Bassey – will be televised live by the BBC (unless you’re lucky enough to have one of the 10,000 balloted tickets meaning you get to have a picnic in the palace gardens and see the concert). For those who can’t go but would like to experience some of the atmosphere, Royal Parks are setting up screens along The Mall, in St James’s Park and in Hyde Park.

At 10.30pm that night, the Queen will light the National Beacon outside Buckingham Palace, the last in a network of beacons to be lit across the country. More than 4,000 beacons will be lit by communities across the UK and in Commonwealth countries around the world between 10-10.30pm that night (for more on the beacons, see www.diamondjubileebeacons.co.uk).

• National Service of Thanksgiving and Carriage Procession. On Tuesday, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh will leave Buckingham Palace at 10.15am and travel by car to St Paul’s Cathedral via the Mall, through Trafalgar Square, down the Strand and Fleet Street and up Ludgate Hill to St Paul’s. There they and the 2,000 invited guests will attend the National Service of Thanksgiving, conducted by the Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Rev Dr David Ison (the Archbishop of Canterbury will preach).

At 11.30am, the Queen and Duke will then head to Mansion House for a reception (via St Paul’s Churchyard and Queen Victoria Street), hosted by the Lord Mayor of London David Wootton, Court of Aldermen and Court of Common Council. Other members of the Royal family will attend a reception at Guildhall. At 12.30pm, the  Queen and members of the Royal Family will then head to Westminster Hall (via Queen Victoria Street, St Paul’s Churchyard, Ludgate Hill, Fleet Street, the Strand, Whitehall and Parliament Square), entering through the Sovereign’s Entrance of the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) at 12.40pm. There, they will attend the Diamond Jubilee Lunch.

At 2.20pm, the Queen and Prince Philip will lead a carriage procession from the Palace of Westminster to Buckingham Palace (via New Palace Yard, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and The Mall), riding in a 1902 State Landau. They will be followed by the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall in a State Landau, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Kate) and Prince Harry in another State Landau. If it’s raining, these will be replaced by the Australian State Coach, Queen Alexandra’s State Coach and the Glass Coach. Military personnel will line the route, a 60 gun salute will be fired and a Guard of Honor will await them in the Buckingham Palace forecourt.

At 3.30pm, the Queen and members of the Royal Family in the carriage procession will appear on the balcony at Buckingham Palace to wave to the crowds and witness an RAF flypast and a Feu de Joie – a celebratory volley of rifle fire – which will be given as a salute in the palace forecourt.

There’s plenty more happening over the weekend including many local street parties – far too much for us to record here. So for more, head to the official Diamond Jubilee site, www.thediamondjubilee.org (or The Big Lunch for local lunches – www.thebiglunch.com). You can purchase a copy of the official souvenir programme online at www.royalcollectionshop.co.uk/diamond-jubilee-1/diamond-jubilee-official-souvenir-programme.html or download it at www.itunes.co.uk.

Reckon you can take a good photo? We’re looking for great images of this weekend’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations (just email us at exploringlondon@gmail.com).

Want to read more about the Queen? Why not check out Sixty Glorious Years: Queen Elizabeth II, Diamond Jubilee, 1952-2012, Queen Elizabeth II: A Diamond Jubilee Souvenir Album, or Debrett’s: The Queen – The Diamond JubileeFor related music, check out Diamond Jubilee: A Classical CelebrationThe Diamond Jubilee Album or Gary Barlow & the Commonwealth Band’s Sing EP (featuring Prince Harry).