Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Making Connections Past and Present: A personal tour of the Houses of Parliament

by Elizabeth Chadwick

A little while ago, A reader called Mike Pinchen wrote to me to say he'd been enjoying the novels about William Marshal. He also told me that he worked as an usher for Black Rod's department at the House of Lords and that should I ever wish for a bespoke guided tour of the Palace of Westminster, he would be delighted to show me round. How could I refuse? What a wonderful and unique opportunity. I accepted with alacrity and delight. Thank you Mike. What gave the invitation that extra frisson is that 800 years ago, John Marshal - hero of my novel A Place Beyond Courage, was in charge of the King's ushers, and the Marshal always carried a rod of office when on official business. We also know the name of two of the ushers from John Marshal's time - Bonhomme and Ralf. What a connection down the centuries. It gives me a feeling of warmth and pride and security to know that the job still exists. I guess that's what experiencing roots and continuity does for you.I arranged for my agent, Carole Blake, to come along too and we met up with Mike outside the Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster one morning towards the end of May. The Palace, incorporating the House of Commons and the House of Lords, is a strong man's stone-throw from Westminster Abbey, built on the command of Edward the Confessor who would have been able to look out from the Anglo Saxon palace to view the building of his Abbey. The Palace did exist in the mid 11th century, although in a very different form to the one standing today. The current magnificent neo Gothic buildings were constructed over a period of 30 years in the mid 19th century after the old palace burned down, taking much of a thousand years of history with it. Areas, however, remain within the newer complex, illuminating the more distant past like lantern light in a long tunnel. 
We weren't allowed to take photographs in many of the areas for obvious reasons, and there was so much to absorb and observe during our tour that I would have to write another novel to report it all! However, to say that we were allowed to take photos in one or two places and that some of the highlights for me - apart from seeing the centre of government, were:
Standing in the House of Commons and seeing how small it actually is. It always seems so much bigger on the television, but it is really quite intimate. The Prime Minister's dispatch box used to contain dispatches from around the Commonwealth, that were read out during sessions, but now, it apparently contains 'a pile of mouldy bibles.' !
 The gap between the speakers when they are standing at the dispatch boxes is just over two sword-lengths - for obvious reasons!
It was wonderful to see Westminster Hall, originally built by William Rufus in the late 11th Century because the existing hall was too small for his needs. The bottom section of the hall is still of that date, but the stunning hammerbeam roof dates to the time of Richard II.
 Mike told us that Charles II had Oliver Cromwell dug up, removed his head, and hung it on a beam (right hand side nearest the camera) until it shrivelled up to the size of a pear. It's not there any more thank goodness! What was on show on Westminster hall though, was the remains of King Henry II's 'high table' which was also used for King Richard's coronation. It is made of purbeck marble rather than a wooden trestle and the area housing its remnants can be seen on the left mid-foreground of the photo. At one time parliament used to meet in this hall. There was also a gallery above for observers. To the right of the picture out of shot and down some stairs is the wonderful, wonderful chapel of St. Mary Undercroft. It's not on the beaten track to tourists and I feel very privileged to have been allowed to see it. The colours are so rich and the carving and detail so ornate that it gave me a sense like no other I have experienced of what the interior of a medieval church would have looked like. See the end of the post for photographs.
Following on from the chapel, we were given a peek into the broom cupboard where suffragette Emily Davidson hid on the eve of the census of 1911, so that she could give her address as the House of Commons. She was to die two years later when she threw herself under the horses as the Derby was being run, in order to highlight the plight of women.
 After this, we were taken to the House of Lords via the Queen's robing room, where she is dressed to prepare for the State opening of Parliament. Apparently this takes place behind a screen. Prince Philip has his own dressing area in the same room but in a different part and enjoys a glass of single malt whiskey at the same time!
The House of Lords is stunning, but unfortunately photography is not permitted. Pugin's work on the throne and surround has to be seen to be believed. Everywhere is rich with gold leaf and thicker gold itself on the hands of the angel at the side of the throne. A gallery runs around the top of the house, and the base of it is covered with a red curtain. This is apparently because when the Lords were in debate and ladies' skirts began to rise in the post Edwardian era, the flash of an ankle from those in the viewing gallery was extremely distracting to chaps trying to be good orators.
Statues of the twelve barons of the most importance concerning the Magna Carta look down on the House of Lords from the gallery. William Marshal stands in a prominent position to the right of the throne if one is looking down the house towards the throne. Roger Bigod is there too, further down on the left from the same viewing point. Also William Earl of Salisbury who features in The Time of Singing and is a strong secondary character in my new work in progress. This was a stunning moment too, and almost a lump to the throat moment to know that these people are still represented in the cornerstone of government. What William thinks of it all, I don't know.
Most touching, and a little sad was the monument to employees of the Palace of Westminster who died in service. It's a rather lonely little inset in a side wall and has been overshadowed by a modern extension structure. Against all the gilding and opulence inside, it seems forlorn and perhaps even a little disrespectful. One feels that such a memorial should have more presence. It was a sobering thought and helped to keep us grounded amid all the rich surroundings.
My sense of direction is a trifle dyslexic and I can't remember now which part of the tour I saw it, but we were also vouched a glimpse of the wall paintings from Henry III's private apartments - his 'Painted chamber.' Again no photographs, but I could have stood for hours and looked at these. They were partially destroyed during the fire at Westminster, but remnants survive, and again, lead me to realise how colourful the medieval world was and it made me long to go back to the 12th or 13th century for a holiday.I have run out of my allotted time to write this blog post and I'm away researching next week, but I wanted to share this with you all first, and to say a huge thank you to Mike Pinchen for showing myself and Carole such a unique and important slice of our country's past and its
future. The sight of the marks Black Rod's staff of office have made on the doors of Parliament, reinforced to me how our traditions live on. Those marks could as easily have been made by John or William Marshal in their day.

St Stephens undercroft chapel Westminster 


  1. Wonderful article. One of the places I would most like to see.

  2. Thanks for the post. Very nice. The pictures give it depth. My era is Early Modern England, and yes, Cromwell's head hung in the Hall for some twenty years, before it was whisked away one dark night. Word has it, it's buried somewhere on University of Cambridge grounds in a biscuit tin.

  3. I toured the place one dismally bitter February day and I'll never forget standing in the chilling cold of Westminster Hall, with that great stone floor and those great stone walls (all cold!) and suddenly really understanding, first hand, why the Tudor men wore those long fur-lined coats all the time and those little hats...they were trying to keep warm, bless 'em!

  4. That was a marvelous tour you were given and thank you for posting this so we could go along with you. (-;

    Thanks for the pics and the posting!

  5. Elizabeth, we are privileged to have been able to share this tour with you vicariously. Thanks for bringing it to our blog!

  6. Very very VERY interesting. Thank you.


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