As a country with a constitutional monarchy, it comes as no surprise that London has palaces to accommodate the Royals and their families and staff. However, not many people realise that there is more to the London palaces than the ones that are home to the Royal Family.
The buildings better known to most as the Houses of Parliament are more correctly named the Palace of Westminster and are the seat of democracy in the UK. The grand gothic buildings are a quite different prospect to the Queen’s London residence of Buckingham Palace and give a different angle on British public life.
The main seat of the work of the Monarch in the UK, Buckingham Palace is more than just the London home of the Queen; it’s the hub of all official activity of the Royals across the country and the world. The Queen’s household and royal staff operate from the Palace and co-ordinate a busy calendar of events and engagements for not only the Queen but also the main Royals. The Palace itself is the setting for a number of these engagements, with garden parties, banquets, official receptions of foreign dignitaries and royal audiences of various kinds.
The Palace has seen a number of extremely high profile events in the past few years. In the summer of 2011, Prince William, son of the Prince Charles, married his fiancée Catherine Middleton in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey before returning to the Palace for the reception. William and his bride, the Duchess of Cambridge, appeared on the balcony on the east side of the Palace like William’s father and mother before them. Then, one year later, the same balcony saw the appearance of the Queen as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations to greet the enormous crowds of well-wishers that turned out to support her to mark 50 years of her reign.
The Palace is now open to visitors throughout the summer months. It’s possible to take a tour of the rooms State Rooms and see the palatial surroundings for the Queen and her family.
The Palace of Westminster
Better known as the Houses of Parliament, the Palace of Westminster is the set of buildings in which the House of Commons and House of Lords meet to form the British government. The impressive gothic buildings on the banks of the Thames have been the home of rule by the people of Britain since the Middle Ages and was rebuilt after a widespread fire gutted the Palace in the early 19th century.
Organised tours of the House of Commons and House of Lords give you the chance to see the seat of British democracy in action. The House of Commons with its surprisingly small debating chamber is a particular draw and along with the voting lobbies that surround it form only a tiny part of the palace’s vast interior.
The oldest part of the Palace is Westminster Hall, which was completed in 1097. Serving as a debating chamber for both the Houses of Parliament and Lords to sit together, it has in recent years held the audience for a speech by Barack Obama on his 2011 visit to the UK and for the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in her historic address to parliament.
London’s palaces have a huge and on-going role to play in the government and public life of Britain and the British people. From the largely ceremonial nature of the Queen’s London residence to the daily life and work that goes on in the Houses of Parliament, these two buildings are far from fairy-tale castles and have a firm footing in reality.