04 December 2011

Summer visits to three London palaces and a cathedral or two

The Palace of Westminster, seen from Lambeth Palace ... this was the main London residence of English kings for almost 500 years (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The two best-known palaces in London are probably Saint James’s Palace, which was the main London royal residence from 1702 until 1837, and Buckingham Palace, the main London royal residence since 1837.

But during the past few months I have visited three other, oft-forgotten palaces in London: the Palace of Westminster, now the seat of parliamentary government; the Palace of Whitehall, most of which was destroyed by fire over 300 years ago; and Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Palace of Westminster has been the centre of government from the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

My first visit, at the invitation of two dear friends, was to the Palace of Westminster, on the north bank of the Thames, close to Westminster Abbey and to government buildings in Whitehall and Downing Street. The first royal palace was built here in the 11th century, and this was the main London residence of English kings from 1049 to 1530.

By the 13th century, Westminster had become the centre of government, and today it is home to both the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

My visit began in Westminster Hall, the oldest remaining part of the palace. Built in 1097, it later became the home of Parliament, which met there from the 13th century. The hall saw the trials of Sir Thomas More, Cardinal John Fisher, Guy Fawkes and Warren Hastings; here Sir Winston Churchill lay in state; and here Nelson Mandela, Pope Benedict XVI and President Barack Obama addressed both houses of parliament.

When the monarchs moved from Westminster in 1530, Westminster remained the seat of government. When fire destroyed most of the Old Palace in 1834, only Westminster Hall, the Cloisters of Saint Stephen’s, the Chapel of Saint Mary Undercroft and the Jewel Tower were left standing.

The architect Charles Barry won the competition to build the New Palace and drew up plans in the Perpendicular Gothic style, incorporating the remains of the Old Palace, apart from the Jewel Tower. Barry was assisted by AWN Pugin, then the leading authority on Gothic architecture, who designed the decoration and furnishings. Building began in 1840 and lasted for 30 years, with interior decoration continuing until well into the 20th century. Major conservation work continued too, with extensive repairs after World War II, including rebuilding the Commons Chamber after it was bombed in 1941.

The Clock Tower or ‘Big Ben’ ... one of the most visited tourist sights in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Palace of Westminster has over 1,100 rooms, arranged symmetrically around two series of courtyards, 100 staircases and almost 5 km of corridors and passageways spread over four floors. For one moment, I found myself standing in the Central Lobby at the heart of the Palace, directly below the Central Tower. This is a busy junction between the House of Lords to the south, the House of Commons to the north, Saint Stephen’s Hall and the public entrance to the west, and the Lower Waiting Hall and the libraries to the east.

The lobby’s location – halfway between the two chambers – led to its description once as “the political centre of the British Empire.” It is said if you stand under the great chandelier and all the intervening doors are open, you can see both the Royal Throne in the Lords and the Speaker’s Chair in the Commons.

The statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Palace of Westminster officially remains a royal residence for ceremonial purposes. But “Westminster” is now a byword for the British parliament and we speak too of the “Westminster system of government.” The Clock Tower or “Big Ben” is a popular tourist attraction and the world’s best-known clock.

Short-lived Diocese of Westminster

Westminster Abbey served briefly as the cathedral for the short-lived Diocese of Westminster in the 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Palace of Westminster stands next to Westminster Abbey which – despite popular perceptions – is not a cathedral. At the same time as Westminster was given the status of a city, the short-lived Diocese of Westminster was carved out of the Diocese of London, with parishes in Westminster and Middlesex, apart from Fulham, because Fulham Palace was the Bishop of London’s residence.

Westminster Abbey became the Cathedral of Saint Peter, and Thomas Thirlby became the first and only Bishop of Westminster. Although most of the property of Westminster Abbey was to endow the new cathedral chapter; much of it was leased or sold off by the first dean, and the bishop impoverished the new see by granting long leases of its property.

Thirlby was often absent on diplomatic missions on behalf of Henry VIII, and when he became Bishop of Norwich in 1550 the new diocese was merged back into the Diocese of London, while the cathedral became a Benedictine abbey once again.

While Westminster retained its city status, Elizabeth I granted Westminster Abbey a royal charter in 1560, making it a collegiate church. Although still popularly known as Westminster Abbey, its official name is the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter Westminster.

The Dean’s Yard is a hidden haven beside Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As a Royal Peculiar, the abbey and its dean are under the personal jurisdiction of the Sovereign. Previous deans include Richard Chenevix Trench (1856-1864), who was Archbishop of Dublin (1864-1884) at the time of the disestablishment of the Church Ireland. The chapter includes the dean and four residentiary canons – the canon treasurer, the canon steward, the canon theologian and the Rector of Saint Margaret’s Church – assisted by the Receiver-General and the Chapter Clerk.

In the west cloister of Westminster Abbey, a curious marble monument recalls Arthur O’Keeffe, who died in 1756. It claims he was “lineally descended from the Kings of Ireland, the best of Husbands and the worthiest of Men. Deceit and Guile he knew not: Honesty was an innate principle in him.”

The Palace of Whitehall

The memorial to Charles I at the Banqueting House, recalling his execution in Whitehall in 1649 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

If Westminster is the heart of British parliamentary life and democracy, then Whitehall is the heart of government and takes its name from the Palace of Whitehall, the main London residence of monarchs from 1530, when they moved from Westminster, until 1698, when the palace was destroyed by fire.

Archbishop Walter de Grey of York bought the property around 1240 and named it York Place. It was rebuilt in the 15th century and was expanded by Cardinal Wolsey so that it was rivalled only by Lambeth Palace as the greatest house in London – not even the king’s London palaces were as large.

When Cardinal Wolsey was removed from office in 1530, Henry VIII moved his main London residence from the Palace of Westminster to York Place, and the name Whitehall is first recorded in 1532. Henry VIII redesigned, extended and rebuilt the palace; there he married two of his wives, Anne Boleyn in 1533 and Jane Seymour in 1536; and there he died in 1547.

Inigo Jones designed a new Banqueting House for James I in 1622. Its was completed in 1634 with a ceiling by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, who was commissioned by Charles I. However, Charles I did not have a happy association with Whitehall – he was executed at the Banqueting House in 1649. One son, Charles II, died there in 1685. Another son, James II, commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to make a number of alterations and to design a new chapel.

By 1691, Whitehall was the largest palace in Europe, with over 1,500 rooms – larger than either the Vatican or Versailles. However, a fire in 1698 destroyed most of Whitehall, apart from the Banqueting House and some buildings in Scotland Yard. By the second half of the 18th century, much of the site had been cleared and leased for building town houses.

The changing of the guard takes place every hour at Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Banqueting House, used for some time as a chapel for the Horse Guards, is now administered by the Historic Royal Palaces. The memory of the palace survives in Whitehall, the name of the street lined with so many government buildings that we often speak of “Whitehall” when referring to Britain’s central government itself.

Demonstrations outside Downing Street at the height of the conflict in Libya were a reminder of the benefits of democracy and that Whitehall is a working palace (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Banqueting House is all that remains of the palace complex today, although other parts have been incorporated into government buildings in Whitehall, including the Old Treasury, the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Cabinet war rooms and Downing Street. Nearby are the Cenotaph and monuments to famous generals and the women who fought in wars. Opposite the Banqueting House, the changing of the guard at Horse Guards is less visited than its counterpart at Buckingham Palace.

The archbishop’s own palace

The South Front of Lambeth Palace, rebuilt for Archbishop William Howley in the mid-19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Lambeth Palace is across the river from the Palace of Westminster, and stands on the south bank of the Thames. This has been the official London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury since the 13th century. Today, it is the central office for the archbishop and for his national and international ministry.

In summer, the grounds of Lambeth Palace are often used for garden parties for organisations and charities supported by Archbishop Rowan Williams and Mrs Jane Williams, and the Great Hall is used for receptions and events.

Morton’s Tower, the main entrance to Lambeth Palace, was built by Cardinal Morton in the late 15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As summer drew to a close, I was invited to an exhibition in the Library in Lambeth Palace, with its unrivalled collection of manuscripts and rare books. That evening we were joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury at a buffet supper in the Guard Room. This room may date from the 14th century, but Lambeth Palace probably dates back to the late 12th century.

Lambeth Palace has been the official London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury since the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Guard Room was the Great Chamber in mediaeval and Tudor times and one of the most important rooms in the palace until the 16th century. It is said Thomas More was summoned here by Thomas Cromwell to swear an Oath of Supremacy. But More refused to deny the authority of the Pope, and was led from Lambeth Palace to the Tower of London and his execution in 1535.

The Guard Room at Lambeth Palace, seen from the South Courtyard, was the Great Chamber in mediaeval and Tudor times (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Guard Room is lined with portraits of Archbishops of Canterbury from 1602 to 1783 – from the reign of Elizabeth I to the reign of George III – illustrating the changes in episcopal fashions over the centuries. The magnificent arch-braced roof is a contemporary of that in Westminster Hall – across the river in the Palace of Westminster – and predates the walls by 400 years.

Lambeth Palace, seen from Westminster on the opposite bank of the River Thames (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

I left Lambeth Palace by Morton’s Tower, said to be based on the entrance to Saint John’s College in Cambridge, where Cardinal John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury who gives his name to the tower, was a fellow.

Westminster Cathedral stands on land once owned by the Benedictines of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

From there, I walked across Lambeth Bridge and on to Victoria Station to catch a train to King’s Cross and back to Cambridge. Near Victoria I stood before Westminster Cathedral, built in the neo-Byzantine style between 1895 and 1903 for the Roman Catholic community. It stands on land once owned by the Benedictines of Westminster Abbey, and I thought it interesting that all three palaces I visited this year represent the life of Church and State in their own unique way.

Westminster Cathedral was built in the neo-Byzantine style between 1895 and 1903 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in December 2011 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).

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