Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Tour of Parliament

A Baroness friend of Keith's arranged for us to have a private tour of the House of Lords. Unfortunately they had just gone into recess and most of the chamber was undergoing revamping in preparation for the Queen's address and so we didn't get to see everything. Just seeing the preparations was enlightening. So much has to be changed just for a very short visit from the Queen. All the pathways where she walks have to be carpeted blue. A room on the way from the Queen's robing room to the chamber where she will speak was in the process of being transformed into a pathway flanked by seating for VIPs and family. The robing room includes a royal loo and a trapdoor for escape if a Guy Fawkes-esque plot should emerge.

Some other highlights:

We were in the Westminster hall when our tour guide, a security/policeman named Anthony casually mentioned:  "That's the fireplace of Henry VIII."  Of course, since Westminster Hall was built in the 11th century, it had been the fireplace for many other royals as well.  Currently you can see the arc of what would have been the mantle with stairs going down to what would have been the base.  It's immense, as it would need to be to heat an extremely large hall made mostly of stone.

Originally the hall had wooden beams along its length  but in the 14th century, these were replaced with freestanding wooden arches.  It's still holding up the roof today.  At some point they realized that the aptly-named death-watch beetle had been making a snack of the wood.  There were holes in the wood big enough for a man to crawl into.  These were filled with some sort of metal.  As we looked up at the remarkable ceiling, Anthony pointed out one small segment of wood that had been replaced.  In 700 years!  One small piece of wood had to be replaced!  They just don't make houses like that anymore. 

On the floor of the hall are many brass plaques marking so many historic events.  The trial of Guy Fawkes.  The trial of William Wallace.  The lying in state of Winston Churchill (despite not being a royal), various royals--most recently, the Queen Mum.  Our host told us that when the current Queen dies, she will be the last to lie in state here.  Don't know if that's true.  After the monarchy had been restored sometime in the 17th century, they dug up Oliver Cromwell, who had been dead 2 years, and tried him there.  He mounted little defense and was declared guilty.  Then he (his body) was hanged, drawn and quartered.  Overkill?  Literally.

On display was a large stained glass window that will be presented to the Queen on the Diamond Jubilee and then installed at the very front of Westminster Hall.

Westminster Hall is the oldest part of the parliament building.  Most of the rest of it burned in the late 19th century. "Tally sticks" had been used by the exchequer to keep track of debt.  When a loan was given, a stick was marked in a way to indicate the amount of the loan.  Then the stick was halved and each party kept one.  When the debt was repaid, the sticks were matched and burned.  Once, however, more people were literate and the system moved to paper, there were a lot of tally sticks which needed to be disposed.  Here's Charles Dickens on what happened next; 

"... it took until 1826 to get these sticks abolished. In 1834 it was found that there was a considerable accumulation of them; and the question then arose, what was to be done with such worn-out, worm-eaten, rotten old bits of wood? The sticks were housed in Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for firewood by the miserable people who lived in that neighborhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they should never be, and so the order went out that they were to be privately and confidentially burned. It came to pass that they were burned in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, over-gorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the paneling; the paneling set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others; and we are now in the second million of the cost thereof."

So, most of the building was re-built in the late 19th century, which makes the chambers a 'new' building, which is hard for my American self to take in.  But then when you look at the stone walls built in the 12th century...well...

Also surviving the fire, under Westminster Hall;  The Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft.  It was completed in the 13th century and is still used for weddings and such.  The incredibly beautiful font, from the 13th C, is still there and still used for christenings and baptisms.  I wish I had been allowed to take a picture.  The chapel itself is fairly small, although ornate, and was used primarily by the royal household and court.  For some time it was used as a stable and other less elevated functions until it was revealed to have survived the big fire and was restored.

Back to the House of Lords.....  Not all of it was burned as we learned when our guide told us that we had entered Henry VIII's nursery.  Around the top of the wall were portraits of Hank and all of his wives.  Not sure when those were commissioned or installed.  I can't imagine Henry himself commemorating wife after wife after they were deceased (she said politely). 

I'm sure there's more, but that's all I've got for now....

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