February 21, 2024

Palace of Westminster & Penhurst Palace

Palace of Westminster

The Houses of Parliament occupy the site of a royal palace which flourished from the time of Edward the Confessor until Henry VIII moved to Whitehall and St. James’s. Although the Tower of London could accommodate the royal entourage, most kings found Westminster more congenial than the volatile city of London. There was convenient transport between the two by barge along the Thames.

Parliament’s relationship with the palace is an old one, since the House of Lords regularly met in the private royal apartments from the fourteenth century and the House of Commons used the collegiate chapel.

Several royal palaces were unfortified even in Norman times and Westminster was one of them. The precinct wall that surrounded the palace never quite developed into a defensive curtain, though Edward III commissioned a youthful Henry Yevele to build two towers along its line in 1365. One of them, the original Clock Tower, has disappeared beneath its famous successor. The Jewel Tower survives owing to later use as a repository for Parliamentary records. Now an isolated structure facing, and overawed by, the Victoria Tower, it occupied the southwest corner of the medieval palace precinct.

The present windows, enlargements in 1718, do not conceal the defensive character of the tower, and the ground floor is covered by a vault with beautifully carved bosses. As a matter of fact, the Jewel Tower, as its name suggests, was built as a secure place for the extensive treasures of the King’s privy wardrobe.

The tower is a rectangular structure with a smaller wing at right angles, carefully contrived to stand completely outside the angle of the precinct and thus not encroach upon the King’s private garden, which lay behind. The moat, reinstated at this point, had to be pushed out onto a piece of land appropriated from Westminster Abbey, much to the annoyance of the abbot and monks.

Penhurst Palace

At the heart of this great mansion is one of England’s finest medieval manor houses. Sir John de Pulteney, four times Lord Mayor of London, built it after he purchased the manor about 1338. His house conforms to the usual domestic layout of the later Middle Ages, the hall being flanked on one side by service rooms and on the other by the solar block.

Porches from both north and south lead into the screened passage of the hall. This magnificent chamber is virtually untouched by time, and its chestnut roof is one of the glories of medieval carpentry. Its main beams are supported on carved figures, other authentic features being the tiled floor, the step up to the dais and the central hearth. The louvre in the roof has been cunningly eliminated.

The carved Tudor screen conceals three doors leading to the buttery, the kitchen corridor and the pantry. The large solar, now equipped as a dining room, lies over a vaulted undercroft of unusual grandeur.

At right angles to the solar is the so-called Buckingham Wing, added to augment the accommodation by John, Duke of Bedford. He bought Penshurst in 1430, while Regent of England, on behalf of his young nephew, Henry VI.

The Duke if Bedford enclosed the manor house within a great square of walls and towers. There were towers at each corner and probably in the middle of each side. The house stood well inside the enclosure so comfort did not have to be compromised.

Eighteenth century demolition has robbed Penshurst of its surrounding curtain, deliberately restoring a domestic ambience. Only four of the oblong towers live on. The western corner towers form part of the present mansion, linked to the older core by long wings of Elizabethan origin. The other two are gate towers.