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Westminster in 1731: Part 3
Posted on Oct 17, 2006 - 06:15 PM by Bill McCann

"London in 1731" is a wonderful guide book to the city which was penned sometime in the early 18th century and subsequently brought up to date. The author is supposed to be a Portuguese merchant named Don Manoel Gonzales but the internal evidence demonstrates that this is almost certainly a nom de plume. It is more likely that our author was an accomplished native of London. The guide was edited by Professor Henry Morley and published by Cassell as part of their wonderful little National Library series in 1888. Here is his description of Westminster. In part 3 we visit Westminster Hall and the Houses of Pariament.



Westminster Hall is one of the largest rooms in Europe, being two hundred and twenty-eight feet in length, fifty-six feet broad, and ninety feet high. The walls are of stone, the windows of the Gothic form, the floor stone, and the roof of timber covered with lead; and having not one pillar in it, is supported by buttresses. It is usually observed that there are no cobwebs ever seen in this hall, and the reason given for this is, that the timber of which the roof is composed is Irish oak, in which spiders will not harbour; but I am inclined to believe that this is a fact not to be depended on, for I find the timber for rebuilding and repairing the Palace of Westminster in the reign of Richard III. was brought from the forests in Essex; and as there is no colour from history to surmise that the timber of this hall was Irish oak, so is there no imaginable reason why timber should be fetched from another kingdom for the repair of the hall, when the counties of Middlesex and Essex were great part of them forest, and afforded timber enough to have built twenty such places; and we find that the timber of the Essex forests was in fact applied to the repairs of this palace; for it cannot be pretended that the present roof is the same that was erected by William Rufus when it was first built, it appearing that Richard II., about the year 1397, caused the old roof to be taken down and a new one made (as has been observed already) and this is probably the same we now see. Here are hung up as trophies, 138 colours, and 34 standards, taken from the French and Bavarians at Hochstadt, anno 1704.

The House of Lords, or chamber where the peers assemble in Parliament, is situated between the Old Palace Yard and the Thames. It is a spacious room, of an oblong form, at the south end whereof is the King's throne, to which he ascends by several steps: on the right hand of the throne is a seat for the Prince of Wales, and on the left another for the princes of the blood, and behind the throne the seats of the peers under age.

On the east side of the house, to the right of the throne, sit the archbishops and bishops; on the opposite side of the house sit the dukes, marquises, earls, and viscounts; and on forms crossing the area, the barons under the degree of viscounts.

Before the throne are three wool-sacks, or broad seats stuffed with wool, to put the Legislature in mind, it is said, that the right management of this trade is of the last importance to the kingdom. On the first of these wool-sacks, next to the throne, sits the Lord Chancellor, or Keeper, who is Speaker of the House of Peers; and on the other two, the Lord Chief Justices and the rest of the judges, with the Master of the Rolls, and the other Masters in Chancery: about the middle of the house, on the east side, is a chimney, where a fire is usually kept in the winter; and towards the north, or lower end of the house, is a bar that runs across it, to which the commons advance when they bring up bills or impeachments, or when the King sends for them, and without this bar the council and witnesses stand at trials before the peers. The house is at present hung with tapestry, containing the history of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, anno 1588.

The house or chamber where the commons assemble is to the northward of the House of Lords, and stands east and west, as the other does north and south. The room is pretty near square, and towards the upper end is the Speaker's armed chair, to which he ascends by a step or two; before it is a table where the clerks sit, on which the mace lies when the Speaker is in the chair, and at other times the mace is laid under the table. On the north and south sides, and at the west end, are seats gradually ascending as in a theatre, and between the seats at the west end is the entrance by a pair of folding-doors. There are galleries also on the north, south, and west, where strangers are frequently admitted to hear the debates.

This room was anciently a chapel, founded by King Stephen about the year 1141, and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin; however, it obtained the name of St. Stephen's Chapel. It was rebuilt by King Edward III., anno 1347, who placed in it a dean, twelve secular canons, thirteen vicars, four clerks, five choristers, a verger, and a keeper of the chapel, and built them a convent, which extended along the Thames, endowing it with large revenues, which at the dissolution of monasteries in the reign of Edward VI. amounted to near eleven thousand pounds per annum. Almost ever since the dissolution, this chapel has been converted to the use we find it at present, viz., for the session of the Lower House of Parliament, who, before that time, usually assembled in the chapter-house belonging to the Abbey, when the Parliament met at Westminster. The Painted Chamber lies between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and here the committees of both houses usually meet at a conference; but neither this nor the other remaining apartments of this Palace of Westminster have anything in them that merit a particular description.


 

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