No White House at Westminster: the Norman kings’ architectural legacy

by | 13 Feb 2010 | Culture

If you were called upon to describe one visual image that defines the city of London – one skyline – I would guess that it would be the Palace of Westminster. The clock tower of Big Ben; the spires of the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’; the House of Commons and the House of Lords; the Victoria Tower at the House of Lords’ end of the parliament building – which is slightly taller than the ‘Big Ben’ clock tower, and was built specifically as a ‘fireproof repository of books and documents’ after the fire of 1834 destroyed both the old Palace of Westminster and all of the records of the House of Commons.

The ‘Gothic’ architectural style of the Houses of Parliament – reminiscent of England’s cathedrals, with their lofty naves and tall spires, their slim vertical lines stretching up towards heaven – seems entirely natural at the heart of Westminster. It is hard to imagine them looking in any way different. But, in fact, after the fire of 1834, it was entirely likely that this Palace of Westminster would be rebuilt in the popular ‘neo-classical’ style that had developed in the eighteenth century and which so defines Georgian architecture in the United Kingdom (and which features so prominently as the backdrop for any dramatisation of the novels of Jane Austin.)

A good example of a large, neo-classical public building is The White House in Washington, USA, built at the very end of the eighteenth century (between 1792 and 1800) in the late Georgian style.

Several parts of the old palace of Westminster, now destroyed by the fire, had already been replaced or extended with neo-classical buildings in the Palladian style (named after the godfather of neo-classical architects, the sixteenth-century Venetian architect, Andrea Palladio). It would have been quite natural to have rebuilt the Palace in this most ‘modern’ and current of architectural styles,  in which case Britain’s Houses of Parliament would today most likely occupy a building with startling similarity to the White House, seat of the American government. The skyline of London would look very different. If you are a believer, as I am, in the subtle but pervasive influence of architecture on our ways of behaving, and even on our mode of thinking, then it is interesting to speculate whether the British Parliament would today have a very different ‘feel’ to it, and whether the effect on the British psyche of this potentially ‘republican’ skyline at the heart of their capital city would have created a marginally different national character; one more in tune, perhaps, with that of modern America.

The politics of architecture: Sailor Billy and the lost Colonies

The decision to choose the Gothic style over the neo-classical was, of course, deeply political, and was made by King William IV, the son of George III, and the uncle of Queen Victoria, Britain’s last Hanoverian monarch.  William was a largely popular monarch, who came to the throne late in life because his two elder brothers had died without issue. He had served in the Royal Navy in his youth, earning him the affectionate nickname of ‘Sailor Billy’. His reign saw the introduction of several significant reforming Bills, including the abolition of slavery throughout most of the British Empire (Slavery Abolition Act 1833.)

Interestingly, although William had no legitimate offspring (hence the accession of his niece, Victoria), he did have ten illegitimate children by the Irish actress, Dorothea Jordan, who was his mistress for twenty years. They separated before William came to the throne. Britain’s current Leader of the Conservative Party in Britain, David Cameron, is a descendant of one of William and Dorothea’s children.

It was William’s father, George III, who had presided over the loss of the American Colonies after Britain’s defeat in the American War of Independence (1775-1783). The neo-classical White House, seat of the new American government, was a symbol of successful republicanism, something that King William, understandably, was not keen to promote. So the Palace of Westminster would be Gothic – a reassuring symbol of continuity, harking all the way back to the English kings who had introduced the Gothic style to British architecture: the Norman kings, founded by William’s distant ancestor, William the Conqueror.

The Palace of Westminster, old and new.

The first Westminster Abbey and the nearby Palace of Westminster were built in the eleventh century by England’s King Edward the Confessor on the banks of the River Thames, at the last point where the river could be forded at low tide before reaching the sea, many miles to the east. The location was to become known as Westminster (West Minster) because the area was well to the west of the City of London itself.

Edward’s successor, Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, was crowned at Westminster in January 1066, but reigned for only seven months before he was defeated by the Norman prince, William, at the Battle of Hastings. (William has gone down in history as William the Conqueror, but in fact he was already known to his Norman subjects  as ‘the conqueror’ after his earlier military successes in Brittany, in northern France, before his more famous conquest of England).

William had himself crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066. Norman guards outside the Abbey thought that noises from inside the cathedral were caused by locals, rioting in defiance of their new king, and set fire to surrounding houses – as you do – rather spoiling the festivities. Nevertheless, Westminster Abbey became, and remains, the traditional venue for the coronation of English (and then British and then Commonwealth) monarchs. The design of the original domed, Romanesque Abbey at Westminster (the one in which Harold and his nemesis, William, were crowned) can be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry, which was itself commissioned by William to celebrate his victory over the Anglo-Saxon Harold; a victory that established the Norman dynasty in England. This Norman line runs through the monarchs of England and Great Britain to the present day: William the Conqueror is the 22nd Great-Grandfather of Elizabeth II.

The quintessential architecture of England: imported from France

It was the Normans who introduced to England what we would now call the Gothic style of architecture – a style that had evolved in twelfth-century France. In the thirteenth century, William the Conqueror’s descendant, Henry III, rebuilt Westminster Abbey in the Gothic style. This Gothic Abbey, with many subsequent additions, survives to this day. The nearby, rambling, and still essentially medieval Palace of Westminster survived until the recent past, but was sadly destroyed in that early nineteenth-century fire.

King William IV’s decision to rebuild the Houses of Parliament in the reassuring, ‘olde-England’ style of Gothic architecture, thereby avoiding any connotations of dangerous republican, anti-monarchic sentiments, was entirely deliberate and may well have played its subtle part in enabling the popularity and success of the next monarch: Victoria, the Queen whose reign would see the British Empire become the preeminent global power of its day.

It is intriguing to think that the familiar Gothic style of olde-England’s great cathedrals, and of the new Palace of Westminster – so reassuring, so redolent of the power and stability of church and State, so subtle and sublime – was brought to England by our conquering Norman cousins and is, therefore, French.  But perhaps that is an ironic confusion too far.

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