London: from Charing Cross to Westminster

At Charing Cross, the Thames takes a very sharp turn. The railway bridge, opened in 1864, was built to replace the first Hungerford Suspension Footbridge and what was once the old Hungerford Market, is today occupied by the Charing Cross Railway Station.

As you approach Westminster, anciently known as Thorney (the Isle of Bramble), you will pass under the Westminster Bridge. The present bridge, which has seven spans, when seen from the south bank (the Surrey side), forms an excellent foreground for the Houses of Parliament.

The buildings group beautifully at this point. The Houses of Parliament have a magnificent riverfront, embellished with statues of the kings and queens of England, and three great towers. The Victoria Tower is the tallest with a height of 325 feet, the middle or Central Tower with a height of 300 feet, and the most famous one of all, the Elizabeth Tower, commonly known as Big Ben, is 316 feet high. The Elizabeth Tower´s bell, called the Big Ben, was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the first Commissioner for Works.

Designed by two architects, Augustus Pugin and Sir Charles Barry, the first stone of the new Houses of Parliament was laid by Charles Barry’s wife in 1840. The Palace of Westminster covers eight acres, contains 1100 rooms, 100 staircases, and stands on the site of the old Royal Palace.

The first Palace of Westminster, built by the Danish King Canute, was burned down in the reign of Edward the Confessor, who erected another in which he died.  The Kings of England resided here until Henry VIII moved to Whitehall in 1530. The Palace of Westminster was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1834. The portions that escaped the flames were Westminster Hall, the Undercroft Chapel, the Cloisters and Chapter House of St. Stephen’s and the Jewel Tower.

The oldest part of the Westminster Palace is the Westminster Hall, one of the oldest and most interesting buildings in London. The first hall was built by King William II,  (William Rufus) in 1097, and was almost entirely devastated by fire in 1291. It was renovated in 1398, by Richard II, who gave it the largest fine oak roof in Northern Europe. The hall is considered to be the biggest medieval hall in the world unsupported by pillars. It is 290 feet long, 68 feet broad, and 92 feet high.

From the days of King William II to the days of King George IV, coronation banquets honoring newly-crowned monarchs were always carried out in this Hall, which has witnessed so many amazing scenes. Royal courts of justice, as well as some of the earliest councils and parliaments, were held here.

  • King Edward III received the Black Prince after the Battle of Poitiers in 1356.
  • Richard II was deposed in 1399.
  • Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England was condemned to death on July 1, 1535.
  • Edward Seymour, Lord Protector of England, condemned to death in 1552.
  • In 1554, Sir Thomas Wyat was condemned to death for leading a rebellion against Queen Mary I.
  • Thomas Howard, 4th duke of Norfolk, condemned to death in 1572.
  • Guy Fawkes, condemned to death in 1608.
  • Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, condemned to death 1632.
  • Charles I of England was convicted of treason and executed in 1649.
  • Oliver Cromwell was inaugurated Lord Protector in 1653.
  • The Trial of the Seven Bishops was held here in 1688.

The most famous and certainly the longest political trial, the impeachment of Warren Hastings also took place in Westminster Hall between 1788-1795.

Between 1547-1834, the House of Commons used the Royal Chapel of St. Stephen, which was built by King Stephen, and rebuilt by Edward I, Edward II and Edward III. The Crypt only remains. The name, however, survives, in St. Stephen’s Porch and St. Stephen’s Hall, through which we pass to enter the Central Lobby. On the left of the Central Lobby is the House of Commons and on the right the House of Lords.

The site of coronations and other celebratory observations of national significance, Westminster Abbey, built in the form of a Latin cross, is one of the most magnificent churches in the world. Columns and arches of dignified proportions, extraordinary carvings, shadowy aisles, and the soft light from old stained-glass windows give an impression of solemn beauty that will never be forgotten.

Legend has it that, Sebert, King of the East Saxons & Ethelgoda and the first English king to convert to Christianity, built a church, dedicated to St. Peter on the current site. Having fallen into ruin, the church was restored by King Edgar the Peaceful, who founded a Benedictine monastery here around 960 AD. The current Westminster Abbey, consecrated on December 28, 1065, had its origin with Edward the Confessor, the son of Ethelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy.

Nothing remains of it but the Pyx Chamber. The church was mostly demolished by Henry III in order to build the present Gothic structure. Edward I of England made other additions and in the reign of King Edward III, the Jerusalem Chamber was added. King of England, Henry VII, pulled down Henry III´s Lady Chapel and built his own beautiful addition, now more often known as the Henry VII chapel.

Westminster Abbey has been the final resting place of England’s kings and queens for more than eight centuries. Great kings, queens, and other members of royal families lie in what Thomas Babington Macaulay calls “the great temple of silence and reconciliation.” The famous Poet’s Corner, containing tombs and monuments to many of England’s finest poets is situated in the South Transept. It is crowded with busts, monuments, and tablets on the walls and floor.

To see the tombs of Geoffrey Chaucer, the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and Edmund Spenser, the premier craftsman of nascent Modern English verse,  is an experience that is not quickly forgotten. Tombs and monuments dedicated to warriors and statesmen are to be seen in the North Transept.

Inside the gates of the south ambulatory, the tomb of Sebert, King of the East Saxons, and his Queen Ethelgoda is supposed to be the oldest in the Abbey. Just behind the High Altar, in  Edward, the Confessor’s Chapel is his shrine, which was erected in 1269 by Henry III. The tombs of Edward I, Queen Eleanor of Castile, Henry III, Edward III, Queen Philippa of Hainault, Queen Anne of Bohemia, Queen Edith of Wessex, and Richard III also lie buried in this chapel.

The most beautiful and captivating of all the chapels at Westminster Abbey is that of Henry VII. It is almost a church, consisting of a nave, two aisles, and five apsidal chapels at the east end. In the nave are the superbly carved stalls of the Most Honorable Order of the Bath, above which droop their banners. The entire chapel, which has been described as “the miracle of the world,” is a mass of admirable carving, and the pillars that support the roof are the best examples of fan-shaped tracery, while the roof itself is the last great masterpiece of English medieval architecture. Here are the tombs of the founder, Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York and the last resting place of Queen Elizabeth I and her half-sister, Catholic Queen Mary I. The tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots, first buried in Peterborough Cathedral, lies in the southern end of the Herny VII Chapel.

St. Stephen’s Cloisters, built by Henry VIII, are on the east side of Westminster, and on the west side is St. Margaret’s, a twelfth-century parish church of Westminster, sometimes called the parish church of the House of Commons. Founded by Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England in 1065, it contains some magnificent carvings and one of the most beautiful old windows in England. The window was a gift from Ferdinand II and Isabella I of Castile in honor of the marriage of Henry VIII with their daughter Katherine of Aragon. The marvelous west window was presented by Americans in 1882 as a memorial to Sir Walter Raleigh, who was executed in front of Westminster Palace and buried under the altar of St. Margaret’s.

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