The fascinating hidden history of Westminster

Written on 28 October 2014 by Alistair Boscawen in London, Property News

Around every corner in London there’s another slice of history to learn about. This is what makes London special and why we all want to live there and are willing to pay for it! One of the most intriguing stories concerns Westminster. Politicians may not be too popular, but credit where credit’s due: how did a tiny island on the banks of the Thames manage to become the heart of political, spiritual and royal goings-on?

A story of power

Over a thousand years ago, rich Anglo Saxons living close to what is present-day Downing Street built a small church on nearby Thorney Island. The church was located to the west of Ludenwic  the name the Saxons gave to their settlement thatwas nestled just outside the city walls in the early 7th century – in the area we know today as Covent Garden. By 960 AD, the church was a Benedictine monastery and the monks were familiar figures until Henry VIII split from Rome.  
Believe it or not evidence found under Parliament Square suggests that Cnut  the famous Dane who ruled England (and who famously tried to turn back the tide) from 1016-35 could have been the first king to have built a palace at Westminster. Medieval chroniclers relay that Cnut’s palace burned down, but Edward the Confessor rebuilt the palace, along with the nearby Anglo-Saxon abbey. Edward’s aim was to show he was as powerful as any European ruler. The area where his palace was is now called Old Palace Yard.

Gossip central

Just as Westminster is currently a centre of gossip and intertwining relationships; a place where lobbyists, journalists and other hangers-on congregate to deliberate over who’s said what and the like, it has been this way for many centuries. Royal announcements would spread through the crowd in the Great Hall and across the kingdom aspeople flocked eagerly to find out the latest gossip.

Henry II’s changes

This king is usually associated with the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, but he also helped to alter English history, by moving the Exchequer from Winchester to Westminster and establishing the law courts in Westminster Hall. This was where common law was created and the courts stayed in the Great Hall until the late nineteenth century. Hilariously, the space was shared with random stalls selling trinkets and general goods  so quite hectic!

The beginning of today’s Parliament

Politicians are not exactly held in high regard today and are often criticised for their profligate expense accounts. Henry III was no better and his extravagance led to the principle of a representative parliament being established, by Simon de Montfort, one of his rivals. In the 1350s, the Commons began meeting separately from the Lords and MPs sat together often in Abbey’s Chapter House.

Safety concerns

There were events over the years that led parliamentarians and royalty to become concerned about safety. Of course, there was that little issue of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, but there were also a few other problems. For example, in 1771, prime minister Lord North was manhandled by protesting printers and in 1780 rioters invaded Downing Street. As well as this, a window of the king’s coach was smashed at the state opening of Parliament in 1795.

Until the 19thcentury, the site Parliament was built on was a labyrinth of medieval alleys and lanes filled with slums, bars and shops. This made it easy for thieves to hide out and try their luck. However, by 1815 the authorities had cleared the remnants of the warrens from Parliament’s close proximity and by the 1860s the Houses of Parliament was a more protected and majestic building. In the early 20th century, the rest of Westminster’s maze of alleys and lanes wasreplaced by new government buildings.

Our parliamentary system has evolved over centuries and remains one of the most revered in the world. Westminster remains a top tourist attraction and the reason millions of people flock here each year  in order to get a dose of English history! The surrounding area is highly popular among those looking to live and  work in London and property in the City of Westminster is extremely sought-after.

So next time you’re strolling around Parliament Square, taking in the grand buildings before you, remember the glorious hidden past of Westminster.

Alistair Boscawen

Alistair has 32 years’ experience as an estate agent, starting in the country house department of one of London’s main international agencies before moving to the Knightsbridge house department of the same agency and learning the difference in values between freehold, long lease and short lease houses in Knightsbridge, Belgravia, Chelsea and Mayfair.

All articles by Alistair Boscawen


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