Westminster Abbey and Palace

On the banks of the river Thames in London you can see the buildings which for several hundred years have housed the institutions which laid the foundation for representative parliamentary government. Chief among them are Westminster Palace, built in the 11th century, and Westminster Abbey, located just behind the palace. Both building are inscribed on the World Heritage List.

Westminster was a royal residence until the 16th century, when the royal family began to live in various other palaces throughout the country during the year. Westminster Palace then became the home of the two Houses of Parliament, the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

The House of Lords came to be founded because of a dispute between the King and the nobility. King Henry the Third commissioned a renovation of the Abbey in the 13th century, and levied a tax on the nobility in order to raise the necessary money. Angry noblemen gathered in the Abbeys circular Chapter House to demand a reduction of the tax. This established the tradition whereby problems of state are solved by debate rather than by royal decree.

The House of Lords moved from the Chapter House to the Chamber Room, which was built in 1544. The original members of the House were aristocrats who had been active in the previous parliament. Today many of them are aristocrats who have either inherited their seat or who been given a title which grants them entry to the House of Lords.

The members of the House of Commons, on the other hand, are elected by ordinary citizens to represent them. A large red sofa sits in the center of the Commons Assembly Hall. It is called the woolsack because, as per tradition, it is stuffed with wool. It was placed in the hall as a sign of respect for the founders of the House of Commons, known as the Gentry, people who held no titles but had made great fortunes in trade, especially the wool trade

During the 13th century wool was a major export and it was said that, quote, half of British wealth rides on the back of sheep. In the 14th century the King tried to control the influence of the Gentry by imposing tariffs on all wool products. Discontented members gathered at Westminster Abbey to protest the measure, thus creating their own Parliament, and the basis for the House of Commons. The sofa was made to commemorate the event and symbolizes not only the power of the House of Commons but also its independence.

One example is the fact that since the House of Commons was founded by the Gentry to represent the people, the King or Queen is not allowed to enter the hall unless by invitation.

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