It looms over the city. Its bell weighs at least 13.7 metric tons6. It is situated inside Elizabeth Tower at the northern end of Parliament, in the London borough of Westminster6. Its clock hands are 9 and 14 feet (2.7 and 4.3 meters) long, respectively, and the clock tower itself rises about 320 feet off the ground6. It used to chime in accordance with the Royal Greenwich Observatory, but nowadays provides a daily time signal to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)6. Edmund Beckett Denison (later, Sir Edmund Beckett/Lord Grimthorpe) designed the clock alongside astronomer Sir George Airy6.
Its timing is accurate to within two seconds per week6. Workers wind it up three times a week (each winding session takes about an hour), and workers can adjust its pendulum by adding pennies to it6. It went silent during World War II6. In 1934 and 1956, London restored and repaired it6. Today it rings for New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday6. What is this “it” in question? “Big Ben” (actually “Big Ben” is the giant bell inside the Clock Tower, not the clock tower itself). And, in many ways, “Big Ben” is not just the original eye of London but also its beating heart.
London is chock full of sites with practical beating hearts, though. Institutions like the British Library and Museum, Tate Modern, Churchill War Rooms, Hyde Park, St. James Square, Kew Gardens, Trafalgar Square, Gherkin, Shard, and London Eye all bring this global city to life. But today, let’s focus on five of its sites: Buckingham Palace, Hampton Court Palace, the Palace of Westminster, the Tower of London, and the Globe Theater.
Buckingham Palace, the administrative center and London home of the British family, is an enormous building with extensive gardens that hosts various ceremonial and political affairs in the U.K.1 Long before it was the home of the British family and a major tourist attraction, the land on which Buckingham Palace sits was a borough known as Westminster1. This marshland along the River Tyburn had a series of owners, including William the Conqueror and the monks of Westminster Abbey1. Between 1531 and 1837, the King of England officially resided at St. James’ Palace (located a quarter of a mile from Buckingham Palace)1.
The property, which King James I acquired for use as a royal garden with mulberry trees (King James hoped to use the trees for silk production), passed through a succession of owners until 1698 (when John Sheffield purchased it)1. Sheffield later became the Duke of Buckingham, and the palace that now occupies the original site attributes its name to him1. Sheffield decided to build a new residence on the site in the early 1700s, and William Winde and John Fitch designed/built it1. They completed “Buckingham House” in 17051.
King George III purchased Buckingham House from Sir Charles Sheffield in 1761 and commissioned a £73,000 renovation of the structure1. King George III planned to use it as a home for his wife, Queen Charlotte, and their children, and, after he and his family moved in, they named the building “Queens House.”1. George III died in 1820, and the king’s son, George IV, ascended to the throne1. George IV was a relatively old king when he took the throne (60 years old)1. He was also in poor health1. He favored the building, wanted to make it the royal residence, and hired architect John Nash to expand and renovate Buckingham House1.
Nash designed and built Buckingham House into a large, U-shaped structure1. He faced the exterior with stones from quarries near Bath, England, expanded the main section of the building, added a west wing, rebuilt the east wings, and expanded the north and south branches1. The new palace’s wings enclosed a large court, and Nash built a triumphal arch at the center of the palace’s forecourt (creating an imposing entrance for visiting dignitaries)1.
William IV offered Buckingham Palace as the new home for the House of Parliament when a fire destroyed the Palace of Westminster in the 1830s (they politely declined though)1. In 1833-34, the British Parliament voted to furnish and refurbish the interior of the official royal home1. Following William IV’s death in 1837, his niece, Victoria, assumed the throne and became the first royal resident of Buckingham Palace1.
In 1845, architect Edward Blore enclosed Nash’s forecourt on the eastern side and constructed staterooms and ballrooms1. They moved to Buckingham Palace’s triumphal arch near Hyde Park, construction finished up in 1853, and Queen Victoria reigned until her death in 19011. Her son, Edward VII, who ascended the throne, is credited with redesigning the palace’s interior (the remnants of that can still be seen today)1.
Buckingham Palace is 830,000 square feet1. It contains 775 rooms, including 19 state rooms, 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 bedrooms, 92 offices, and 78 bathrooms1.
HAMPTON COURT PALACE
Hampton Court was originally a farm that belonged to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem2. It grew into one of the most important houses in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries mainly because of its position on the Thames within easy reach of London and several royal palaces2.
In the 14th century, the royal family used Hampton Court as a staging post for the Black Prince’s house at Byfleet, in the 15th century, as a steppingstone to the Lancastrian house at Sheen, and in the early 16th century as a base for Richmond2.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey purchased Hampton Court in 1514, intending to use it as his private residence (close to the King at Richmond)2. However, once he transformed the modest house into a large and impressive home, the royal family took notice2.
Henry VIII acquired Hampton Court from Wolsey in September 1529, and, over the course of the next two to three years, he decided to turn it into a lavish country palace2. Its construction lasted at least eight years (costing £47,000) and it was considered one of the single most expensive royal building projects that had ever occurred2.
Wolsey extended the home to include new kitchens, new apartments for the king, queen, and Prince of Wales, formal gardens, two hunting parks, a bowling alley, and a tennis court2. The home was constructed in a new style (versus the more restrained late medieval brick and stone gothic one)2.
Hampton Court was a massive royal estate with extensive hunting grounds and a series of satellite houses for royal recreation2. Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I all used the palace extensively but never altered the home their father originally acquired2.
Hampton Court became very old-fashioned by the time James I ascended the throne in 16032. Even though court culture and court-building exploded that very year, Hampton Court didn’t “share in the fun” (so to speak)2. Hampton Court became an immaculately preserved memorial of sorts to the Tudor family2. The palace remained unused by the monarchy throughout the 17th century and England nearly demolished it (some careful preservation of the palace as an ancestral seat saved it from that fate, though)2.
King William and Queen Mary redrew the royal pattern of the residence2. Since they disliked Whitehall, a new house at Kensington served as their London base, and they decided to rebuild Hampton Court and use that as a summer residence for the full court2. Queen Mary didn’t complete the Queen’s apartment, and the apartments remained as they were by the time of William III’s death2. When Ann, who barely lived there, died, the palace remained unfinished2.
King George I made little use of the place, and King George II used it for 10 years2. His last visit was in 17372. The Court opened to the public in the 1830s under Queen Victoria, and now, the museum (which Historic Royal Palaces operates) is famed for its 60 acres of formal gardens2.
THE PALACE OF WESTMINSTER
In the waning days of the Roman Empire, a Roman temple to Apollo stood beside the river Thames (at least according to tradition)3. An earthquake supposedly destroyed that temple and no trace of it remains (if it ever did exist)3. In its place, Saxon-era residents built a timber church dedicated to St. Peter (8th century C.E.)3. They named the church “West Minster” (to distinguish it from St. Paul’s in “East Minster”)3. In the 10th century, the people re-established it as a Benedictine monastery3.
In the early 11th century, influential Saxon king Edward the Confessor founded Westminster Abbey and built a new royal palace beside his great new monastic site3.
William the Conqueror came to the throne and used the existing Westminster Palace and Abbey as his London base of power3. His son, William Rufus, though, transformed the earlier Saxon palace, building Westminster Hall- the largest royal hall in Europe- in 1097 C.E.3 Not until the 13th century did London use Westminster for parliamentary gatherings3.
Simon de Montfort called the first true Parliament in 1265 and likely met in a chapter house near Westminster Abbey3. By the time Edward I was king, parliament gathered in the king’s private “Painted Chamber” or neighboring “White Chamber”3.
The palace became first and foremost a royal residence (with no venue set aside for Parliamentary meetings)3. The House of Lords met in the Queen’s Chamber (and then, in 1801, moved to the Lesser Hall)3. The House of Commons met frequently in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey3.
Only after Henry VIII left Westminster Palace for Whitehall in 1512 did the palace become Parliament’s permanent home3. The medieval palace included the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft (which Edward I began for the royal household/court in 1297), and, in 1365, Edward III built the Jewel Tower (located across the road from the palace) as a storeroom for royal jewels, silver, and gold3. Various collections (clothing, children’s toys, even a royal chess set) ended up in the repository that Edward III established3.
A major fire destroyed the palace on October 16, 1834, and an architectural contest was launched to select the designer of the new palace3. That honor went to Sir Charles Barry, who proposed building a complex of different buildings (all in Gothic style)3. Barry enlarged the site (reclaiming 8 acres of land from the River Thames)3. The construction, which he thought would take 6 years, took 30, and cost over 2 million pounds3. Designer Augustus Welby Pugin assisted Barry in his project3.
Various additions that this new project brought about included Victoria Tower. Victoria Tower- 325 feet high- was one of two towers flanking the Palace of Westminster and the tallest square stone tower in the world3. The builders designed it to serve as a royal entrance (with archways large enough at its base to accommodate Queen Victoria’s royal coach during State Openings for Parliament)3. It was also an archive for Parliamentary records3.
Pugin also assisted in constructing Elizabeth Tower (previously St. Stephen’s Tower, until 2012), which overlooks Parliament Square3. “Big Ben” was the “Great Bell” that rung every hour housed inside the Clock Tower (allegedly named after either Sir Benjamin Hall, the First Commissioner of Works, or heavyweight boxer Ben Caunt)3.
Today, visitors can take guided tours of the Houses of Parliament, which include Westminster Hall, the Royal Gallery, the Lords Chamber, Commons Chamber, St. Stephen’s Hall, and other areas3. Some visitors take afternoon tea on the Riverside Terrace (which overlooks the Thames)3.
TOWER OF LONDON
One of the world’s most famous monuments, the Tower of London was infamous for the various prisoners who took their last breath in it. William the Conqueror built the White Tower in 1066 as a demonstration of Norman power4. Strategically located on the River Thames, the tower was both a fortress and gateway to the capital city of London4.
The White Tower later became the “London Tower,” one of the city’s prime symbols of royalty between the 11th and 16th century4. It fostered the development of other English state institutions, including those concerned with national defense, record-keeping, and coinage4. The Tower of London was also considered an outstanding example of late 11th century innovative Norman military technology and the apogee of sophisticated castle design4.
Both Kings Henry III and Edward I added to this medieval fortress palace, making it one of the most innovative and influential castle sites in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries4. And yet, while the Tower of London served as an emblem of London’s power and might, it also served as a source of gloom and doom for various notable individuals. Edward V and his younger brother faced imprisonment inside of it in the 15th century4. Then, in the 16th century, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Jane Grey were sent to Tower Green before facing the chopping block4. Elizabeth I resided in the tower but escaped and reshaped English history4.
The Tower helped share of the story of England’s 16th and 17th century Reformation, as many prisoners who survived (both Catholic and Protestant) recorded their harrowing experiences there4. People came to think of the place as one of torture and execution instead of a mere symbol of supreme military might4.
THE GLOBE THEATER
If there’s any name that is truly synonymous with the Globe Theater, it’s William Shakespeare. Prior to 1599, Shakespeare, who had acted with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men since 1594, had been performing at other venues5.
In the final year of the 16th century, though, he paid into the coffers of his company a sum of money (approximately 12.5 percent) to support the cost of this new “Globe.”5 He became a chief shareholder of the company, and, in doing so, established a uniquely successful deal for his actors at the time5. He and the leading actors shared in the company’s profits and acquired a share in their playhouse as well5.
The officially approved playhouses at the time had only been in existence in London for five years, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were only one of two companies licensed to perform within the city limits5. Shakespeare’s company couldn’t use the special-roofed Blackfriars’ Theater that James Burbage (father of leading actor Richard Burbage) had built in 15965.
James Burbage was a long-standing theatrical entrepreneur who had built the first successful amphitheater (known simply as “The Theater”) in 1576 in a London suburb5. However, the lease for The Theater’s land was about to expire in 1596, and the wealthy residents of Blackfriars locked up his capital by blocking the latter venue for theatrical use5.
The various thespians and businessmen formed a consortium with Shakespeare and four other actors and created the triumphant circular theater5. The Globe Theater was partly an open-air venue, so spectators frequented it in the summer and visited the Blackfriars in the winter5.
The Globe Theater drew attention to the Roman theatrical tradition with its circular shape5. The venue stood more than 30 feet (9 meters) high and was 20-sided5. It contained three levels of seating in its galleries, and its audiences could access it via two narrow passageways under galleries 5. The passageways led into two external stair towers, and then into the rear of the galleries5. They also led into a standing room of the yard that surrounded the stage5. The frons scenae (tiring house wall), behind which the actors kept their props, costumes, and playbooks, cut off five of the 20 gallery bays5.
The stage rested upon a 5-foot (1.5-meter) high platform that protruded from the tiring house into the middle of the yard, and two posts upheld the cover over the stage that protected its players and their expensive costumes from rain5.
Shakespeare designed the Globe Theater with various classics of his in mind: As You Like It, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Othello, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, and Timon of Athens. The playhouse has been in functional use (plagues, pandemics, and warfare aside) ever since its inception. The towering playwright whose works dominate this venue is undoubtedly England’s world-renowned Bard!
The Beating Heart
There are at least 525,600 minutes in a year (at least according to Jonathan Larson). If you set aside all the “sunsets,” “cups of coffee,” and “seasons of love,” clocks are the best and most precise way to measure time. Horology is the study of time and time-keeping devices (clocks, watches, sundials, hourglasses… you name it) The pendulums, pulleys, wheels, and hands that keep the clock atop Elizabeth Tower chiming set the rhythm for their beloved city below!
“Fantastical” isn’t exactly the first adjective that comes to mind when one thinks of London. London doesn’t have the same magical and mythological reputation that Paris or Venice has. London is far more straightforward, practical, scholastic, systematic, and linguistically precise…a “left-brained” city if there ever was one! It’s a city that epitomizes a national spirit of conscientiousness. One need only picture Victorian London. Picture all its shops, factories, horse-drawn carriages, and textile mills. Think of all its people all dressed in muted apparel…their restrained, stoic, stiff-upper-lip personalities.
But that is neither a flattering nor a pejorative assessment of London. That is simply the way it is. London operates like a well-oiled machine. Shakespeare and Milton may have infused its history with the inexplicable, the ineffable, and the poetic. But its primary persona is more like one who pursues accounting or law. The tills open and close. The commercial ships pass through. The wheels spin, and the factories billow out smoke (at least they used to)! “Big Ben” is the beating heart of London. Like any beating heart, as long as its pulse keeps going, the life it sustains keeps going! The persevering spirit that Churchill saw in his nation during World War II still exists today. London keeps going…surviving, maintaining, and thriving (as it always has)! “