Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.


A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

Justice in the Royal Gallery

One of the great triumphs of Magna Carta was the assertion of the right of those accused of crimes to trial by one’s peers, or per legale judicium parium suorum if you insist on the Latin. For commoners this meant trial by other commoners, but for peers it meant just that: trial by other peers of the realm. It was a bit murkier for peeresses, though after the conviction for witchcraft of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, (sentence: banishment to the Isle of Man) statute was passed including them in the judicial privilege of peerage.

Thanks to the ’15 and the ’45, there were a number of trials in the House of Lords in the eighteenth century, including that of the Catholic martyr Earl of Derwentwater. The whole of the nineteenth century, however, witnessed but one: the 7th Earl of Cardigan was acquitted of duelling by a jury of 120 peers. In 1901 the 2nd Earl Russell was found guilty of bigamy, and the last ever trial came in 1935 when the 26th Baron de Clifford was found not guilty of manslaughter.

Cardigan’s trial was in the temporary Lords chamber while the last two trials took place in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster (central to current debates over renovation plans). For Cardigan’s trial the Lord Chief Justice of the Queen’s Bench was appointed Lord High Steward for the occasion, while for the final two the Lord Chancellor was likewise appointed to the role in order to be presiding judge with the Attorney General prosecuting the case.

The Royal Gallery is primarily used for the State Opening of Parliament (as above) and for the occasional address to both Houses of Parliament when important figures are invited to do so. De Gaulle was famously invited to speak here to both houses rather than in the larger Westminster Hall. It is thought that this is because the walls of the Royal Gallery feature two large murals, one of the Battle of Trafalgar, the other of the Battle of Waterloo – both British victories over the French.

The most famous trial in the Royal Gallery was fictional. In the 1949 Ealing comedy “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, the 10th Duke of Chalfont is tried for the one murder in the film’s plotline he didn’t actually commit. Ealing Studios did a mock-up of the chamber for the occasion (above), which compares reasonably accurately with the Royal Gallery as set up for the Baron de Clifford’s trial in 1936 (below).

The Lords, however, were uncomfortable with exercising this judicial function and passed a bill to abolish the privilege in 1937. The Commons, facing more serious tasks, declined to give it any attention. In 1948, the Criminal Justice Act abolished trials of peers in the House of Lords, along with penal servitude, hard labour, and whipping.

June 12, 2017 2:00 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

The Delarue Proposal for Parliament

Peers & MPs could still convene in the Palace during renovations

The Royal Gallery set up for temporary use as the House of Lords chamber
Credit: Anthony Delarue Associates

MPs are kicking up a fuss about the controversial proposals to shut down the entire Palace of Westminster for perhaps as long as eight or nine years. (Previously mentioned here.) The building is completely structurally sound, and on solid foundations, but the accumulation of mechanical, electrical, and technological systems over the course of the past 150 years has created a confused mess within the walls of the palace. Electrical lines compete with fibre-optic cables, telephone wires, not to mention various heating and cooling pipes, and even some lingering telegraph wires. No one’s quite sure what is what and all of it is getting older. Even just accessing it to figure out what to do requires taking the building apart — removing wood panelling, drilling through walls, etc.

Parliamentary authorities commissioned management consultants from Deloitte to come up with a number of options on how to tackle this problem, but in their Independent Options Appraisal they treated this merely as an ordinary engineering job, rather than recognising the Palace as one of the most important places in British history both medieval and modern and, importantly, one still in constant daily use.

The Joint Committee formed of members of both the Lords and Commons perhaps unsurprisingly endorsed the option Deloitte claimed was the quickest and cheapest: that the Lords, Commons, and everyone else be chucked out of the Palace entirely and that temporary accommodation be found nearby.

Further investigation by respected former minister Shailesh Vara MP suggested that Deloitte had failed to take into account that any VAT costs on this major project go back into the Treasury anyhow, and that there was a failure to account for the loss of revenue if the Lords are moved into the government-owned Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre nearby. The QE2 is a profit-making venue popular with private clients, after all, and deploying it towards full-time legislative use will mean another significant loss for the Treasury. Meanwhile, in the courtyard of Richmond House on Whitehall, £59 million would be spent on building a new chamber for the House of Commons. This would be a permanent ‘legacy’ structure even though once the renovations to the Palace are complete there would be no use for it whatsoever.

The architect Anthony Delarue, having been taken on a tour of the Palace’s working underbelly by the engineers from the Restoration and Renewal programme, came up with an alternative proposal. Looking at the structure of the House of Lords chamber and the adjacent Royal Gallery, he realised that these two rooms could be maintained and occupied, with temporary services (electricity, heating, etc.) run from external sources. This would allow the renovation team to shut down the Palace’s systems entirely and re-do them completely, while the spaces in mind would still be able to be put to use. The Commons could then meet in the Lords chamber (as the wartime precedent suggested) and the Lords could meet in the Royal Gallery. Or indeed vice versa depending on the wishes of both Houses.

The advantages of this are no need for taking up the QE2 conference centre (with consequent loss of revenue for the Treasury) and no need to waste tens of millions on a temporary-but-permanent Commons chamber in the courtyard of Richmond House. In addition, both houses would be allowed to maintain their presence in the Palace of Westminster, in accommodation suitable to the traditions of the “Mother of Parliaments”.

Of course, the Restoration and Renewal programme ran a “high level review” of Delarue’s proposals and pooh-poohed the whole idea, amazingly claiming that it would probably cost £900 million more than the Deloitte option the Joint Committee preferred. Anthony Delarue has now written some comments responding to this review, pointing out that it relies on outrageously pessimistic estimates of timing, assumptions that are beyond the worst-case scenarios of project management.

MPs were expected to debate the matter last month, but the campaign organised by Sir Edward Leigh MP and Shailesh Vara MP has found considerable support among other Members of Parliament and it is believed the powers that be are looking for a delay. The Government have promised a free vote on the issue when it comes up for debate, which may very well be before the end of February.

Credit: Anthony Delarue Associates

February 2, 2017 2:10 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Floating an Idea for Parliament

Members of Parliament are currently battling one another over plans for the ‘restoration and renewal’ of the Palace of Westminster. One side, backed by management consultants and the Joint Committee report, say the whole place has to be shut down completely for years starting in 2020. The other, led by Sir Edward Leigh MP and Shailesh Vara MP, says if work is so urgent it should start immediately, but that both the Commons and the Lords should continue to meet within the Palace, preserving centuries of tradition and keeping up the dignity and ceremony for which Great Britain is known.

With ideas flowing back and forth, outsiders to the Westminster bubble have put forth their own ideas — the architect Anthony Delarue’s suggestion has received the most serious consideration so far — and the global design firm Gensler has weighed in with its own proposal.

Gensler’s idea calls for a floating slug bearing a distinct resemblance to the Gherkin to be built and moored alongside the Palace of Westminster. This floating parliament would have plenary chambers for both the House of Lords and the House of Commons as well as committee rooms and other meeting places necessary to the functioning of the legislature.

While it’s a serious idea, the floating slug is not under actual consideration but is merely a conceptual exercise put out there by Gensler. Security concerns alone would lead to its rejection, not to mention worry over the hole in the historic fabric that would need to be punched through in order to access the slug. (more…)

January 23, 2017 1:15 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

Stockholm in the Swinging 60s

The Solemn Opening of the Riksdag was the state opening of Sweden’s parliament, seen here in a recording from 1960 during the reign of Gustaf Adolf. Years ago I wrote about Oskar II’s opening of parliament.

Alas, all this was done away with as part of the constitutional innovations of 1974, and the Swedish legislature is now opened with a much simpler ceremony.

via Karl-Gustel

January 10, 2017 1:40 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Sir Christoffel Brand

Look at that cragly visage! It belongs to Sir Christoffel Brand, the first Speaker of the House of Assembly in the Cape Parliament.

Brand was born in Cape Town in 1797 and left for the Netherlands in 1815, where he studied at Leiden. In 1820 he was awarded a doctorate in law based on his dissertation Dissertatio politico-juridica de jure coloniarum on the legal relationship between colonies and the metropole, and returned to the Cape. (more…)

December 21, 2016 5:14 pm | Link | No Comments »

Christmas on College Green

There are some good (if brief) shots of the Irish House of Lords chamber in this Christmas ad for the Bank of Ireland, 0:35-0:45.

The former Irish Houses of Parliament on College Green in Dublin were the first purpose-built parliament building in the world, and were purchased by the Bank of Ireland after the parliament was abolished by the Act of Union in 1800.

Unfortunately a condition of sale was demolishing the elegant octagonal Commons chamber at the centre of the building, to prevent it being used in the effort to have the Act of Union repealed.

Sir Thomas Cusack (1505-1571) has the distinction of having at times served as the presiding officer of both the upper and lower houses of the Irish Parliament. From 1541-1543 he was as Speaker of the House of Commons, in which role some scholars argue he was a prime mover behind the legislation erecting Ireland as a kingdom.

In the following decade he served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland, presiding in the House of Lords, from 1551 until 1555 when revelations about his involvement in the creative finances of Sir Anthony St Leger’s viceregal regime brought about Sir Thomas’s dismissal and (temporary) imprisonment.

He returned to favour when the Earl of Sussex was appointed viceroy, but never again held high office.

Of course, all that was before this neoclassical building was erected, when Parliament met mostly in Dublin Castle.

December 15, 2016 4:36 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Die Staatsrede

Staatspresident Jacobus Johannes Fouché giving the staatsrede from the throne of the Senate within the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town.

What is now the State of the Nation Address has its origins in the speech from the throne (in Afrikaans staatsrede meaning “state reasoning/rationale”) setting out the Government’s legislative programme for the year. The high point of the State Opening of Parliament, it was originally given by the Governor-General (or, in 1947, by the King of South Africa himself) but with the abolition of the monarchy in 1961 the sovereign’s vice-regal representative was abolished and replaced by the Staatspresident as chief officer of the South African state.

Giving a speech from an actual throne was considered too monarchic for a republican polity, so – like in the Boer republics of old – presidents gave their staatsredes standing. Here, State-President Fouché is flanked by the chiefs of the defence staff and police, the Serjeant-at-Arms with the mace, and the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.

Of course, much of this was abolished in the 1980s with the constitutional innovations as a last-ditch attempt to entrench apartheid. South Africa is now on its third constitution since the above photo was taken.

It reminds me of how in Ireland almost all the traditions of the Viceroy (viz. the Viceregal Guard of Battleaxes, etc.) were abolished not by the Saorstát or Éire but by the British themselves – in their case by penny-pinching Victorians who found Dublin an easy target for cost-cutting.

January 21, 2016 12:00 pm | Link | 6 Comments »

Evolution of a Napoleonic Parliament

The Salle des états in the Palais du Louvre

Among the numerous rituals of the ordinary visitor’s pilgrimage to Paris — trip up the Eiffel Tower, lunch at a tourist-trap café — braving the teeming hordes in the Louvre to view da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ ranks near the top. What very few of the camera-toting hordes realise is that they are shuffling through the room that once housed France’s parliament. The history of the Palais du Louvre is long, exceptional, and varied.

Originally built as a stern castle in the 1190s, the Louvre’s secure reputation led Louis IX to house the royal treasury there from the mid-thirteenth century. Charles V enlarged it in the fifteenth century to become a royal residence, while François Ier brought the grandeur of the Renaissance to the Louvre — as well as acquiring ‘La Gioconda’. In 1793, amidst the revolutionary tumult, part of the palace was opened to the public as the Musée du Louvre, but the Louvre has always housed a variety of institutions — the Ministry of Finance didn’t move out until 1983.

Napoleon III took as his official residence the Tuileries Palace which the Louvre was slowly enlarged towards over the centuries to incorporate. The Emperor needed a parliament chamber close at hand so he could easily address joint sittings of the Senate and the Corps législatif (as the lower house was called during the Second Empire) which opened the parliamentary year. By doing so at his residence, the Bonaparte emperor was following the example left by his kingly Bourbon predecessor Louis XVIII. (more…)

March 4, 2014 9:05 am | Link | 4 Comments »

The Crowned Banner

The Emblem of the Scottish Parliament

Legislatures often have their own symbols. Often these are appropriated or stylised versions of national emblems. Stormont uses a flax plant. Some time ago Westminster adopted the Tudor portcullis which now represents the Parliament of the United Kingdom — in green for the Commons or in red for the Lords.

In Scotland, however, the unicameral parliament has adopted a crowned banner as its distinctive insignia. (For previous posts on prominent emblems of modern Scottish design, see the Clootie Dumpling and the Daisy Wheel). The crown expresses authority — ultimately the sovereign power of the monarchy — while the corded banner hanging from a pommelled pole displays the Saltire, Scotland’s national flag. While early versions of the emblem were in blue, it is now standard that the symbol be depicted in purple, long a colour associated with Scotland through the national florae of heather and thistle. (more…)

January 27, 2014 1:00 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Opening Parliament Down Under

I’m a fan of state openings of parliament, so it might be a surprise that I’ve never been to one. I did see some of the practice run-through for the State Opening in Cape Town (which involves a delightful parade of the Cape Town Highlanders and other units from the Castle to Parliament) but unfortunately a social occasion kept me from the actual opening itself. As my luck would have it, I managed to return to live in Blighty again the one year the blasted Government decided not to have a State Opening. Roll on, 2012! Anyhow, down in the Antipodes, the New Zealanders have just had their State Opening of Parliament in the realm’s capital city of Wellington. (more…)

January 4, 2012 10:00 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Canada’s Temporary Commons

Canada boasts one of the most imposing parliamentary complexes in the world, presiding from a lordly bluff in the federal capital of Ottawa. While I think the city could do with an overall Hausmannisation, the government of the Confederation is undertaking significant efforts to renovate the buildings on Parliament Hill.

While the House of Commons chamber is renovated, the dominion’s lower house will meet in a new temporary chamber (above) constructed in the inner court of the West Block, one of a pair of high Victorian Gothic structures that flank the main parliament building. The restoration will take five to seven years, after which the temporary chamber will be converted into parliamentary committee rooms.

March 6, 2011 9:09 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

The Commons in the Lords

IT WAS THE NIGHT of 10 May 1941. For nine solid months the Luftwaffe had thrown everything it had at the people of London, as Hitler hoped to bomb the English into despair and surrender. By early May, the Nazis realised the campaign had failed, and resources had to be directed elsewhere. The Blitz had to end, but on its final night, it hit one of its most precious targets. Twelve German bombs hit the Palace of Westminster that night, with an incendiary striking a direct hit at the House of Commons. The locus of Britain’s parliamentary democracy was consumed by flame and completely destroyed. (more…)

March 6, 2011 9:00 pm | Link | 8 Comments »

The Most British Place in the World?

The Islands of the Anglo-Caribbean: Where Old Britain Lives

Spoke to a friend recently, who just had a friend of her’s report back after a six-month stint in the Bahamas. “This is the Britain my grandparents always told me about. It must be the most British place on earth. Men in ties and blazers and women in lovely hats. Just the right mixture of formal and laid-back.” (more…)

November 28, 2010 6:02 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

The Houses of Parliament, Dublin

The Physical Incarnation of Ireland’s Golden Age

THE OLD HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT in Dublin are probably at the top of my list of favourite buildings in the world. Now the headquarters of the Bank of Ireland, it has a long and varied history, and its exterior composition is one of surprising unity for a structure the components of which were designed by three architects. It is supposedly the first purpose-built parliament building in the world, and stands on the site of Chichester House, a stately home adapted for use by the Irish Parliament from the 1600s onwards.

This article is an amalgamation of my previous writings on this building.

The location, with a history dating back centuries, is just south of the Liffey river upon what was then known as Hoggen Green. A nunnery existed on the site which was supressed during Henry VII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. A large private house was then built on the site, set back from the street, eventually known as Chichester House. (It likely incorporated some of the old convent’s structure). Among the esteemed inhabitants of the house were Sir George Carew, sometime Lord President of Munster, Sir Arthur Chichester, after whom the house was named, and the Anglican Bishop Edward Parry is known to have had a lease on the place during his lifetime.

The building must have been seen as holding some public significance, not only because it was located adjacent to the University of Dublin (of which Trinity College is the sole constituent institution), but it was home to the Irish Law Courts for a time beginning with the Michaelmas legal term of 1605. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, no later than October 1692, the Irish parliament began to meet at Chichester House on College Green. (more…)

June 16, 2010 9:01 pm | Link | 8 Comments »

The Presiding Officer’s Gown

While the Westminster Parliament has a Speaker, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh has a “Presiding Officer” — a rather dull title if you ask me. The auld Estaits of Parliament abolished in 1707 were headed by the Lord Chancellor of Scotland, an office which fell into abeyance shortly after the Act of Union.

When the “Scottish Parliament” was refounded in 1997, the first man to hold the new job of Presiding Officer was Sir David Steel (the Rt. Hon. the Lord Steel of Aikwood), the despicable creature who as an MP introduced legal abortion to the United Kingdom in 1967, and who has inexplicably and disgracefully been created a Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, the highest honour in the land (the Scottish equivalent of England’s Garter).

Anyhow, the St Andrews Fund for Scots Heraldry decided to commemorate the hosting of the Heraldic & Genealogical Congress in Scotland by commissioning a ceremonial gown for the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, who lacked one at the time. This rather handsome creation was presented to George Reid, the holder of the office at that time, during 27th International Congress of Genealogical and Heraldic Sciences held at St Andrews in 2006. Unfortunately I can find no evidence that this well-executed gown has ever been used. (more…)

June 3, 2010 9:08 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

Potsdam’s City Palace to be Resurrected

THE OLD STADTSCHLOSS of Potsdam, destroyed by aerial bombing during the Second World War, will rise again next to the Old Market in the Brandenburg capital. The provincial government has decided to rebuild the old Stadtschloss to serve as a home for the Landtag, Brandenburg’s provincial parliament. While it was first conceived of building a modern building on the site, or having some reconstructed façades and others modern, a €20-million donation from the software entrepreneur Hasso Plattner has ensured the façades and massing of the building will follow the outline of the old stadtschloss. The interiors will be simple and modern, and to keep the costs down, much of the finer Baroque detailing of the façades will not be included. “I hope,” Herr Plattner said, “that the necessary compromises do not diminish the great impression overall.” (more…)

April 5, 2010 8:16 pm | Link | 11 Comments »

Scotland’s Three Parliaments

All of Them More Beautiful than the Current Parliament Building

IT IS ONE OF those curious aspects of Edinburgh: its multiplicity of parliament buildings. The Estaits of Parliament, as they were known in the old days — consisting of the three estates of prelates, lairds, and burghers — first met in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle in 1140, though the first gathering of which we have primary source material was at Kirkliston in 1235, during the reign of Alexander II. The body led a somewhat peripatetic existence, meeting wherever was convenient, and even met for a year in St Andrews, where the building which housed it is still known as Parliament Hall. Indeed, that august edifice is home to the proceedings of the Union Debating Society, where the germinal gasbags of Scotland, and indeed of all three kingdoms, first enter the fray of political discourse.

In 1997, nearly three-hundred years after the Parliament was abolished, it was decided to bring it back, albeit in much reduced form. Great were the rumours and discussions about what effect the return of legislative power might have on the country, and Edinboronians pondered where the body might be housed. There were obvious choices, and less obvious choices, but in the end the Westminster government decided to go for the choice that hadn’t been suggested at all and built one of the most heinous offences against the sensibilities of taste that the land has ever seen. And so, the fact is that Scotland has three beautiful parliament buildings, none of which it uses. (more…)

March 25, 2010 1:12 pm | Link | 12 Comments »

The State Opening of Parliament

The State Opening of Parliament has always been an occasion of great ceremony, most especially so on the one occasion when the King of South Africa himself was actually present. When South Africa became a republic in 1961, the State President took the role of the Governor-General. While formerly centered on the old main entrance, the President now enters Parliament at the 1983 wing (as seen at right), where he is greeted by a guard of honour and pauses to hear the National Anthem played by a military band.

Before 1994, morning dress was the norm for the State President (and for the Governor-General before him), but since that time the head of state has tended to wear a business suit on the occasion. That doesn’t stop the other Members of Parliament and their spouses from dressing up. There’s an unspoken contest among female MPs and MPs’ wives to wear the most daring or arresting hat to the State Opening, and often tribal leaders attend in the traditional dress of their peoples. (more…)

March 14, 2010 8:21 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

The National Assembly

Despite the longer history behind the original wing of South Africa’s Parliament House, when most people think of Parliament today they think of the 1983 wing that currently houses the National Assembly. The wing was designed by the architects Jack van der Lecq and Hannes Meiring in a Cape neo-classical style similar to the rest of the building, and it is actually quite a handsome composition despite the awkwardly proportioned portico, which is too tall for its width or two narrow for its height. (more…)

March 5, 2010 1:01 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

‘Starchitecture’ Assaults the Stately City

In the Heart of Old Valletta, Architect Renzo Piano Plans a Gate without a Gate, a Theatre with no Roof, and a Parliament on Stilts

“THE MOST HUMBLE City of Valletta” is the official title of Malta’s capital, which was founded in response to Moorish threats and withstood the onslaught of Nazi bombers. But ‘La Ċittà Umilissima’ is now facing a humiliation brought about by its own rulers, who have commissioned the modernist architect Renzo Piano to reshape the entrance to the oldest quarter of the city. ‘Starchitects’ like Piano are so called because their temporal success lies more on their ability to create hype about their sensational and novel designs than on the quality and timelessness of their work itself. Most notorious for collaborating with Richard Rogers on the despised Pompidou Center in Paris, Piano has re-envisioned Valletta’s city gate without a gate, placed a new Maltese parliament on stilts next to it, and developed plans for a roofless theatre on the bombed-out ruins of the Royal Opera House.

The foundation of the Maltese capital was initiated by the Order of Malta during its rule over the island, not long after the famous Ottoman attack of 1565 was repulsed. The city takes its name from Jean Parisot de Valette, one of the greatest men to have ever served as Prince & Grand Master of the Sovereign Military & Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and the knights’ impact on Valletta’s development have led some to call it “the city designed by gentlemen for gentlemen”. This stateliness led some to give ‘The Most Humble City’ its second moniker of ‘La Superbissima’ — the most proud. (more…)

March 3, 2010 7:17 pm | Link | 16 Comments »
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