A team of architects at London’s Palace of Westminster has a key – one they specially made to fit a strange keyhole in the corridor of one of the city’s most iconic buildings. They click the key into position and open the secret entryway. And as they walk into the re-discovered space, they stumble upon a historical relic linked to the 11th century room next door: Westminster Hall.
We’ll explore a little later exactly what the workers found, but first let’s learn a bit more about the place in which it was discovered: the U.K. Parliament. Sitting on the River Thames in the middle of London, the iconic building was built over a three-decade period from 1840, after the previous one had burned down six years earlier. However, Westminster Hall survived the fire and became one of the few medieval structures to beat the blaze.
In recent years, Westminster Hall has taken on more of a ceremonial role in Parliament. While lawmakers gather at the nearby Palace of Westminster, the hall hosts coronation luncheons, veterans’ events, parades and exhibitions. But as we’ll soon find out, a keyhole led to a long-lost secret about this old space – one that pointed to its very rich and lengthy history.
The United Kingdom’s Palace of Westminster houses both branches of its Parliament – the House of Commons and the House of Lords. As such, many refer to the iconic, Thames-side building as the Houses of Parliament. But the grounds contain so much more than just the country’s legislative chambers.
In the Middle Ages – which stretched from the 5th to the 15th century – the Palace of Westminster served the purpose as described in its name. Monarchs once called the building their home, and it made sense for them to do so. The location along the winding river proved strategic to the country’s age-old leaders.
Nevertheless, the kings and queens of England wouldn’t live at the Palace of Westminster forever. In 1512 a fire blazed through the part of the building cordoned off for its royal residents. As such, King Henry VIII, in charge at the time, moved into the Palace of Whitehall – which he acquired in 1534.
The Palace of Westminster retained its status as a royal place of residence at this time. But it also housed both Houses of Parliament and various courts. By the 18th century, though, the place was bursting at the seams. Legislators needed more space to carry out official business, but their efforts to have a new building constructed for them fell on deaf ears.
Instead, more structures were added to extend the Palace of Westminster. For instance, between 1755 and 1770, the Parliament received a new west-facing facade called the Stone Building. The addition provided legislators with extra square footage to store documents and gather in committee rooms.
But none of the aforementioned provisions could make the Palace of Westminster work after what happened in 1834. That year, an overheated stove sparked a fire that torched both Houses of Parliament. The blaze tore through many other buildings on site, which meant that government proceedings temporarily ceased – at least at the Palace itself.
Instead, the then-reigning King William IV opened the doors of Buckingham Palace – offering up the royal digs because he didn’t particularly like the residence for himself. But members of Parliament rejected the idea, as they found the royal abode didn’t suit their proceedings.
Eventually, lawmakers returned to the Palace of Westminster, and the structure itself received a complete overhaul. Competition was fierce, as many architects wanted to be the one to design such an important build. However, Charles Barry earned the job after presenting a Gothic Revival-style renovation. As the name implies, this architectural movement aimed to bring back the Gothic style that had been popular during medieval times.
Although Barry’s work on the Palace of Westminster began in 1840, it took nearly three decades to get it all finished. The project had its difficulties; not only did Barry die while on the job, but so did Augustus Pugin – who assisted him and blueprinted the interior. On top of that, the team faced construction delays and budget constraints.
In the end, though, the Palace of Westminster came to encompass more than 1,100 rooms – all of which align around two sets of courtyards at the heart of the building. Combined, this gives the U.K. Parliament a whopping 1.2 million square feet of space from which lawmakers helm legislative debates and dealings.
The Palace of Westminster remains the hub for all of the U.K.’s parliamentary dealings. Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords convene under its roof. But that’s not the only reason the building is so iconic. The Gothic Revival-style building rises up along the banks of the Thames in central London – making it one of the most iconic views in any city the world over.
Of course, much of the Palace of Westminster as we know it today was built in the 19th century – but not every bit of it burned down in the 1834 fire. Westminster Hall, for one, survived the blaze. The 11th century structure still stands thanks to the hard work of firefighters and a change in the direction of the wind.
King William II had called for the construction of Westminster Hall in 1097, and it took two years to complete the project. The monarch had one goal in constructing the space – he wanted a grand room in which he could impress every visitor with his power and majesty. But legend has it that he didn’t think the hall was up to snuff.
According to the U.K.’s Parliament’s website, an attendant complimented King William II’s new space by saying that it was even larger than what was necessary. But the monarch retorted that Westminster Hall’s measurements weren’t actually big enough. Apparently, he considered it to be the size of a bedroom in comparison to the grandiose room he had imagined.
Westminster Hall’s dimensions prove that King William II may have exaggerated in his complaints about the 11th century structure. It measures in at 240 by 67 feet, which creates approximately 17,000 square feet of floor space. By the time construction ended, it became the largest hall in the country – and, possibly, throughout Europe.
One feature that may have made Westminster Hall feel less awe-inspiring were the pillars once used to prop up its roof. Several centuries years later, though, King Richard II changed all of that. In 1393 he commissioned royal carpenter Hugh Herland to replace the pillars with a hammerbeam roof, and this opened up the hall into one giant space.
Still, Westminster Hall was never used in the way that King William II envisioned. For most of its existence, the sprawling space instead provided a location for the government’s judicial branch. And until the 19th century the hall encompassed a trio of vital courts – the Court of King’s Bench, the Court of Chancery and the Court of Common Pleas.
Eventually, all three courts became one – the High Court of Justice. This judicial body ended up moving into the Royal Courts of Justice, which is a Victorian Gothic-style building that’s an almost 30-minute walk from Parliament today. Before then, though, Westminster Hall did play host to some important trials in the U.K.’s history.
For example, William Wallace faced trial at Westminster Hall after he led the effort against England in the First War of Scottish Independence. He was sentenced to death for treason and high crimes against civilians. And you may recognize his story from the 1995 film Braveheart – which starred Mel Gibson.
Westminster Hall has long served a ceremonial purpose, too. Until the 19th century, the sprawling room played host to coronation banquets for the newest royal to sit on the throne. King George IV was the last to celebrate the start of his reign in 1821 – his successor, William IV, refused such a soiree because of the expense.
Ceremonial funerals for either the monarch or their consorts have taken place in Westminster Hall, as well. And other important figures such as Winston Churchill have had their send-offs held here. Furthermore, the Queen sometimes uses the space to give monumental speeches – including for her Golden and Diamond Jubilees, which were held in 2002 and 2012 respectively.
It might seem that a place as important and well-traversed as Westminster Hall wouldn’t have any mystery to it. But the 1,000-year-old room held onto at least one tiny, little secret – something that people walked by and passed over for 360 years of the structure’s life. And in 2019 a restoration team tasked with a $5 billion refresh of Parliament noticed something remarkable.
As the team planned their work in Parliament, they pored over archival documents. There, they pinpointed a small feature they had never noticed before – a panel that housed a small keyhole. They didn’t have the key to pop it open, of course, so they had one specially made to try and open the portal.
When the team did turn the key, they found themselves entering a small room – especially in comparison to Westminster Hall next door. The space measured six feet in width and was 11 feet tall. But its size wasn’t as compelling as a set of hinges that once held a pair of wooden doors. And these would have swung open into Westminster Hall itself.
By that time, experts knew exactly what they had found, and it was a relic of the past that they thought had been lost forever. The passageway into Westminster Hall had a plaque commemorating its one-time existence – but it was thought to have been covered up at the end of World War II.
During the conflict, bombs had fallen on Parliament, and workers had come in post-WWII to resurrect the lawmakers’ meeting place. They were the ones who’d discovered the passageway, which hadn’t been touched until they stumbled upon it. Rather than re-sealing the hallway, though, they’d carved a little door into the adjoining corridor so others could also explore the space.
As it turned out, the workers’ solution ended up being too discreet. No one remembered that they had left the little passageway accessible. In fact, historians had long believed that the post-WWII repairmen had actually closed off access to the walkway forever. And then, they found the keyhole.
According to The New York Times, Parliamentary historian Mark Collins released a statement about the re-discovered passageway in 2020. He said, “To say we were surprised is an understatement. We really thought it had been walled up forever after the war.” And the find was thrilling for more reason than one.
For one thing, the small corridor had a lot of history; it came to be in the 17th century just before then-King-to-be Charles II’s coronation banquet. The monarch would walk through the passageway and into Westminster Hall. And plenty of other important people would make that same walk.
Among those walking down the passage were Robert Walpole – who many people consider to be the U.K.’s first Prime Minister. Plenty of other royals and lawmakers would have traversed the hallway. Even one-time London resident Benjamin Franklin used it. Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, told The New York Times, “To think that this walkway has been used by so many important people over the centuries is incredible.”
Consultant Liz Hallam Smith, who works with the Parliament’s architecture and heritage team, echoed Hoyle’s sentiment. She told the newspaper, “The speakers of the House of Commons would have come this way – many, many [Members of Parliament] over the centuries. So, it shows it’s a really historic route.”
And the Westminster Hall passage wasn’t the only treasure left for experts to uncover, either. As the historians explored the passageway, they found penciled-on graffiti that dated back to 1851. The humorous message read, “This room was enclosed by Tom Porter who was very fond of Ould Ale.”
Porter wasn’t the only one to leave a message while on the job, though. The historians found further scribbles from the stonemasons who came to the Palace of Westminster to repair it after the 1834 fire. Another piece of graffiti made note of that. It says, “These masons were employed refacing these gronies… August 11, 1851. Real Democrats.”
At the time, the Real Democrats represented a faction of the Chartist movement – which fought for the working-class man’s right to vote. They rallied for Members of Parliament to be able to stand even if they didn’t own property. And, clearly, they had more messages to send – such as the one on the walls of the Westminster Hall passageway.
Luckily, the cheeky message hasn’t been forgotten, and that’s all down to a restoration project set in motion in 2018. But time has taken its toll on the Palace of Westminster – a leak once sent water flooding into the House of Commons, so lawmakers had to pause their proceedings. The building was a known fire risk, too.
The massive Parliament restoration project hasn’t been smooth sailing; aside from the predicted $5 billion price tag, contractors have made progress slowly. They have said that their work will be delayed, and that the renovations could take years longer than suspected. And yet, the passageway marked a bright spot in a less-than-ideal process.
In fact, Hallam Smith saw the re-discovery of the Westminster Hall passageway as the first of what could be many historical finds throughout the renovation process. She concluded to The New York Times, “Finding something as important as this was extremely exciting. It shows that the Palace of Westminster still has all these secrets to give up.” Indeed, all there’s left to do is locate them.