Academic

Victorian Medievalism and the Palace of Westminster 

Written by Alice Goodwin. The Palace of Westminster stands as the home of Parliament, containing thousands of years of history. But the majority of this great Palace was designed and built in the nineteenth century, encapsulating a cultural trend now referred to as medievalism.

The idea of the medieval, while today invoking images of gruesome torture and lack of basic hygiene, has in fact been created from centuries of reimagining the historical period. Situated following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages encompasses a millennium of complex social, political, and religious change, culminating in the Renaissance and the Reformation at its conclusion. Fitting neatly into the Early Modern idea of the ancient-medieval-modern tripartite, those living in the Middle Ages did not consider themselves to be a steppingstone in between the Classics and the Renaissance, and yet today many dismiss the period as just that – a steppingstone. The purpose of this article is not the defence of the medieval period, although that is hopefully a side product of the topic, but instead the discussion of the idea of the medieval, how we now see it through the lens of the Victorian Medieval Revival, and how the Palace of Westminster is a perfect example of this.  

The Medieval Revival of the nineteenth century was a cultural movement inspired by the perceived romance of the Middle Ages which encompassed a range of literature, art, architecture, events and antiquarianism. With the aim of bringing the Middle Ages to life in the modern day, the Medieval Revival was all-encompassing. Medievalism studies as we understand it can be attributed to the work of Leslie J. Workman, beginning with one session at the 1976 Congress on Medieval Studies and becoming an established field through the founding of Studies in Medievalism, a journal first published in 1979. With medievalism studies, Workman aimed to provide context to the field of medieval history, enriching understandings of the current scholarly traditions by analysing their past in the Medieval Revival. Defining medievalism as the ‘continuing process of creating the Middle Ages’, Workman theorised that any ‘use’ of the Middle Ages in the years following the typical periodisation of c500-1500CE contributes to the understanding we have of the medieval today, with popular views being dictated by the many different imaginings of the Middle Ages throughout time. One particular example of an ‘imagining’ of the Middle Ages can be seen in design of the Palace of Westminster, also referred to by its working title: The Houses of Parliament. 

Seated alongside the eleventh century Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster does not appear out of place, despite being almost entirely designed and constructed seven centuries later. The building previously acting as the home of Parliament was burned to the ground in 1834 following the failure to extinguish burning tally sticks, devices used to record numbers or messages. This fire ravaged the previous seats of the House of Commons and House of Lords, leaving behind only Westminster Hall, saved from the fire by dedicated workers seeking to preserve the oldest and grandest part of the building. 

Figure 1. The 1834 destruction of both Houses of Parliament by fire (Public Domain). 

This was perhaps the ideal time for such a tragedy to occur, with the neo-gothic architectural trend taking off and many architects interested in the prospect of designing a Palace to sit alongside Westminster Abbey. The Palace of Westminster sits among a collective of neo-gothic architectural triumphs created during this Medieval Revival, with plenty being found around Edinburgh (Scott Monument, the National Museum, and St Mary’s Cathedral being a small sampling). But perhaps one of the most prominent examples of this cultural movement is Strawberry Hill, a house built by Horace Walpole, the son of Sir Robert Walpole, and the author of The Castle of Ontranto (1764), one of the first gothic novels. Strawberry Hill has been credited with the beginnings of the gothic architectural revival, built in 1698 and purchased by Walpole in 1747, this white mock-gothic castle was not built with the intention of historical accuracy, but with the idea of European cathedrals and castles, emulating their overall feeling rather than the specific architectural details. This can perhaps be viewed as an apt metaphor for the whole Victorian Medieval Revival, where the detail was mostly lost, leaving ideas and feelings associated with the period, rather than the reality of life in the Middle Ages. 

The opportunity to design the new heart of politics was attractive to a wide range of architects, and, as such, a system was designed to ensure that the selection process was impartial. Architects would be required to submit their design under a symbol, used as a signature in place of their name. Charles Barry (1795-1860), submitted entry number 64 of 97 with the help of Augustus Pugin, choosing the symbol of the portcullis, previously used sparingly in the Palace since 1512, to represent their design. Proposing dual towers at either end of the building, Barry was inspired by European gothic architecture to create a fitting architectural representation of the two-house political system which would sit inside his Palace. This design won the competition, with the portcullis now used as the symbol of Parliament, and can be found frequently used as a design feature around the interior of the Palace.  

Figure 2. Pugin’s portcullis from a wallpaper design. House of Commons Information Office, Factsheet G9 General Series, the Portcullis (Revised 2010).

Designing the exterior of the Palace in a neo-gothic style, Barry met the brief with enthusiasm, as did his collaborator, Augustus Pugin, who was put in charge of the interior design of the Palace. Around the Palace the history of the English monarchy is presented, from St Stephen’s Hall where the evolution of English democracy is played out through eight scenes, to the Princes Chamber, where portraits of the Tudors sit underneath great representations of the Spanish Armada. In the Royal Gallery two paintings depict the meeting of the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshall Blücher, and the death of Horatio Nelson, each a pivotal moment in the winning of the Napoleonic Wars. This gallery also features portraits of monarchs and their consorts from the Georgian times to today.  

Figure 3. The Royal Gallery, shown facing the Robing Room, with the death of Nelson depicted in Daniel Maclise’s fresco. Credit: UK Parliament.

The room dedicated to the medieval period is quite dissimilar from the other eras shown, for this room does not pay tribute to the monarchy ruling during the Middle Ages, nor does it depict any great battles won or lost by the English. Instead, the Robing Room contains the story of King Arthur, told in its entirety through mahogany carvings positioned around the room.

Figure 4. Mahogany carving in the Robing Room. Text reads: ‘Sir Mordred slaine. King Arthur wounded to death.’ Image is the author’s own.

These carvings sit under great frescoes depicting the values of medieval knighthood, shown through scenes of King Arthur and his court. Hospitality, generosity, mercy, religion, and courtesy are seen on these works of art, with the final two values: courage and fidelity, never finished.

Figure 5. Fresco depicting the virtue ‘Religion’ in the Robing Room. Image is the author’s own.

Portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, separated from their kin in the Royal Gallery, sit where these final frescoes would have been placed, cementing their association with the medieval values and creating a fascinating link between themselves and the Medieval Revival they participated in. Nowhere else in the Palace are the ideas or values of a period considered of higher importance than telling the history of that period. Perhaps a fitting honour for the medieval period recreated by Victorian people and loved in its new incarnation. 

The Medieval Revival of the nineteenth century allowed for an expression of Victorian values through the lens of past conquests and romances. Creating such a vivid world in which courtesy, chivalry, and Christianity were upheld as the highest values meant that the ‘modern’ values of modesty, muscular Christianity, and Empire were time honoured traditions rather than an imposition on people’s lives. The fact that this idea of the medieval overtook the search for true medieval evidence and history was of little consequence to Victorian Medievalists, resulting in such peculiar interpretations as the Palace of Westminster, where much history is discarded in favour of an idealised storyline. The Palace of Westminster is the seat of Parliament, and as such is witness to a huge amount of history. Funny, then, that medieval history itself was so treated within its walls.

Written by Alice Goodwin

Bibliography: 

Alexander, Michael. Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England. Cumberland: Yale University Press, 2007. 

Cantor, Norman. Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1992. 

Girouard, Mark. Return to Camelot. London: Yale University Press, 1981. 

Horswell, Mike. The Rise and Fall of British Crusader Medievalism, c.1825-1945. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018. 

Matthews, David. Medievalism: A Critical History (Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2015).

Morris, Kevin L. (ed.). The Images of the Middle Ages in Romantic and Victorian Literature. Abingdon: Routledge, 1984. 

Roberts, Helene E. ‘Victorian Medievalism: Revival or Masquerade?’ Browning Institute Studies 8 (1980): 11-44. 

Siberry, Elizabeth. The New Crusaders: Images of the Crusades in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000. 

Workman, Leslie J. ‘Medievalism Today.’ Medieval Feminist Newsletter 23 (1997). 

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