Steeped in History and Tradition: The State Opening of Parliament

As with other royal rituals, the annual State Opening of Parliament contains all of the pageantry the public has come to expect, including horse drawn carriages, jeweled crowns and regal processions. The significance of this ceremony is that it is the only time during the year when the Queen, House of Lords and House of Commons meet to review the legislative agenda for the upcoming year. While having an important legislative function, the State Opening of Parliament is one of the most historic ceremonies the Queen will undertake during her busy year.

The Imperial State Crown is delivered to Buckingham Palace a day or two before the ceremony so the Queen can get used to its weight.

Worn by the Queen, the Imperial State Crown is a symbolic emblem of the ceremony. The Imperial State Crown is priceless and remains uninsured due to its spectacularly high historic value.  Among its 2,868 diamonds, it is the 317-carat Second Star of Africa in the center that is the largest. Presented to King Edward VII as a birthday present, the Second Star of Africa was cut from the 3,106-carat South African Cullinan Diamond, the largest pure white diamond ever discovered. Other historic royal gems make up the Crown, including the Black Prince’s Ruby worn by Henry V at Agincourt and pearls from a necklace of Elizabeth I. Still older is the sapphire from a signet ring worn by Edward the Confessor at his death in 1066. For the Monarch, it must be a daunting revelation that they are wearing over two and a half pounds and over 1,000 years of history on their head.

While the Queen plays a central role in the ceremony, there are many less visible supporting roles that date back centuries. The Queen’s Watermen have played a key part of the State Opening of Parliament since Tudor times by safely escorting the Crown Jewels from Buckingham Palace to the Palace at Westminster. To pay tribute to their long heritage, the Watermen still wear Tudor uniforms of a skirted scarlet tunic with a silver gilt Royal Cypher on the front and back of their jacket.

The Yeomen of the Guard and the Gentlemen at Arms, the Queen’s bodyguards, engage in a friendly rivalry over which group is oldest and most important. The Yeomen of the Guard claim the honor of the Monarch’s oldest bodyguard, having been founded by Henry VII. But the Gentlemen of the Guard, founded 24-years later by Henry VIII, claim to be “The Nearest Guard”. This means that the Gentlemen of the Guard have the honor of being closest to the Monarch at state occasions and standing guard over the coffin at Royal funerals. However, the Yeomen are able to top this boast due to their long history of protecting the monarch. Ever since the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 when Guy Fawkes and his gang of Catholic supporters plotted to blow up Parliament and kill Protestant King James I, ten Yeomen guards search the Commons cellars before every State Opening. Nowadays, this procedure is largely ceremonial due to the 1,200 soldiers, 1,500 police, 300 parliamentary staff and team of sniffer dogs who protect the Queen.

Charles I believed he ruled by divine right, which lead to conflicts with Parliament and his ultimate downfall.

In addition to these historic roles, the State Opening of Parliament ceremony follows many strict traditional rituals. One of the first rituals of the ceremony is to take a government minister captive. Before the Queen departs Buckingham Palace for Westminster, a member of the House of Commons is taken to the Palace as a ceremonial hostage to guarantee the sovereign’s safety as she enters a possibly hostile Parliament. The tradition of taking a hostage began in the time of Charles I, who had a combative relationship with Parliament and was eventually beheaded in 1649 at the end of the civil war between the monarchy and Parliament.  In recent years, John Heppell, Labour MP for Nottingham East has acted as the guarantor of the Queen’s safety. While he misses out on the speech, Heppell doesn’t view this as a hardship: “I’m not chucked into the dungeon. I nip up and have a cup of coffee with the Lord Chamberlain and sometimes the odd gin and tonic comes into it.” Upon the safe return of the Queen to Buckingham Palace, hostage Heppell is released from his captivity.

The Queen and Prince Philip enter the House of Lords.

Among the traditions followed for the ceremony is the Queen always arrives in a horse-drawn coach and enters through the Sovereign’s Entrance. The Queen proceeds to the Robing Chamber, where she puts on the Imperial State Crown and the same ermine-bordered Robe of State worn during her 1953 coronation. Escorted by the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen continues through the Royal Gallery to the House of Lords to take her throne. Once the Lord Chamberlain receives the nod from the Queen, he gives a signal to the Gentlemen Usher of the Black Rod to summon the House of Commons.

Upon hearing the Black Rod’s approach, the House of Commons slams the door in his face, symbolizing the independence of the Commons and its right to debate without the presence of the Queen’s Representative. The secret ambition of Lieutenant General Sir Michael Willcocks, a recent holder of the post of the Black Rod, is to catch the members of the House off guard so they aren’t able to slam the door in his face. “I always try to get through without them closing it. I speed up without them noticing. Last year, I very nearly did it and there were cries of ‘Shut the ***** door!’” In his role, Sir Michael has to endure much taunting, most notably from anti-monarchist Labour MP Dennis Skinner, whose annual barbs have become part of the ritual. Willcocks remembers one incident clearly. “My predecessor was much taller than me and Skinner said, ‘We’ve been short-changed! They’ve sent a midget!’ And, of course, I collapsed laughing and couldn’t remember what I was supposed to say.” Despite these antics, Willcocks knows the Queen is waiting and time is of the essence, striking the door three times and once admitted, issues the royal directive. “Mr. Speaker, the Queen commands this honorable House to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers”.

The MPs assemble and make their way to the House of Lords, led by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. By custom, the members saunter with much discussion and joking, rather than making a formal procession.  Willcocks observes that the MPs “don’t rush, they amble, they talk, they make noise”.  Once arrived, the Commons members bow to the Queen and remain in the entryway of the Lords’ Chamber for the duration of the speech, following an ancient tradition that prevents persons who are not members of the House of Lords from entering the chamber when it is in session (a similar rule applies to the House of Commons).

The Queen shown after the 1976 State Opening of Parliament. She has attended every State Opening of Parliament except in 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant with Prince Andrew and Prince Edward.

Written by the Queen’s government outlining the agenda for that legislative agenda, the Queen reads a prepared speech known as the “Speech from the Throne” or the “Queen’s Speech”.  Addressed to “My Lords and Members of the House of Commons”, the speech is read in a neutral tone to not imply the Queen’s approval or disapproval with the government’s proposals.  Once the speech is concluded, the MPs return to their chambers to debate the proposals put forward, providing an indication of the views of Parliament regarding the government’s agenda.

While full of spectacle and ritual, this ceremony more importantly symbolizes democracy in action. In his book “A Year with the Queen”, author Robert Hardman’s insightful account of the State Opening of Parliament contains many personal stories of the day’s events. While these antidotes are insightful, Hardman has grasped the fundamental significance of this ceremony within British democracy: That Parliament derives its authority from the Queen, but the Queen abides by its democratic decisions. In other words, the Queen is in charge, but the people are in control.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed with this sentiment, reflecting that “people are not seriously thinking that the Queen’s sat down and written out the Queen’s speech herself, but what’s wrong with that? It’s one of the things that people love about this country. I think that’s true also of a lot of the ceremony that surrounds the Royal Family. If you use it in the right way — and I think they do it quite skillfully – it is actually a good thing.”

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