Today the Queen opened the final session of the 55th Parliament with the customary Speech from the Throne. This magnificent event, which is formally known as the ‘State Opening of Parliament,’ is absolutely chock full of pomp and circumstance. It’s a time of antique costumes and arcane rituals, where the humdrum reality of politics vanishes beneath fairy-tale pageantry. But today’s ceremonies are more than just a colorful display for gawking tourists. It is an extraordinary blend of ancient and modern that is, in many ways, a microcosm of the British constitution itself. Here are some of the rituals that make up the State Opening and their significance.
Searching the Cellars. The day of the State Opening begins when the Ye0men of the Guard search the cellars beneath the Palace of Westminster. The Yeomen of the Guard are one of the corps that make up the Sovereign’s bodyguard, though their role today is largely ceremonial. They wear a Tudor-style uniform (which makes sense since they were founded by the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII) that resembles that worn by the Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London (also known as the ‘Beefeaters’), but the two corps are separate entities. Their search of the cellars is an artifact of the famous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when a group of English Catholics led by Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. However, their search didn’t become a regular occurrence until after 1679. Nowadays, actual security is in the hands of the Metropolitan Police, but the Yeomen of the Guard continue their vigil.
The Queen’s Hostage. Before the Queen leaves Buckingham Palace, an MP (usually a government whip) is ‘taken hostage’ to guarantee her safe return. This is a reminder of the days when the Sovereign and Parliament were on less-than-friendly terms. The two sides were frequently at loggerheads throughout the 17th century, and the situation eventually deteriorated into open warfare followed by the execution of Charles I in 1649. Depending on who you talk to, the custom of taking a hostage either arose during the Civil War or after the restoration of the monarchy, but I haven’t seen any hard evidence either way. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s actually a 19th or 20th century invention. At any rate, the hostage’s confinement is actually rather pleasant. They’re free to wander around Buckingham Palace, though it seems that many of them choose to watch the State Opening on TV in the company of the Lord Chamberlain.The Royal Standard. The moment the Queen alights from her carriage, the Union Jack is lowered from the pole on top of the Victoria Tower and replaced with the Royal Standard (i.e. the Queen’s personal flag). This is because the Palace of Westminster is technically just that: a royal palace. Although it hasn’t been a functioning royal residence for centuries, it’s still formally under the control of the Lord Great Chamberlain, and he is one of the first people to welcome the Queen when she arrives for the State Opening. He tends to stand out since he wears a red coat smothered in golden embroidery and carries a long white staff that looks like a pool cue.
The State Procession. After putting on her Robe of State and the Imperial State Crown, the Queen processes through the Royal Gallery to the House of Lords. She’s accompanied by an entourage that would dwarf those of the most popular Hollywood A-listers. It includes heraldic officials, several of the Great Officers of State (including the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Earl Marshal, and the Lord Privy Seal), the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords, members of the royal household (including a Lady of the Bedchamber, a Woman of the Bedchamber, the Lord Steward, and the Master of the Horse), the heads of the ceremonial bodyguards, and even a few military officials (such as the Chief of the Defense Staff).
When the Queen takes her place on the throne, many of these individuals take up positions around her, including the peers who carry the Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance. The latter is a velvet hat with ermine trim that’s carried on an ivory wand. Its origins are obscure, though it’s said to be a symbol of the Monarch’s sovereignty. Until recently, the honor of carrying the cap went to the Lord President of the Council, but since Nick Clegg has opted to stay with the Commons instead of walking with the royal procession, the task now falls to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Black Rod’s Summons. Once she’s seated on the throne, the Queen signals to the Lord Great Chamberlain, who commands the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod to summon MPs. But when Black Rod arrives at the Commons chamber, the door is slammed in his face. This symbolic show of defiance is another artifact of the strife between Crown and Parliament in the 17th century. In 1642, Charles I entered the Commons with soldiers in tow and tried to arrest five MPs. When he asked the Speaker, William Lenthall, if the MPs were still in the House, Lenthall gave the famous reply: “May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.” Since that day, no Monarch has set foot in the chamber.
The Speech from the Throne. The real meat and potatoes of the State Opening is the Speech from the Throne. Although it’s delivered by the Queen, it’s actually written by the Prime Minister with the concurrence of the Cabinet. Unlike the US President’s State of the Union address, the Speech from the Throne doesn’t even try to be great oratory. It’s basically just a laundry list of bills that will be introduced in the forthcoming session (e.g. “My ministers will introduce legislation on the recall of Members of Parliament”). Towards the end, it always includes the phrase “other measures will be laid before you” in order to give the government flexibility.It might seem strange to go through all this trouble so the Queen can read such a prosaic document, but the Speech from the Throne is constitutionally important. Technically, Parliament is simply an advisory body that the Sovereign summons to discuss “certain arduous and urgent affairs concerning Us the state and defence of Our United Kingdom and the Church” (this is the phrasing used in a peer’s writ of summons to Parliament). From the Middle Ages onward, each parliamentary session began with a speech outlining the business to be discussed. Until the reign of James I (who was something of a windbag), the speech was often given by the Lord Chancellor or the Lord Keeper on behalf of the Sovereign (though the Monarch was still present when it was read). From 1679 onward, the Speech has usually been read by the Sovereign in person (though George I often delegated the task of reading the Speech to the Lord Chancellor due to his poor grasp of English, and Victoria did the same after the death of Prince Albert).
By longstanding convention, Parliament can’t transact business until the Speech from the Throne has been delivered. This convention caused a constitutional headache in the reign of George III. In 1788, he was stricken with a bout of madness while Parliament was prorogued. He was in no condition to deliver the Speech from Throne to open the new session, nor could he appoint Commissioners to deliver the Speech on his behalf. But the British constitution is nothing if not flexible, and Parliament met anyway. The Lord Chancellor informed the House of Lords that the King was incapacitated, then adjourned the House for a fortnight.
When they returned, the Lords had to wrestle with the question of how to proceed without a lucid Sovereign. After hearing testimony from the King’s physicians and considering the precedents, the Lords ultimately agreed to a series of resolutions that essentially declared that Parliament had the power to solve the constitutional conundrum. In order to legitimize their sittings, they ordered the Lord Chancellor to illegally affix the Great Seal to a Commission for opening Parliament. By longstanding custom, such documents could only pass the Great Seal if they were signed by the King (which is why they ended with the words “By the King Himself signed with His Own Hand”), but in this case, the Lords decided to resort to a constitutional fiction. This particular Commission would be sealed by the authority of “the King Himself with the Advice of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons.”
Despite the dubious legality of this Commission, Parliament was officially opened under its authority, but the Speech from the Throne was quite brief and only sought to “call your Attention to the melancholy Circumstance of His Majesty’s Illness, in consequence of which it becomes necessary to provide for the Care of His Majesty’s Royal Person, and for the Administration of the Royal Authority during the Continuance of this Calamity, in such Manner as the Exigency of the Case appears to require.” Thankfully, the King recovered a short while later, and he issued a second Commission to remove all doubts concerning Parliament’s proceedings.
The Pro Forma Bills. When the Houses reconvene after the State Opening, they assert their independence by briefly considering two pro forma bills rather than immediately discussing the Speech from the Throne. In the Lords, it’s the Select Vestries Bill, while in the Commons, it’s the Outlawries Bill. This snub to the Monarchy is actually quite ancient. As early as 1604, the Commons resolved that “That the first day of sitting in every Parliament, some one bill and no more receiveth a first reading for form sake.” After these bills receive a formal first reading (which is almost always done without debate), they are promptly ignored for the rest of the session.
It might be tempting to dismiss the State Opening as a load of Ruritanian nonsense. But I think its underlying symbolism is still relevant even in the 21st century because it encapsulates the story of the British people. Without it, Parliament would be a much poorer place.