The Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, is attending the State Opening of Parliament today, to open a new session of parliament. The traditional ceremony, which combines all three elements of the British legislature, is the highlight of the ceremonial year for many.
The ceremony itself is centuries old and many of the elements we see today in the State Opening are those which have their roots in historic events and also traditions which have been established by custom. The State Opening is the only occasion in the year where The Queen wears the Imperial State Crown, made for Queen Victoria in 1838.
Before The Queen and the royal party set off for Parliament, a hostage is taken by The Queen (not personally) from the Houses of Parliament to Buckingham Palace where they’ll stay for the duration of the state opening. This custom is longstanding convention derived from a time when Parliament and the Monarch were on less cordial terms (Parliament famously chopped the head off of King Charles I in 1649), though the hostage is treated well at the Palace and is released upon the safe return of Her Majesty.
Another ceremony which takes place before the royal arrival is the ceremonial searching of the cellars. Thanks to the (thankfully unsuccessful) attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up Westminster in 1605 with King James inside it during the State Opening of Parliament, The Queen’s personal bodyguard – the Yeoman of the Guard – perform a sweep of the cellars before her arrival.
The next event is the moving of the royal regalia from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster ahead of The Queen. This includes the Imperial State Crown, that she will wear and other state regalia which are carried before Her Majesty. These include the cap of maintenance, originally the lining for a crown given as a gift from Pope and the sword of state, made for Charles II and carried to symbolise Justice and Mercy.
The crown is then taken to the Robing Room in Parliament where it remains until The Queen arrives.
Next is the arrival of The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, who usually travel in the Australian State Coach (though more recently the Britannia state coach now). Her Majesty, wearing the George IV State Diadem, will take the 12-minute journey from Buckingham Palace to Westminster escorted by the Household Cavalry. Upon arrival, she will be greeted by the first fanfare from the State Trumpeters at the entrance and the Royal Standard will be raised above the Palace of Westminster to signal The Queen is in residence.
Her Majesty and Prince Philip will then process to the Robing Room where The Queen will put on the Crown and the Robe of State before emerging to another fanfare to process to the House of Lords to read the speech. As they do, they will pass a detachment of the Household Cavalry lining the staircase (known as the staircase party), the Household Cavalry are the only troops allowed to draw swords in the Houses of Parliament.
Meanwhile, the House of Commons begins its sitting after prayers in preparation for its part in the ceremonies. The speaker’s arrival in the Commons is another showpiece – shouts of “SPEAKER” are heard throughout the corridors of Parliament as Mr Speaker and his entourage process to the Commons. In the central lobby, the police Inspector on duty will give a shout of “hats off stranger” to those present in advance of the Speaker’s procession.
Once The Queen has arrived in the Upper House, she will say, “my lords pray be seated”. This will then set off a chain of events between various officials in the house. The Lord Great Chamberlain (the Marquess of Cholmondeley) will raise his distinctive white wand of office which is a signal to Black Rod (fully, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod – The Queen’s messenger in Parliament) to go and summon the Commons.
Black Rod will then walk from there to the door of the House of Commons where the door will be slammed in his face as a symbol of the autonomy of the Commons. He will then have to knock three times on the door before the command to “open the door” is given from within.
Once inside the House of Commons, Black Rod will deliver The Queen’s request, saying “Mr Speaker: The Queen commands this Honourable House to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers”. Shortly followed by the informal, yet increasingly customary, one-line joke from Labour MP Dennis Skinner, the MPs will then be led by the Speaker and Black Rod to the bar of the House of Lords to hear The Queen’s Speech.
Once the Lords and Commons are in place, The Queen will begin her speech by saying “My Lords and members of the House of Commons…”
After the 10-minute speech has been delivered, The Queen will conclude by saying “My Lords and members of the House of Commons, I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels.”
This will then signal the end of events in the Lords. Members of the House of Commons will return to the Lower House and The Queen will process back to the robing room in preparation to return to Buckingham Palace.
The royal regalia be preceded by The Queen back to Buckingham Palace in its own carriage where it will be checked before returning to the Tower of London and The Queen will leave with the Duke of Edinburgh back to Buckingham Palace, with her departure heralded by another fanfare and the Royal Standard being lowered for the Union Flag above the Palace of Westminster.
The House of Commons and House of Lords will then be able to initiate their usual business for the final session of Parliament starting with a Debate on The Queen’s Speech where a bill is started in both houses in response to the speech as a symbol of the autonomy of both Houses from the Monarch. The bill is ceremonial only and is never taken forward.
One of the great things about the State Opening is that it’s the perfect demonstration, and explanation if you will, of the British Constitution and our status as a constitutional monarchy. The Queen, in full state regalia, attends parliament and summons the Commons and Lords to hear her speech. But it isn’t her speech, it has been written by the Government, who are the legislators.