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Pomp and Circumstance at Westminster

By Christine Riding
Royal procession

Image of Queen Victoria on her way to the State Opening of Parliament
Queen Victoria on her way to the State Opening of Parliament, 1852  ©
A popular component of the State Opening was the royal procession to the Palace of Westminster, which was often watched by large crowds of people, being one of the limited opportunities that ordinary people had to see their monarch in person.

It was therefore important that the procession should be splendid - in order to underline royal authority. In 1762, George III used for the first time the state coach that is still used for royal ceremonies (the present Queen uses the Irish state coach for state openings).

'... the most ornate rooms in the whole building ... were created for the use of the monarch.'

Once the monarch arrived at the palace he or she had to make their way to the Robing Room (where, as the name suggests, they were dressed in state robes) and on to the Lords Chamber by foot. In the medieval palace this must have been a relatively direct and commodious route. However as the palace developed over the centuries, with piecemeal additions and remodellings, the route became inadequate for the purposes of state ceremonies.

Plans to rebuild the royal entrance, where the monarch entered the palace, and rooms leading to the Lords Chamber, were discussed from the 1790s but were continually thwarted. Indeed George III’s ‘madness’, which resulted in long periods of absence from Parliament and the public eye, was thought by some to seriously endanger the position of monarchy itself.

When George IV came to the throne in 1820, he redressed this by commissioning the architect Sir John Soane with the refurbishment of the Lords Chamber and a new purpose-built sequence of rooms, which took the monarch from street level to the Lords Chamber in appropriate splendour. These were built in 1822-4.

After the fire of 1834, Charles Barry used a similar sequence of rooms in the new palace, which went as follows - the Royal Entrance, the Royal Stairs, the Norman Porch, the Royal Robing Room, the Royal Gallery. These were the most ornate rooms in the whole building, because they were created for the use of the monarch.

Royal symbols and badges (in particular the ‘VR’ monogram for ‘Victoria Regina’) and those of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, and the principality of Wales, were used throughout.

From the Royal Gallery the monarch walked in procession with officers of state and members of the royal household, such as the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Lord Chancellor and Black Rod to the Prince’s Chamber (the name had been used since the medieval period) and into the Lords Chamber. The Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance, symbols of royal power, were also carried before the monarch during the procession.

The last feature used by the monarch in Parliament was the Royal Throne. This was placed, as it had been since the medieval period, under a canopy in the Lords Chamber. As the monarch entered the Lords Chamber, he or she would mount the steps to the throne and be seated. Black Rod then summoned the Commons to the Bar of the Lords Chamber, and the monarch would then read the Speech from the Throne. Today, little has changed since the 1840s.

Published: 2005-02-07



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