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18 September 2014
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Pomp and Circumstance at Westminster

By Christine Riding
Speaker’s chair

Image of Speaker's Chair in the House of Commons
Speaker's Chair, House of Commons ©
The visual equivalent to the Royal Throne in the House of Commons is the Speaker’s Chair. Pictorial evidence suggests that this remained stylistically the same throughout the 18th century - a large armchair raised from the ground, upholstered in green leather or velvet, and positioned in front of a tall ‘clothe of estate’ of carved wood. This was surmounted by the royal coat of arms to indicate that the Speaker’s authority ultimately came from the Crown, even after the Civil War and 'Glorious Revolution'.

'... the Speaker’s Chair established the authority and precedence of the occupant over everyone else ...'

Pugin kept these basic components. But in keeping with the Gothic style of the building, and the seating based on choir stalls, he modelled the new Speaker's Chair on a medieval bishop’s chair, made in plain, carved oak. Like the Royal Throne, the Speaker’s Chair established the authority and precedence of the occupant over everyone else assembled in the chamber.

But in keeping with the hierarchy established throughout the new Palace of Westminster, the Speaker’s Chair, as it had been in the past, was visually much less ornate than the Royal Throne. This reflected, in broad terms, the fact that traditionally the House of Commons (and thus the Speaker) was less politically significant than either the monarch or House of Lords.

However as the Commons progressively assumed power in Parliament, the relatively plain, workaday style of both the Speaker’s Chair and the chamber itself, came to be seen as symbolic of this shift towards greater political significance. In the words of Walter Bagehot, the House of Commons’ ‘... use resides not in its appearance, but in its reality. Its office is not to win power by awing mankind, but to use power in governing mankind’.

Today the Speaker’s Chair is used every day when the House of Commons is in session. The Royal Throne only once a year, for the State Opening.

Published: 2005-02-07



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