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18 September 2014
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Pomp and Circumstance at Westminster

By Christine Riding
Heritage site

Image of the Houses of Parliament viewed from the river
Houses of Parliament, Westminster ©
Queen Victoria rarely attended the State Opening of Parliament after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, so in her absence all the pageantry was left out.

When Edward VII came to the throne in 1901, however, he understood that in an increasingly democratic world, the monarch must compensate by playing a significant role in the theatre of state. He reinstated the whole procession, complete with all the accoutrements of regal magnificence - the state coach, the state robes and full dress of the major participants.

'Today the Palace of Westminster has never been so cared for or so respected ...'

This continued throughout the 20th century, only interrupted by war. At the same time new royal and parliamentary traditions were devised within the Palace of Westminster. The most important of these was the tradition of the lying-in-state of significant public figures, on their death, in Westminster Hall.

The first to be given this honour was William Gladstone in 1898. The next was a member of the royal family, Edward VII, in 1910, and a pattern was set with George V in 1936, George VI in 1952, Queen Mary in 1953 and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 2002. Winston Churchill was only the second politician to be honoured in this way - in 1965, when an estimated 1,000,000 people filed past his coffin to pay their respects.

Heads of state from other nations have also addressed Parliament within the Palace of Westminster. One such was US President Bill Clinton, who spoke in the Royal Gallery in 1995, another was South African President Nelson Mandela, who spoke in Westminster Hall in 1996.

As the 20th century progressed, the Palace of Westminster was increasingly perceived as a building of historical, as well as parliamentary and royal interest. In the 1980s the exterior of the building was restored, and the 1990s saw a series of restoration projects - including the Lords Chamber and the Lord Chancellor's residence, which was redecorated using Pugin's original designs.

In 1987 the Westminster site, including the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey, was designated a World Heritage site. Today the Palace of Westminster has never been so cared for or so respected and, in the age of film and television, so universally well known. The clock tower itself is as famous as the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal.

These days, with the creation of the Welsh assembly and the Scottish Parliament, Westminster is no longer at the unchallenged centre of British politics. And there have been calls to reduce the pageantry surrounding the State Opening itself.

Whatever the future holds for state ceremonials and politics at Westminster, however, the palace itself is a well-loved London landmark and remains, as intended by Barry and Pugin, a symbol of national identity.

About the author

Christine Riding is currently a curator at Tate Britain. She has previously worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of London, the Wallace Collection, and was a consultant curator at the Palace of Westminster. Her recent publications include Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture, Merrell 2000.


Published: 2005-02-07

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