Pomp and Circumstance at Westminster

By Christine Riding
The colourful pomp and ceremony of Parliament is one of Britain's most famous traditions. How did key events - such as the State Opening of Parliament - acquire authority through the fabulous display connected with them?
State Opening of Parliament 

Monarch in Parliament

From the Middle Ages onwards ceremonies have played a regular part in the proceedings of the House of Lords. The most important of these were the royal ceremonies, at which the monarch was present, and the State Opening of Parliament has always been the most elaborate of these ceremonies. In the Middle Ages the king, unless ill or on campaign, was expected to be present at this and other parliamentary sessions because it was his parliament.

'Lords and Commons were then told to meet ... and to consider how government could be improved.'

By the later 14th century the opening proceedings followed a well-established pattern. The Lords assembled with the great officers of state in the House of Lords Chamber. The Commons were then led to stand at the Bar of the Chamber, where the king sat in state, surrounded by the Lords, who were seated in order of rank and in their parliamentary robes.

An address was then made (now called the Speech from the Throne) concerning the state of the kingdom and the reasons for Parliament being summoned. Lords and Commons were then told to meet separately to discuss these matters, and to consider how government could be improved.

Responsibility for marshalling and leading the procession to the State Opening lay with the Earl Marshall and subsequently the garter king of arms and other heralds. Although the balance of political power has changed dramatically in subsequent centuries, in general terms this is how the State Opening of Parliament is conducted to this day at Westminster.

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.

Royal Throne

Image of the Coronation chair
The Coronation Chair
The most constant feature of the Palace of Westminster, from the medieval period when it was a royal residence, into the present day as the home of the houses of Parliament, is the Royal Throne.

Medieval thrones were based on the biblical description of King Solomon’s throne, which was richly ornamented and raised on steps and accompanied by a footstool. By the 14th century, a canopy or ‘clothe of estate’ was placed over the throne. Used exclusively by royalty, a canopied throne was of the highest symbolic importance and came increasingly to command the same respect as the monarch in person.

'... Barry and Pugin were fortunate to have an authentic medieval throne ...'

It also became the focus for royal ceremonial and protocol. In Parliament, as in all royal residences, the throne symbolised the authority of the Crown, even when the monarch was not present. Thrones were used in two areas of the palace - the Lords Chamber (House of Lords debating chamber) and the Royal Robing Room.

Royal thrones in the Palace of Westminster had, in more recent times, looked like glorified armchairs in the latest fashion. Given that the new palace was designed in the Gothic Revival style, Barry and Pugin were fortunate to have an authentic medieval throne sitting within a short distance of the new Lords Chamber in Westminster Abbey - this was St Edward’s Chair, more popularly known as the Coronation Chair.

This throne, used during all coronations at Westminster since 1308, remains the earliest example of an English royal throne, and is the only one to have survived from the medieval period. In referencing this highly significant piece of furniture, which was used during the anointing of kings and queens, Barry and Pugin undoubtedly gave the Palace of Westminster’s throne a symbolic resonance that previous thrones had failed to achieve.

A spectacular canopy of carved and gilded wood completed the powerful effect. The whole ensemble was designed to give visual prominence to the monarch, as head of state, in Parliament.

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.

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.

Published on BBC History: 2005-02-07
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