Peers on Parade: A Sartorial History of the State Opening of Parliament

Today’s guestblog is from Dr Charles Farris, University of Westminster, who discusses the history of the ceremonial attire worn at the State Opening of Parliament…

Today is the State Opening of Parliament, an event which, for over 500 years, has served as a symbolic reminder of the unity of Parliament’s three parts: the Sovereign; the House of Lords; and the House of Commons. The ceremony marks the formal opening of parliament and the beginning of the parliamentary session.

One of the most striking aspects of the Opening is the rich array of ceremonial attire worn by many of the participants. The Lords wear parliamentary robes of red scarlet cloth, trimmed with three-inch wide white ermine bars, and two-inch wide gold oak leaf lace. The number of bars are determined by each peer’s rank – four for a Duke ; three and a half for a Marquess; three for an Earl; two and a half for a Viscount and two for a Baron. The judges are easily distinguishable in their wigs. The Queen’s Body Guard of the Yeoman of the Guard are similarly discernible in their scarlet tunics, breeches and stockings, and black flat hats. Most striking of all is the Queen who wears the Imperial State Crown and the Parliamentary Robe of State which includes an 18ft-long crimson velvet cape, lined with ermine and trimmed with gold lace. The Opening of Parliament in its current form dates from 1852. However, many aspects of the ceremony are much older including the robes worn by the monarch and peers.

2015 State Opening of Parliament – UK Parliament Flickr

One early description comes to us from Lupold Von Wedel, a German visitor to England in the 1580s. Wedel had a keen eye for fashion and observed Queen Elizabeth I on several occasions – always noting her attire. For example, on one occasion he witnessed the queen leaving chapel at Hampton Court, observing that she dressed all in black on account of the death of the Prince of Orange and the Duke of Alencon. He later recalled the parliamentary procession of 1584 noting that Elizabeth I arrived in a coach which looked like a half covered bed, sat upon a chair and cushions of gold and silver cloth. She wore a ‘long red velvet parliamentary mantle, down to the waist, lined with ermine, white with little black dots, and a crown on her head.’ This is strikingly similar to the crown and cape worn by the monarch today. Wedel also described a visit to the Palace of Whitehall where he saw ‘long red velvet coats, lined and faced with costly white fur.’ noting ‘Such coats and caps are for the gentlemen of Parliament.’

Wriothesley Garter book
Opening of Parliament 1523 – Wriothesley Garter Book (c. 1530)

For the reign of Henry VIII, both documentary and pictorial evidence survives. In 1533 Eustace Chapuys, a Savoyard diplomat and Imperial ambassador, wrote to the Emperor Charles V describing the parliament of February 1533. Chapuys commented that: ‘The king went to the house of parliament…the lords dressed like the king in their scarlet parliament robes.’ Thanks to the Wriothesley Garter Book, now in the Royal Collection, we have a contemporary image of these robes too. The Garter Book, which was written in the 1530s, includes an image of the opening of the Blackfriars parliament of 15 April 1523.  Not only does this image clearly show Henry VIII in an ermine trimmed robe but the Lords’ scarlet robes unmistakably featured varying numbers of white bars – surely depicting their rank as today.

These stylistic details can be traced back further into the fifteenth century too. The foundation charter of King’s College Cambridge, dating from 16 March 1446, shows both Henry VI in his ermine trimmed robes and the Lords in scarlet robes marked with various numbers of bars. A similar image is also found on the foundation Charter of Eton College.

Evidence from the fourteenth century is scarcer. However, a Livery Roll dating from 1360-2 [TNA, E101/393/15] might offer a clue to the origins of the monarch’s parliamentary garb. Within the account is a section recording the issue of cloth to the John Marreys, Edward III’s tailor, one entry reads:

To the same (the tailor) for two cloaks for the same Lord King for the parliament held at Westminster against the feast of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (2 February) this year (1358) made and fur-lined by the hand of Cornwall – 5½ ells long green Brussels cloth; 5½ ells long white cloth; 1 cloak of 960 pured miniver bellies; 1 ell of narrow gold ribbon

Except for the cloaks being green (or possibly one green and one white), rather than crimson, this description could very well apply to the cape worn by the Queen today. Given the number of years which have passed it should not surprise us that there have been subtle alterations. Nonetheless, it is striking that the regalia worn by the Queen in parliament today may well have been the brain-child of her Plantagenet progenitor as far back as the 1350s. Edward III, who had a keen eye for pageantry, nurtured a closer relationship with parliament than any of his predecessors. It would surely have pleased him greatly that, over 650 years later, his current successor nurtures this relationship still – and does so in remarkably similar attire.


Further Reading

  • Cobb, H. S., ‘Descriptions of the State Opening of Parliament, 1485-1601: A Survey’ Parliamentary History, 18: 3 (1999), pp. 303-315
  • Hawkyard, A. and Hayward, M., ‘The Dressing and Trimming of the Parliamentary Chamber, 1509-58’ Parliamentary History, 29: 2 (2010), pp. 229-237
  • Peacey, J., ‘The Street Theatre of State: The Ceremonial Opening of Parliament, 1603-60’, Parliamentary History, 34: 1 (2015), pp. 155-172
  • Powell, J. E. and Wallis, K, The House of Lords in the Middle Ages (London, 1968)

Dr Farris is currently working on the Lexis of Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Royal Wardrobe Accounts Project at the University of Westminster. You can see the project blog here


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