The State Opening of Parliament: When dissident acts become established acts

Today, the new Parliament will be officially opened. In his guest blog Steven Franklin (Royal Holloway, University of London) discusses the origins and development of the pageantry involved…

In 1863 Queen Victoria refused to open parliament, citing her ‘total inability…to perform these functions of her high position which are accompanied by state ceremonials, and which necessitate the appearance in full dress in public’.  Fortunately, the only comparison that can be made with today’s State Opening was the absence of the Imperial Crown and its associated regalia – the ‘full dress’ to which Victoria referred. Today’s ‘dressed down’ ceremony will lack much of the grandeur of previous state openings, a result of the snap election. This is the first time in 43 years that the normal ceremonial programme will be altered, the last, ironically, also a result of an unexpected general election. For, as wonderful as it is to witness the spectacle and splendour of a full State Opening, the event is a well-oiled machine: reliant on the seamless interaction of all those involved, managed only through meticulous planning and relentless rehearsals. With the State Opening falling days after Trooping the Colour it was deemed logistically impossible to accommodate both ceremonies of state.

Today’s ceremony was delayed further, after it emerged on the 12th June that the Queen’s Speech, printed on goatskin paper, would take days to dry, thus pushing the original date of the 19th back to the 21st June. It made for a great story, sadly, the image of a piece of paper more akin to medieval velum than our more common A4 plain white sheet, was wrong. The name instead referring to a special archival paper, said to last 500 years, which due to its thickness does take longer for print to dry. Whilst it captured the public’s imagination, it merely served as a cover for the broader issue: a Queen’s Speech hadn’t been written because the terms of the confidence and supply agreement, between the Conservatives and the DUP, were unconfirmed.

The State Opening of Parliament – an occasion steeped in tradition, ritual and ceremony, but sadly lacking in any paper made from goatskin – is one of the only occasions within the political calendar where the three parts of the parliamentary Trinity (Queen, Lords and Commons) come together, and for this reason, it remains a unique occasion. The pomp and circumstance accompanies the day often obscures the event’s main purpose: to hear the Queen’s Speech and hear the Government’s aspirations for this parliamentary term.

Parliaments have, broadly speaking, been opened in the same way since 1852, when the new Palace of Westminster was completed. The choreographed manner in which history, ceremony, ritual, and drama are seamlessly blended is, therefore, an invention of the Victorians. At a time when the future of the monarchy was uncertain a systematic programme of rejuvenating the ceremonial of state was undertaken in order to increase the broader appeal of royalty (expertly explored in David Cannadine’s essay listed below). Victoria, it is said, felt uncomfortable with the performative elements of monarchy that were being thrust upon her. Prominent ministers, such as Gladstone, realised the greater social importance for both the wellbeing of the country and stability of the throne. When possible, he would remind her of the ‘vast importance’ of the ‘social and visible functions of the monarchy’. In many ways, the ceremonial duties that the monarch undertakes today fulfil the same social function. State occasions serve as moments that induce patriotic fervour, uniting members of the public whilst, at the same time, confirming the hierarchal foundations of the establishment.

The current composition of the state opening can be dated back to 1852, but many of its elements have much older origins. Acts of pageantry and state theatre predate the Victorians. Charles Farris has traced the robes worn by peers, along with the robes of the monarch, back to the medieval period. The involvement of Black Rod dates back to the Civil War and the famous five members’ case. Lastly, Jason Peacey has demonstrated that the act of royal procession, in the context of The State Opening of Parliament, has seventeenth-century roots.

The State Opening of Parliament, therefore, serves as a good example of the manner in which history can be appropriated and repurposed within a ceremonial context. Acts of ritual do not need to draw from the same historical moments. In fact, it could be argued that this is one of their virtues: the ability to piece unconnected moments of history together in such a way to engender a sense of patriotic nostalgia. However, within this context, the history that the State Opening of Parliament evokes and re-enacts, is less of the establishment, but rather of dissidence and protest.

Much of the parliamentary proceedings of the State Opening revolve around Black Rod making his way from the Lord’s chamber to the Commons. As he approaches the Commons’ chamber, he is greeted by having its doors firmly slammed in his face. Using the rod, he deliberately knocks three times on the door (a physical indentation is left from this tradition), before it is opened. The office of Black Rod dates back to medieval times. However, the important ceremonial function that Black Rod undertakes during the state opening of parliament, dates back to January, 1642, and the attempted arrest of the Five Members. Set within the context of the Long Parliament and wider parliamentary struggles – that would ultimately lead to Civil War – Charles I, accompanied by armed soldiers, burst into the House of Commons and attempted to arrest five MPs. The King was ultimately unsuccessful. Realising his error Charles fled to Oxford. His actions were considered to be an abuse of his monarchical authority and proved to be the catalyst for the first Civil War.

The act of slamming the door in Black Rod’s face is used to signify the independence of the House of Commons from that of the Lords and Crown. Black Rod, in this context the monarch’s representative, can only enter the Commons’ chamber because they have been granted access. The Five Members case, and the tradition of Black Rod that has emerged from it, is, in its simplest form, an act of dissidence. The Commons visibly demonstrate both their independence from, and rejection of, the authority of the monarch within their chamber.

Once Black Rod has invited the Commons to the House of Lords to hear the Queen’s speech, its members are in no rush to get to the other side of the palace. Although not widely talked about or acknowledged, members of the Commons take as long as possible to make their way to the Lords, sharing in jokes with each other along the way. This is once again an action of dissent. They do not hurry because they would like to demonstrate they are not members of the inferior house. This is an unspoken truth, mainly because of its potential political ramifications and a broader lack of respect towards the monarch. However, unspoken as it might be, it nonetheless forms an integral part of the ceremony.

It is easy to assume that state ceremonies merely support and reinforce the establishment. In many ways this is exactly what they are, and indeed do. As has been briefly demonstrated traditions and ceremonies of state, by very virtue of their invented and choreographed nature, can fold historical moments of dissent and protest into much broader narratives of the establishment. Magna Carta, and its sealing in 1215, serves as another poignant reminder of the state’s ability to appropriate an act of dissent to its advantage. In both instances these moments of dissent have been valued because ultimately they have been viewed as morally triumphant. Unspoken or not, moments such as these serve to remind us of an often uncomfortable relationship that exists between our democratic heritage and the institution of the monarchy.


Further Reading:

  • Peacey, J., ‘The Street Theatre of State: The Ceremonial Opening of Parliament, 1603-60’, Parliamentary History, 34: 1 (2015), pp. 155-172
  • Cannadine, David, ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the “Invention of Tradition”’, c.1820-1977) in Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition
  • BBC clip, ‘Black Rod’, available here

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