Last week Parliament announced they are advertising for a new Black Rod. In today’s blog, as Dr Hannes Kleineke, Senior Research Fellow in our Commons 1422-1504 project, discusses the medieval origins of the post…
To most people taking an interest in the work and procedures of the British Parliament, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (or ‘Black Rod’ as he is known in popular parlance) is an immediately recognisable figure from the part he plays in the ceremonial surrounding the annual State Opening. The ceremonial is, however, only a small part of the duties of the modern ‘Black Rod’, who has overall administrative charge of much of the palace of Westminster.
This was no forgone conclusion: the office of Black Rod was originally that of usher to the King of England’s principal order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, and for several centuries had no direct connection with Parliament. The Parliament Chamber, that is, in modern understanding, the House of Lords, was instead in the care of a different officer, the usher (or porter) of the Parliament Chamber. While the usher controlled access, and was thus able to command fees from intending suitors, his office also had a less glamorous side. The usher’s responsibilities included the preparation of the Parliament chamber and the maintenance of its furnishings, down to the provision of mundane items such as ‘canvas, corde, hamer, nailes, cordes, crochetes, worstede and other thinges’, as the account of John Frampton and William Welles, ushers in 1470, shows. The ushers had to think ahead, particularly when Parliament met away from Westminster: the items provided by Richard Baron and Simon Edward for the meeting of Parliament at Leicester in April 1450 included ‘a chair for the King to sit in’.
What the early Black Rod had in common with his modern counterpart was usually extensive administrative experience: indeed, it was their prior service to the Crown for which successive Black Rods were rewarded with the office which, in the light of the infrequent gatherings of the Order of the Garter, represented an effective sinecure. In the 15th and 16th centuries, their career path often included one or more spells in the House of Commons: the usher’s close connexion with the monarch was not yet deemed an obstacle, and it was frequently Crown patronage that secured him a seat. William Pope (Black Rod 1428-52, from 1438 jointly with Robert Manfeld) was MP for Winchelsea in 1433 and 1435. Manfeld (who after Pope’s death continued as sole Black Rod until 1459) for his part represented Buckinghamshire in 1439-40, 1442 and 1453-4. In the latter assembly he had probably encountered his future successor, John Penycoke, Black Rod from 1459 to 1461, and previously MP for Surrey in 1449 and 1453-4. A century later, Sir Philip Hoby (Black Rod 1543-54) represented the still new constituency of the Cardiff Boroughs in 1547, while his successor John Norris (Black Rod under Mary I and Elizabeth I from 1554 to 1577) was a Member for a succession of south-western boroughs in all but one of Mary’s five Parliaments. Norris’s son and successor William (Black Rod 1577-91) also possessed parliamentary experience: he – in view of his father’s office in the order of the Garter appropriately enough – represented New Windsor in November 1554 and 1555.
Black Rod’s connection with Parliament was a development of the later 16th century, from which date the office of usher of the parliament chamber was normally granted to one of the senior gentlemen ushers of the royal household, who was also appointed to the post of Black Rod as an additional sinecure. This arrangement was not, however, formalised until 1631, some years after the death of Richard Coningsby who in 1617 had added the position of usher of the Parliament chamber to that of Black Rod which by that date he had held for several years.
It is not clear, at what exact point Black Rod’s knocking on the Commons’ doors became ritualised, or, indeed, associated in public perception with Charles I’s failed attempt to arrest the Five Members. There was, however, a long tradition that the royal messenger gained access to the Commons’ chamber through the large principal doors, which were otherwise only used to admit the most portly of Members, and announced his arrival by a knock on these doors.
Controversy arose not so much over Black Rod’s part in the opening of Parliament, but his related role in the prorogation, that often caught the Commons by surprise, curtailed their business, and even cut off Members in mid-speech. On at least one notable occasion in March 1629 did restive Members delay a prorogation by holding the Speaker down in his chair and keeping the doors of the house locked while they finished their business, leaving Black Rod fuming outside the door.
More recently, the Commons have also objected to having their business interrupted by the arrival of Black Rod. James Prior remembers a particular occasion in October 1962 when questions taken by Prime Minister Harold MacMillan on a special statement on the deteriorating situation in Cuba were brought to an end by the arrival of Black Rod to summon the Commons to the Lords for the Prorogation:
When Parliament reassembled a week later, a number of Members questioned the Commons’ obligation to admit Black Rod and were only assuaged by a ruling from Mr Speaker Hylton-Foster, and a subsequent agreement by the Leader of the House, Iain McLeod, that the normal time for the Commons to attend upon a Royal Commission in the Lords should be ‘at six o’clock, if possible on a quiet Parliamentary day, to meet the convenience of the House’.
By the reign of Charles II, the ceremonial observed by Black Rod in summoning the lower house into the monarch’s presence was recognisably that familiar in the present day. In 1679, Thomas Duppa, deputising as Black Rod for Sir Edward Carteret (whom he would succeed a few years later), received the following instructions as to the procedure for summoning the Commons into the King’s presence:
When the King is sett, either he or my Lord Great Chamberlain gives you Order to call the House of Commons. Then you goe immediately, and when you come there, you knock with the End of your Rod four or five times, and when the Doores are open, and come in as high as the Barr you make a Congee, and then going three steps further another, and then advancing further another And then holding up your Black Rod in your hand you say Mr Speaker, The King commands this Honourable House to Attend him immediately in the House of Peers. […] Then you goe out making your Three Leggs, and stay for the Speaker in the Painted Chamber and going in, and standing at his Right hand, not suffering any Body to stand betwixt him and you, you make three Congees, and goe and stand with him at the Barr holding you Black Rod in your hand. [Duppa’s Commonplace Book, 19-20)]
- Maurice Bond and Danvid Beamish, The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (1976).
- Sir Thomas Duppa’s Commonplace Book ed. by Alasdair Hawkyard and J.C. Sainty (Parliamentary History Texts & Studies 11, 2015)
- I.H.C. Fraser, ‘The Agitation in the Commons, 2 Mar. 1629, and the Interrogation of the Leaders of the Anti-Court Group’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, xxx (1957), 86-95.