During her record-breaking 70 years of service, Queen Elizabeth II has become no stranger to parliamentary traditions like the State Opening of Parliament, and next weekend her milestone as the first British Monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee will be celebrated with four days of festivities. But Her Majesty the Queen’s predecessor as a female monarch, Queen Victoria, also witnessed many ceremonies during her own long reign.
On 17 July 1837, less than a month after becoming Britain’s first reigning queen in over a century, Queen Victoria visited Westminster to prorogue Parliament. She had been persuaded by the Whig ministry to perform this duty in person, rather than delegating it to commissioners. The presence of the youthful new monarch generated widespread interest, with an unprecedented number of applications for tickets to view the ceremony. The St. James’s Chronicle recorded that ‘at an early hour all the avenues leading to the galleries of the House of Lords were crowded with ladies, anxiously awaiting the hour for admission’. In contrast with the limited facilities usually provided for women to access parliamentary proceedings, this was an occasion on which there was a strong female presence; indeed the number of peeresses within the Lords chamber was such that ‘it was not without difficulty that many of their lordships procured seats’.
This chamber had undergone some hasty renovations ahead of the prorogation. Since the catastrophic fire of October 1834, which destroyed much of the old Palace of Westminster, the peers had been using the Painted Chamber, having surrendered their previous chamber for the temporary accommodation of the House of Commons. The diarist Charles Greville considered the temporary home of the Lords a ‘wretched dog-hole’ in comparison with the ‘very spacious and convenient’ temporary chamber occupied by MPs. The changes made in preparation for Victoria’s visit included fitting ‘a new door under the archway’ in place of ‘the old wooden planks that hitherto blocked up the entrance’, raising the level of the floor between this entrance and the throne, and replacing the previous temporary throne with ‘a splendid new one, with the words “Victoria Regina” in gold letters, surmounted with the Royal arms, also in gold’. However, the canopy behind the throne, bearing the initials ‘W.R.’, was unaltered.
As Victoria had not yet been crowned, the imperial crown was ‘borne at her side, on a cushion’, by the Duke of Somerset, while she wore ‘a circlet, or open crown, of diamonds’. She read the prorogation speech in ‘a clear and musical voice, that was heard distinctly in the parts of the house most remote from the throne’. Victoria recorded that she had ‘felt somewhat (but very little) nervous before I read my speech, but it did very well, and I was happy to hear people were satisfied’. One press report noted that ‘her spirits were evidently improved’ as she left the House, ‘and there was an elasticity in her manner that showed the removal of a heavy anxiety’.
Among the subjects referred to in her speech – drafted for her by the prime minister Viscount Melbourne in discussion with his Cabinet, but subject to the queen’s approval – were recent amendments to the criminal code, notably the removal of the death penalty for a number of offences. In expressing ‘peculiar interest’ in these reforms as ‘an auspicious commencement of my reign’, Victoria identified herself with the qualities of justice and mercy with which female rulers were often popularly associated.
Parliament was dissolved on the same day as the prorogation, and a general election took place that summer, returning Melbourne’s Whig ministry to power. Victoria appeared at Westminster for the second time that year for the state opening of Parliament on 20 November 1837. Whereas the ladies present had still been in mourning dress for the prorogation, for the state opening they wore ‘silks and velvets, of all hues of the rainbow’. The parliamentary reporter James Grant recorded that the demand for seats was so great that some of them ‘took forcible possession of the front seat in the gallery’, usually reserved for ‘the gentlemen of the press’, with the result that only three reporters were able to find seats.
It was not only the peeresses who were keen to witness proceedings. When MPs were summoned to attend by Black Rod, there was a great rush along the narrow corridors from the temporary Commons chamber into their allotted space in the Lords, and ‘two or three Members … were thrown down and trampled’. The jostling for position, during which MPs ‘squeezed each other, jammed each other’ and ‘trod on each other’s gouty toes’, according to Grant, was so rough that one of the members for Sheffield, Henry Ward, dislocated his shoulder ‘in the violent competition to be first at the bar’. In contrast with this fracas, there was ‘the most perfect stillness’ in the chamber while Victoria read her speech.
Victoria continued to open and prorogue Parliament in person throughout the late 1830s and 1840s, being absent on only a handful of occasions, mostly when she was pregnant. There were, however, various changes to the setting of these ceremonies during this period. After an initial dispute about Prince Albert’s role in proceedings following their marriage in 1840, he rode in the carriage alongside her to Westminster and had his own chair in the temporary Lords chamber and its successor. From 1842 a seat was also provided for the infant Prince of Wales.
On 14 April 1847, Victoria and Albert were given a tour of the new House of Lords chamber by its architect Charles Barry. This was used for the first time by the peers the following day. The queen’s verdict was that ‘the building is indeed magnificent … very elaborate & gorgeous. Perhaps there is a little too much brass & gold in the decorations, but the whole effect is very dignified & fine’. The lavish throne designed by Barry in collaboration with Augustus Pugin was the key feature of the new chamber, and was far grander than its predecessors in the old Palace or the temporary Lords.
The queen opened Parliament in the new Lords chamber for the first time on 23 July 1847, but it was not until February 1852 that she was able to use the full processional route designed by Barry with the aim of putting royal ceremonial centre stage within the new Palace of Westminster. Entering through the covered entrance under the Victoria Tower (named in her honour), the queen then ascended the Royal Staircase to the Norman Porch. From there she went to the Robing Room, and then walked in procession through the Royal Gallery to the House of Lords.
In 1854 Victoria prorogued Parliament in person for the last time, apparently because she disliked sitting through the Speaker’s end of session summary, which she felt was like ‘receiving instructions in public’. However, she continued to perform her duties at the state opening until 1861, missing it only four times between her accession and Albert’s death that year. Her husband’s demise prompted a shift in her involvement with parliamentary ceremonial. She did not attend again for several years, explaining to Lord Russell in 1864 that she ‘was always terribly nervous on all public occasions, but especially at the opening of Parliament, which … she dreaded for days before’, but had at least previously had ‘the support of her dear husband’.
However, in 1866 an impending parliamentary vote on a £30,000 dowry for her daughter Princess Helena helped to persuade Victoria out of her seclusion. In contrast with the diamonds and bright ceremonial robes she had worn at Westminster at the beginning of her reign, she opened Parliament in 1866 dressed in black, with a widow’s cap and a long veil, and delegated the duty of reading the queen’s speech to the lord chancellor. The new Palace of Westminster, which put the monarchy to the fore in its layout, its decoration and its symbolism, only hosted the queen for the state opening on six further occasions during the rest of her reign: 1867, 1871, 1876 – when the ‘throng’ of MPs from the Commons to the Lords to see the queen was ‘so tumultuous, and so violent’ that the prime minister Benjamin Disraeli was nearly trampled on while trying to keep the Speaker safe, – 1877, 1880 and, finally, in 1886.
W. Arnstein, ‘Queen Victoria opens Parliament: the disinvention of tradition’, Historical Research, 63 (1990), 178-94
J. Grant, Random recollections of the Lords and Commons (2 vols., 1838), i. 9-26
H. C. G. Matthew & K. D. Reynolds, ‘Victoria (1819-1901), queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and empress of India’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
C. Riding & J. Riding (eds.), The Houses of Parliament. History, Art, Architecture (2000)
C. Shenton, Mr Barry’s War (2016)
M. Taylor, ‘The bicentenary of Queen Victoria’, Journal of British Studies, 59 (2020), 121-35
A. Wedgwood, ‘The throne in the House of Lords and its setting’, Architectural History, 27 (1984), 59-73
Follow the work of the Commons 1832-1868 project at the Victorian Commons blog site.