The State Opening of Parliament - A Perspective from the Archives

LGC/6/22 frontispiece

The State Opening of Parliament marks the annual start of the parliamentary session, usually in November. It may occur additionally when Parliament assembles after a general election. Traditions surrounding the State Opening and delivery of a speech by the monarch can be traced back at least to the 16th century, but the modern ceremony dates from the opening of the new Palace of Westminster in 1852.

The Ceremony



It is usual for the monarch to open Parliament in person, recalling the days when the Crown would summon representatives of the three estates to attend him. The importance of the ceremony in the social as well as the political calendar may be judged from this fine ticket from the reign of George IV. There are several volumes of tickets for every category of guest from the 18th century to the modern day.

State Openings have long been popular and well-attended events, demanding formal dress and behaviour. The event was popular enough to justify publishing a supplement to the London Gazette, as the following handbill issued by the Lord Great Chamberlain shows. Until 1965 The Lord Great Chamberlain was the (nominal) chief authority of the Palace of Westminster and as such organised State Openings and other State Occasions. In addition he was seen as the correct intermediary between the Sovereign and the House of Lords. At his instruction, information would be issued each year on the application procedure for tickets and particularly on the necessary form of dress for ladies wishing to attend. Full Court dress was still required as late as 1917.

LGC/6/22 frontispiece.

In this letter of 1842 the Home Office gives notice that Queen Victoria intends to open Parliament in person.

Following the death of Prince Albert in 1861 Queen Victoria attended the State Opening of Parliament less frequently, and when she did the Speech was delivered by the Lord Chancellor.



The full pomp and pageantry were restored and enhanced by Edward VII following his accession in 1901. Detailed descriptions of the King's personal requirements for his first State Opening of Parliament may be found in LGC/5/16/1, including seating arrangements for the Royal family and changes to the fabric of the thrones. The following photographs from the Stone Collection show how the single throne used by Queen Victoria was replaced by a throne for the King and a companion seat for the Queen Consort upon the accession of Edward VII.



Queen Victoria's throne.

Edward VII had the throne area redesigned. Note the addition of a throne-like seat for Queen Alexandra, and the removal of the railings around the edge of the steps.



A State Occasion

A brief summary of the State Opening of Parliament in 1875.

HL/PO/CP/2 doc 16

HL/PO/CP/2 doc 16

The Queen is driven in state from Buckingham Palace, preceded by the Crown in a separate coach and upon her arrival at Westminster is met by the Earl Marshall and the Lord Great Chamberlain. The Union Flag is hauled down and the Royal Standard hoisted in its place as The Queen leaves the Royal Coach and sets foot in the Palace. She proceeds through the Palace of Westminster, preceded by The Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance, symbols of royal power. The procession follows the Line of Route to the Chamber of the House of Lords. Here Her Majesty delivers The Queen€™s Speech laying out the Government's policies and proposed legislative programme for the new parliamentary session. The speech is not written by the Queen herself, but composed by the Government subject to Cabinet approval.

The Queen's Speech is delivered before members of both Houses, ambassadors, envoys and clerks of both Houses. Peers and Judges are in robes and the Royal Gallery and Strangers' Galleries are packed with spectators. Black Rod is sent to summon the Commons, and in annual ritual the door to the Chamber is symbolically slammed in his face by the Serjeant at Arms to assert Commons' independence. The door is opened in response to three knocks with his ebony staff of office. The Speaker and the Serjeant at Arms, with mace in hand, then lead the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition with a deliberate lack of haste to the Lords' Chamber. The Commons follow at their heels in a traditionally rowdy procession. The Globe newspaper criticised them in 1901 for taking this too far and behaving like "a rampant mob".[LGC/3/1 fol. 78]. There is not sufficient space for all the MPs so a group of representatives stands at the back behind the bar to hear "The Most Gracious Speech from the Throne".

Following the State Opening, the government's programme is debated by both Houses. Under the official motion that the House send an address to the Queen thanking her for the speech, the Commons debate government policy over the subsequent few days.

Remember, remember the fifth of November...

An official search of the cellars takes place every year before the State Opening, as a reminder of the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot of November 1605. Here as elsewhere, the documents can reveal some surprising names. A warrant of 2 November 1682 ordered Sir Christopher Wren as Surveyor General of His Majesty's Works "forthwith to cleer and cause to be cleered the Sellars & vaultes under and neer adjoyning the house of Peers, Painted Chamber & Court of Requests of all Timber, firewood, coales & other materialls of what kind soever and that passages be made throughout... & hightes be opened where they may that Gardes may passe throughout the day or night". [LGC/5/1/23 fol. 74 and Journals of the House of Lords, 1675-1681]

This extract from the Lord Great Chamberlain's Minute Book for the reign of Queen Victoria records the 1837 arrangements for the traditional searching of the vaults before the State Opening.

LGC/3/6 fol. 35

LGC/3/6 fol. 35 The traditional searching of the cellars, 1837.

A further extract from the same volume describes the arrival of The Queen at Barry's newly opened Palace of Westminster in 1852.  It notes that the Victoria Tower entrance, now known as the Sovereign's entrance, is being used for the first time.

LGC/3/6 fol. 109

    LGC/3/6 fol.109

A note of events

It is part of the Lord Great Chamberlain's duties to record each State Occasion at the Palace of Westminster as it occurred, and to make a note of changes to procedure. Consequently there exists an annual description of each State Opening giving interesting detail of who attended and what took place.

A typical description such as that of 8 Feb 1876 includes everything from bomb threats to the weather.

"His Lordship attended the search in person. An anonymous letter had been received by the Inspector of Police stating that an attempt would been made to blow up the House of Lords. This letter was looked upon as a hoax and turned out to be so.

Her Majesty alighted at the Peers Entrance and was received at the Peers Entrance by The Deputy Lord Great Chamberlain and the Great Officers of State. Her Majesty was accompanied by Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales, and The Princess Beatrice. Princess Louise had preceded the Queen and remained in the Minute Room which had been prepared as a waiting room, the Royal Princess joined the procession at the top of the stairs near the entrance to the Princes' Chamber. Her Royal Highness arrived with the Duke and Duchess of Edinbro' who were received by the Deputy Lord Great Chamberlain. The Princess of Wales sat on the woolsack, having on her right hand The Duchess of Edinburgh and on her left The Duchess of Teck. His Royal Highness Prince Christian and His Highness the Duke of Teck were seated on chairs near the bishops' bench (not in the house itself). The Lord Chancellor read the Queen's Speech. The French Ambassadress was seated on the right of the Peeresses bench. The Sword of State was borne by the Duke of Richmond and Gordon. The Cap of Maintenance by the Marquis of Winchester. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was not present being in India.

Some Discussion arose as to the proper position of the dismounted men of the Household Cavalry they were eventually placed on the staircase by the command of the Queen. The day was cold and sleet fell. A marshallman was placed by direction of Lord Aveland at the foot of the staircase leading to the North Gallery to take the tickets of those persons allowed by His Lordship to enter the corridor leading from St. Stephen's Hall. Lady Rossman and the Countess of Cardigan applied for seats on the peeresses bench but were refused as they had both married commoners and had thereby lost their right to peerage." [LGC/3/5 fols. 155-158]

The Lord Great Chamberlain also usually records the Sovereign's response to the occasion as in February 1880 when he recorded Queen Victoria's displeasure at a slipping of standards.

" A letter was subsequently received from Sir Henry Ponsonby stating that the Queen had noticed that some of the ladies were not in full dress, and also directing that for the future no children were to be admitted to the ceremony". [LGC/3/5 fol. 173]

All of the documents shown and referred to may be consulted in the Parliamentary Archives.

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