House of Lords Library

Customs and Traditions in the House of Lords

Published Monday, August 24, 2015

This Library Note describes a selection of the customs and traditions, rules of behaviour and courtesies of the House of Lords. It illustrates the key ceremonies in the House of Lords, including the State Opening of Parliament, and highlights some of the less-known traditions. The Note also identifies changes that have taken place in recent decades, highlighting the way customs and traditions evolve over time.

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The two separate Houses of Parliament date back to the 14th century when Archbishops, Bishops, abbots and priors (Lords Spiritual) and noblemen of rank (Lords Temporal) began to formally meet. This started what we now know as the House of Lords. In the following century, the peerage separated into five distinct ranks, on an hereditary basis: duke, marquess, earl, viscount and baron.

The House of Lords is the oldest second chamber in the world  and resides with the House of Commons in one of the most iconic buildings in the world—the Palace of Westminster. The Palace became the permanent home of Parliament after 1512 when Henry VIII abandoned the Palace in favour of the nearby Palace of Whitehall following a fire.

The Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834—only Westminster Hall, the Undercroft Chapel, the Cloisters and Chapter House of St Stephen’s and the Jewel Tower survived.  The construction of the new palace began in 1840 and was designed by architect Sir Charles Barry. The grade I listed building became part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. 

The Palace today, with its grand neo-gothic architecture and Pugin-designed interiors, is still home to a busy, working Parliament. The House of Lords is currently made up of around 825 Members from a variety of professions and walks of life who are engaged each day in negotiating rules, customs and traditions, some of which are as old as Parliament itself.

This Note draws on a range of sources with particular attention paid to two key documents that set out the procedure and practice of the House of Lords: the Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords (2015) and Erskine May’s Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament (2011).

Lords Library notes LLN-2015-0025

Author: Maxine James

Topics: Constitution, House of Lords, Lord Speaker, Members of the Lords

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House of Lords Library

The House of Lords Library delivers research and information services to Members and staff of the House in support of parliamentary business.