Black Rod, a crown and a hostage - the strange traditions of the Queen's Speech
Rituals surrounding State Opening of Parliament are among strangest of the UK’s many unusual customs
The State Opening of Parliament is surrounded by pomp and ceremony - and some very unusual traditions that can leave onlookers bemused.
That said, today’s opening following the snap election will be a slightly stripped-back affair, coming just days ahead of the Christmas break. The Queen will wear a hat and dress rather than her usual crown and ceremonial gown, and will travel from Buckingham Palace by car rather than the customary horse and carriage.
The opening still has major political significance, however. The Queen will outline 20 proposed laws in setting out the newly re-elected government’s agenda, including Boris Johnson’s EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which is expected to be put to MPs on Friday.
Other measures being put forward include guarantees to spend an extra £33.9bn per year on the NHS by 2023-24, longer sentences for violent criminals, and the introduction of a points-based immigration system, says the BBC.
Johnson will also use the Queen’s Speech to rule out a second Scottish independence referendum next year, with a Downing Street source warning that another vote would be a “damaging distraction”.
Traditions surrounding the State Opening and the delivery of a speech by the monarch can be traced back as far as the 16th century. “It is the only regular occasion when the three constituent parts of Parliament – the Sovereign, the House of Lords and the House of Commons – meet”, says the parliament.uk site.
The usually elaborate ceremony revolves around the Queen’s Speech, which is written by the government and lays out the policies and laws it wants to pass.
The customs surrounding the state opening stem from the ancient tug-of-war between monarchy and parliament, symbolising the balancing act that has evolved between the two.
First, the Queen’s Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard ceremonially check the Palace of Westminster’s cellars for any explosives, in commemoration of Guy Fawkes’s 1605 gunpowder plot against James VI and I.
Meanwhile, in a custom stemming from the execution of Charles I at the end of the civil war, an MP is held “hostage” in Buckingham Palace in case the monarch does come to any harm.
“Although they aren’t actually locked up, they definitely aren’t allowed to leave,” because if anything happens to the monarch, the same will happen to the MP, according to Buzzfeed.
Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick, who was the hostage in 2014, dressed in a top hat, tails and striped trousers, told the BBC: “When I expressed my anxiety to the head of the Armed Forces, he said, ‘If anything happened to Her Majesty, Jim, we would have made it quick. We would have just shot you.’ And I don’t think he was kidding.”
Once it has been proven that there is no threat to the monarch, the king or queen proceeds from Buckingham Palace in a coach drawn by four horses while a 41-gun artillery salute is fired from both the Tower of London and Hyde Park.
Inside Westminster, the monarch dons robes and the Imperial State Crown before taking their place on the throne in the Lords’ Chamber.
Next in the spotlight is Black Rod, the “Gentleman Usher” who takes his name from the ebony staff he carries which bears the Anglo-Norman phrase “Honi soit qui mal y pense” - “Shame be to him who evil thinks”.
He is despatched by the monarch to summon the MPs - who famously slam the door of Parliament on him to symbolise the Commons’ independence from the head of state. Only when Black Rod knocks three times do the MPs open the door and then, two by two, process behind him “in a boisterous way”, which is again to signal their independence - another tradition dating back to Charles I, who in 1642, tried to arrest five MPs.
After that, peers and MPs listen to the speech and the government, and then thanks the monarch for delivering the speech. The king or queen leaves to the sound of military trumpets and the Union Flag is put back in position - the Royal Standard flies during the actual ceremony.
Finally, the MPs settle down and bicker over the speech itself. And so parliament begins.