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The State Opening of Parliament



The Opening of Parliament began out of practical necessity. By the late fourteenth century, the means by which the King gathered his nobles and representatives of the Commons had begun to follow an established pattern. First of all, Peers' names were checked against the list of those who had been summoned, and representatives of the Commons were checked against the sheriffs' election returns. The Peers were robed and sat in the Painted Chamber at Westminster then the Commons were summoned, and stood at the Bar (entrance) of the Chamber. A speech or sermon was then given by the Lord Chancellor explaining why Parliament had been summoned, after which the Lords and Commons went separately to discuss the business in hand. The monarch normally presided however not only for the Opening but also for the deliberations which followed.


In modern time, the State Opening of Parliament marks the formal start of the parliamentary year and the Queen's Speech sets out the government’s agenda for the coming session, outlining proposed policies and legislation. 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.


State Opening happens on the first day of a new parliamentary session or shortly after a general election. The State Opening of Parliament normally takes place in May/June.

State Opening is the main ceremonial event of the parliamentary calendar, attracting large crowds and a significant television and online audience. It begins with the Queen's procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster, escorted by the Household Cavalry.

Before the arrival of the Queen, the Imperial State Crown is carried to the Palace of Westminster in its own State Coach. From the Victoria Tower, the Crown is passed by the Queen's Bargemaster to the Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain's office. It is then carried, along with the Great Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance, to be displayed in the Royal Gallery.


The Queen arrives by carriage at the Sovereign's Entrance accompanied by her consort Prince Philip and are met by Lord Speaker, the Lord Chancellor (with the Purse containing the Queen's Speech), the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal. They proceed to the Robing Room. The Royal Standard is hoisted to replace the Union Flag upon the Sovereign's entrance and remains flying whilst The Queen is in attendance.

Wearing the Imperial State Crown and the Robe of State, The Queen leads the Royal Procession through the Royal Gallery, packed with 600 guests, to the chamber of the House of Lords. The Queen then proceeds through the Royal Gallery to the House of Lords. The procession is formed, marshalled by the Earl Marshal, and after the procession through the Royal Gallery they enter the Prince's Chamber to the Chamber of the House of Lords, usually accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and immediately preceded by the Earl Marshal, and by one peer being the Leader of the House of Lords carrying the Cap of Maintenance on a white rod, and another peer normally a retired senior military officer carrying the Great Sword of State, all following the Lord Great Chamberlain and his white stick, commonly the practical implement of ceremonial ushers, raised aloft. Once seated on the throne, the Queen, wearing the Imperial State Crown, instructs the House by saying, "My Lords, pray be seated"; her consort takes his seat on the throne to her left and other members of the Royal family may be seated elsewhere on the dais, for example the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall are seated on thrones on a lower portion of the dais to the Queen's right. 


When Her Majesty has taken Her seat on the Throne, the Lord Speaker and Lord Chancellor stand on Her right at the foot of the steps of the Throne. The Queen is attended by the Officers of State. The Queen then commands Black Rod, through the Lord Great Chamberlain, to summon the Commons, which he does in these words:

▪ "Mr/Madam Speaker,

▪ The Queen commands this honourable House to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers."

Motioned by the Monarch, the Lord Great Chamberlain raises his wand of office to signal to the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (known as Black Rod), who is charged with summoning the House of Commons and has been waiting in the Commons lobby. Black Rod turns and, under the escort of the Door-keeper of the House of Lords and a police inspector, who orders "Hats off, Strangers!" to all persons along the way, approaches the doors to the Chamber of the Commons.


As Black Rod approaches the doors to the Commons chamber are shut in his face: a practice dating back to the Civil War, symbolising the Commons independence from the monarchy. In 1642, King Charles I stormed into the House of Commons in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest the Five Members, which included the celebrated English patriot and leading parliamentarian John Hampden. Since that time, no British monarch has entered the House of Commons when it is sitting. 


Black Rod strikes the door three times before it is opened. The Speaker then The Sergeant-at-Arms picks up the ceremonial mace and with the Speaker and Black Rod they proceed to attend the summons at once as they lead the Members of the House of Commons who then walk in pairs, towards the House of Lords.  By tradition, the members walk with each other in much discussion and joking rather than a formal process. 


The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition followed by The Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition usually walk side by side, leading the two lines of MPs. The Commons then arrive at the Bar of the House of Lords where they bow to the Queen. No person who is not a member of the Upper House may pass the Bar unbidden when it is in session. A similar rule applies to the Commons. They remain standing at the Bar during the speech.


The Queen's Speech is delivered by the Queen from the Throne in the House of Lords and is presented to her Lord Chancellor. Although the Queen reads the Speech, it is written by the government. It contains an outline of its policies and proposed legislation for the new parliamentary session.

Following the speech, the Queen leaves the chamber before the Commons bow again and return to their Chamber.


When the Queen leaves, a new parliamentary session starts and Parliament gets back to work. Members of both Houses debate the content of the speech and agree an ‘Address in Reply to Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech’. Each House continues the debate over the planned legislative programme for several days, looking at different subject areas. The Queen's Speech is voted on by the Commons, but no vote is taken in the Lords.


Traditions:

The traditions surrounding State Opening and the delivery of a speech by the monarch can be traced back as far as the 16th century. The current ceremony dates from the opening of the rebuilt Palace of Westminster in 1852 after the fire of 1834.

Before the The Queen arrives at the Palace of Westminster, the cellars are searched by the Yeomen of the Guard in order to prevent a modern-day Gunpowder Plot. The Plot of 1605 involved a failed attempt by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the Protestant King James I and aristocracy. Since that year, the cellars have been searched, now largely, but not only, for ceremonial purposes.