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Queen Speech Tuesday, 24 November, 1998, 19:31 GMT
State Opening loses some pomp
Opening of parliament
Much pomp and pagentry surrounds the Queen's speech
The State Opening of Parliament is the most colourful event of the parliamentary year, and one of the most important.

The Queen's Speech
But this year some of the rituals which have endured centuries have been subjected to change. The pomp will be cut down and the ceremony will be shorter.

The changes have been worked out by the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk. They are described by Buckingham Palace as a "common sense adjustment to the ceremony," designed to see the Queen's speech keep up with modern trends.

The ancient ceremony

Ceremony surrounding the Queen's speech can be traced back to 1536 but its modern form dates from the opening of the present Palace of Westminster in 1852.

Before the royal procession, the regalia, the Imperial State Crown the Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance are transported to Westminster by coach.

Queen arriving at Wesminster
The Queen arrives and The Standard is raised
The royal procession, escorted by the Household Cavalry, then takes the monarch from Buckingham Palace, down The Mall and along Whitehall to the House of Lords. It ends when it passes through the Royal Arch of the Victoria Tower at which point the Union Flag is lowered and replaced by the Royal Standard.

Observing a custom dating back to days when the monarch and parliament were on less cordial terms, a government whip is held 'hostage' at Buckingham Palace to guarantee the safe return of the monarch.

After donning the royal robes in the robing room, the Queen and her procession move off to the House of Lords.

Changing of the procession

This is where the first major change comes in - the reduction of the Queen's procession. The elaborately dressed and equally elaborately named heralds who have traditionally been at the front of the procession, will arrive earlier this year.

Instead of moving ahead of the Queen's train, Maltravers Herald Extraordinary, Bluemantle Pursuivant and others will effectively have a procession of their own.

The three heads of the armed services, are also being axed from the procession. The services only be represented by Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff.

The services of one lady-in-waiting and several officers and ushers, including the Crown Equerry, are also being dispensed with.

Silver Stick in Waiting, the name for the commanding officer of the Household Cavalry will no longer have a place in the procession but Gold Stick, the Colonel of the Household Cavalry remains.

Some things are resistant to change however. The great officers of state, including the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshall, who lead the procession ahead of the Queen, will still walk backwards so as to remaining facing the monarch to avoid showing any disrespect. The palace offered the procession leaders the choice of walking forwards but they declined.

Inside the chamber

When the Queen enters the House of Lords chamber, all those gathered rise and the lighting inside is turned up to enhance the drama of the royal entrance.

Traditionally, it was only once the Queen was seated and the Lords had taken their place, that Black Rod was ordered to summon the members of the House of Commons to hear the Royal Address.

Black rod ceremony
The ebony knocks three times
The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod is the Royal Household official who comes to the door of the Commons and hits it three times with is black ebony stick to summons MPs to the Lords. To remind the sovereign that MPs fought hard for their independence, the door is slammed in the usher's face before MPs relent and allow him to deliver his summons.

Black rod changes

But this year - in the second major change to the proceedings - Black Rod will get his marching orders a little earlier. Instead of waiting for the Queen to take her seat in the House of Lords, he will summon MPs before her procession ends to reduce delays.

In the past the MPs have kept the Queen waiting for some time as they deliberately dawdled on the trip between the two houses, reluctant as they are to acknowledge that the Lords is, traditionally at least, the senior chamber.

Yeomen conducting their sweep
After the Lords are seated and the Commons are standing in position at the Bar of the house of Lords the Lord Chancellor hands the Queen her speech.

More change is afoot at this point. The Lord Chancellor, who just last week won the right to do away with the tights, breeches and buckles in his ceremonial uniform, has been granted a special dispensation from having to walk backwards down the steps from the throne in the House of Lords after handing the speech over.

Yeoman's search

Another ceremony that has survived this year's changes is search of Westminster Palace by the Yeoman of the Guard, or the Beefeaters.

The search was strengthened in 1678 after rumours of a "Popish Plot" evoked memories of the Gunpowder plot of 1605.

Sir Christopher Wren, Surveyor of the King's Works, recommended that a permanent guard search the cellars regularly and it is now carried out ahead of the opening of parliament.

The Queen's speech

Queen reading the Speech
"My Lords..."
The Royal Address, commonly known as the Queen's speech (or King's speech), is written by the government. It outlines its legislative plans for the coming session and is delivered from the throne in the House of Lords.

Later the same day both the Commons and Lords move a Loyal Address in answer to the Speech which is followed by a Debate on the Address.

The speech follows a similar pattern each time:

  • It begins with the words, "My Lords and Members of the House of Commons"
  • It then details state visits to the United Kingdom and state visits by members of the royal family to other countries
  • It sets out general aspects of foreign and domestic policy
  • It declares to "members of the House of Commons" that "estimates for the public service will be laid before you"
  • Then, (addressing both Houses again), it continues to outline policy and details the legislative programme for the forthcoming session of parliament
  • The speech ends with the words, "I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels".
See also:

15 Oct 98 | UK Politics
17 Nov 98 | UK Politics
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