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Tuesday, January 19, 1999 Published at 14:53 GMT

A house of traditions

Rituals in the Lords date back centuries

The colourful ceremonies of the House of Lords have evolved over hundreds of years but they now face extinction from Labour's reform of the upper chamber.

Dukes, Earls, Countesses and Barons currently remain as much part of the parliamentary process as MPs.

It is still possible to see how the House of Lords is arranged along ancient lines.

It was in the 15th century, 100 years after the Lords Temporal and Lords Spiritual began to sit in a separate house from the Commons, that half of the upper chamber became known as peers.

There still remain five ranks within a peerage: Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron.

[ image: Women were allowed to sit in the chamber this century]
Women were allowed to sit in the chamber this century
Even today, the Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishops of Durham, London and Winchester and the 21 senior diocesan bishops from other dioceses of the Church of England still make up the Lords Spiritual.

The peers - hereditary and life members as well as the law lords - are separately referred to as the Lords Temporal.

The distinction remains as the side of the house to the right of the throne is known as the spiritual side. The temporal side is on the left.

The red benches of the House of Lords are believed to have been selected because numerous kings favoured the colour.

A peerage for life

The oldest English title is that of Lord de Ros, which dates back to 1264.

Lords Reform
But comparatively few members hold ancient peerages and fewer than 100 survive from before the civil war.

Until 1958, all the members of the House of Lords, except for the archbishops, bishops and the law lords, were hereditary peers.

In 1958, the Life Peerages Act enabled the Queen, on the advice of the prime minister, to create peerages for life. The act also admitted women to membership of the house.

Depending on the terms in which a peerage was originally granted, some cannot be held by a female and others cannot be transmitted through a female line of succession.

Only a handful of hereditary peers have been created since 1965.

The last was the Duke of York in 1986, although the last non-royal hereditary peer to be created was the Earl of Stockton two years earlier.

Robes of rabbit fur

The robes worn in the House of Lords date back to the 15th century.

[ image: Ceremony during the queen's speech was shortened]
Ceremony during the queen's speech was shortened
Peers have two types of ceremonial robes. One is worn for the coronation, the other are parliamentary robes of state.

Although the dress is commonly known as ermine robes, the fur is actually miniver - rabbit fur - which has black spots painted into it to represent ermine.

Robes are worn at the state opening of parliament and by the Royal Commission for the dissolution of parliament, to which five peers are appointed.

The robes of state, which have white bands of miniver with scarlet and gold, differ according to the rank of the peer.

Robes are also worn when a peer is introduced to the house in a ceremony which dates back to the 17th century.

Certain formalities must be attended before a new peer - who must be over 21 - becomes a member of the House of Lords.

A peer by succession who is not an elder son must have his claim established.

Peers by succession have no introduction ceremony and simply take an oath of allegiance. If there is any doubt about the succession, the case will eventually be heard by at least three lords of appeal.

Newly-created peers must be ceremonially introduced before taking their seats in the Lords. The custom is for two peers of the same rank to act as sponsors to accompany the new peer during his introduction.

Creeping modernisation of the Lords

The ceremony has been one of the rituals which has been slightly modernised in the last year. It has been shortened - one of the reasons being was to accommodate the number of recently created peers.

[ image: Lord Irvine was allowed to modernise his outfit]
Lord Irvine was allowed to modernise his outfit
Last month, peers also allowed the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, currently Lord Irvine of Lairg, to modernise the dress he wears for the everyday running of the upper house.

He will continue to wear the full ceremonial dress to sit on the Woolsack for question time or the formal stages of bills and wear his full uniform on all ceremonial occasions.

Even the very seat he sits on has historic origins.

The Woolsack is a cushion stuffed with commonwealth wool. It dates back to the 14th century where it symbolised the vital importance at the time of wool to the economy.

The other ceremony to come in for modernisation is the state opening of parliament.

The changes, introduced this year, were 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 Queen's Speech
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.

The Queen's procession has been reduced with some of the heralds and other members of the entourage having been cut out of the process.

Yet when the great officers of state who lead the procession chose to walk backwards so as to remaining facing the monarch to avoid showing any disrespect.

Another change to the ceremony involved the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod beginning his walk to the Commons earlier.

In the day to day running of parliament, Black Rod is responsible for accommodation, security and services in the upper chamber.

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In this section

Reforming the lords

Your views on Lords reform

Your view on the Lords - part two

Your views on the Lords - part three

Your views on the Lords - part four

Leading players in Lords reform

Ending 600 years of tradition

Lords face the chop

A second tier of power

Visions of the future