Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Monday, 8 December 2008

State opening of Parliament

The state opening of Parliament is the most colourful event of the parliamentary year, and also the most important.

A to Z: State Opening of Parliament

Each new parliamentary session has to be opened by the monarch, who reads the speech prepared for him or her by the government of the day, setting out the legislative agenda for the coming parliamentary session.

In an ancient ceremony the Queen arrives at the Palace of Westminster in the Irish state coach.

But, 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.

Yeomen of the Guard
Yeomen of the Guard search the Palace cellars before the Speech
The tradition dates back to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605
Sir Christopher Wren reinforced the ceremony in 1678 after rumours of another plot

Once the Queen arrives at Parliament the union flag is lowered and replaced by the royal standard.

After donning the royal robes in the robing room the Queen and her procession move off to the House of Lords. When she enters the chamber the lighting inside is turned up to enhance the drama of the royal entrance.

Once the Queen is seated and the Lords have taken their place Black Rod is ordered to summon the members of the House of Commons to hear the royal address.

The Speaker then leads MPs to the upper House to take up their places at the bar of the House of Lords to hear the speech.

1536: Henry VIII thought to be first monarch to attend State Opening in person
1852: Queen Victoria opens Parliament in new building for first time
1958: First television and radio broadcast of State Opening

Once the Commons have entered the chamber, the three constituent parts of Parliament, the Lords, the Commons and the monarch, are gathered together in one place to hear the Queen detail the business which requires their urgent presence in Westminster.

Since 1997 the ceremony has been simplified.

Shortly after becoming Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a pre-Queen's Speech outlining his proposals for government. Some think this may have undermined the impact of the event itself.

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