This morning, Timothy Duke makes his annual appearance on television. You can't miss him, tune in to the State Opening of Parliament and there he will be: the one in the knee breeches, long silk stockings and gold-encrusted scarlet tabard (decorated with a fine selection of lions both rampant and passant), holding what looks like a length of plumber's piping across his chest. As one of Her Majesty's 12 Officers of Arms, he will be walking a few yards in front of the Queen, providing a guard of honour as she processes into the House of Lords to declare her parliament ready for business.

'We precede the Sovereign into the chamber and then stand discreetly behind her during the speech. At the end of the speech we precede her out again,' he explained. 'And, er, that's it. Our presence is very ceremonial.'

Mr Duke, 39, has been at the Queen's side for four years now, ever since he was appointed to the title Rouge Dragon Pursuivant, holder of the badge Red Dragon Cadwallader. He is there, too, at the Garter Service in Windsor, the other great annual state occasion when the participants dress up like figures from the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. At both he mixes with a gaggle of royal attendants carrying titles Tolkien would have been pushed to invent: the Lord Chamberlain (he is the one walking backwards carrying a large white wand), the Lord Great Chamberlain (he is the one carrying the Queen's crown on a red pillow) and the Silver Stick in Waiting (he is the one carrying a silver stick).

Like all of these people, Mr Duke has a day job; as he needs to with a salary from the royal purse of pounds 13.95. Most of the time, wearing a banker's chalk-striped suit, he can be found at the College of Arms in the City of London, a glorious Queen Anne building, whence he issues official coats of arms and runs a private practice tracing people's geneaology.

The office of Rouge Dragon Pursuivant no longer carries any power. As close confidants of the Sovereign in the Middle Ages, Officers of Arms (or King's Heralds, as they were then known) used to have considerable clout. But it shrivelled away with the Age of Chivalry, and their last real royal function, apart from looking smart on state occasions, was to keep the scorebook at joust tournaments in the 16th century; the King's statistician, a sort of Peter Snow by appointment.

Indeed, the more flamboyant the attire in the State Opening of Parliament procession, the less real power the wearer wields. The fancifully plumed Lord Great Chamberlain, who at other times is the Marquess of Cholmondeley, a 33-year-old film producer with a production company in the King's Road, was the last to lose his authority. Up until the Sixties, he had the right to stop people going into the Houses of Parliament at weekends. But when a predecessor tried to bounce Marcia Williams, Harold Wilson's secretary, from the building one Saturday, the Prime Minister kicked up such a fuss that even that jobsworth opportunity became dormant. On the other hand, Kenneth Clarke, arguably the most powerful man in the whole building this morning, will be decked out in Hush Puppies, grubby two-piece and beer belly.

When Timothy Duke, a Cambridge geography graduate with no family history of this sort of thing, was appointed Rouge Dragon, it was for his skills as an archivist and researcher into family pedigrees rather than his ability to look grand in a tabard. He found the place in the royal procession came with the job.

'It is a privilege and it is one I thoroughly enjoy,' he said, sitting in the College of Arms library studying a jousting scorecard of a contest held on 6 December 1584 between the Bachelors and the Married Men (the Bachelors won). 'It is a tradition that I feel is worth maintaining.'

Not everyone has agreed over the years. William Thackeray, in 1856, observing Queen Victoria and her procession of backwards-walking courtiers making their way to the Great Exhibition, wrote: 'Shall we wonder - shall we be angry - shall we laugh at these old world ceremonies? View them as you will according to your mood; and with scorn or with respect, or with anger and sorrow, as your temper leads you.'

Thackeray would probably have been even more astonished by today's procession. Much of the ceremonial for the State Opening was invented at the turn of the century. Queen Victoria hated opening Parliament, nervous of her elected members, and for four years after the death of Albert refused to do it at all.

When Edward VII, who loved any opportunity to dress up, arrived on the throne, people had all but forgotten what went on. So Lord Esher, a sort of court choreographer, was brought in to fluff it all up again, and reinstate jolly touches, such as a government whip being sent to Buckingham Palace as a hostage until the Sovereign's safe return.

Perhaps it is time to reinvent it again, for the turn of another century. In 100 years the State Opening might include characters such as the Royal Skinner, who ritually sulks in the chamber of the Commons, refusing to take part in such nonsense; Her Majesty's Dimbleby, whose role is to whisper lists of names and titles with salivating relish; and the Lord High Hezza, the Tarzan at Arms, dressed in a flowing golden head-dress, whose job it is to ensure nobody manhandles the Mace.

In the meantime, we can enjoy the Rouge Dragon Pursuivant, Maltravers Herald Extraordinary and the Gentlemen of Arms, who will be there in Westminster long before the Queen arrives at 11.15.

'We get there about 9.30, in plenty of time to prepare ourselves,' said Mr Duke. 'And we have a rehearsal the day before. Although one's done it several times, it really isn't the sort of thing where you want to make a mistake.'

(Photograph omitted)

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